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Epic fails all round for Boris Johnson and his Round Table

Wannabe World King Boris Johnson tries to seize the moment - Credit: Martin Rowson

Not much to talk about this week, eh! After a tumultuous week in Downing Street, even by Johnson standards, all attention must now be focussed on whether or not widely-tipped Arthur Pendragon will get the key post of chief of staff.

Or will the PM’s fiancée, Queen Guinevere, and spin medic, Morgana Stratton, use their magic to persuades  World King Boris that ace Leave campaigner, Rollo Maughfling, would be a more conciliatory appointment? 

And what of Lord Frostie’s tunnel negotiations in Brussels, will they now be re-aligned to avoid clashing with summer solstice sunsets to appease ‘red wall’ Tory MPs who are superstitious and wear woad? Or will he blink in the face of Merlin Barnier’s sorcery?  A gloomy paper Frostie wrote in 2016 – newly unearthed by the FT – suggested it “will be Britain that has to make the concessions to get a deal”. That was before the middling ex-diplomat had his Damascene, career-boosting conversion to Brexit.

I know, I know. I’ve muddled things up. Acres of speculation about the career path of obscure Number 10 staff who should be neither seen nor heard (except behind closed doors) are quite distinct from the new A303 bypass past Stonehenge which has so enraged druids like Rollo and Arthur. Traffic jams have been a feature of the site since Neolithic times, but now Grant Shapps wants to concentrate all Britain’s traffic jams in a world-beating field outside Dover with too few loos.

Does this tone sound flippant? Of course, it does. How else should we react to the tragedy unfolding at the heart of British government except to take bleak comfort in laughter. Since Dominic Cummings joined Lee Cain in the Downing Street laundry chute – Blackadder and Baldrick raging as they went down together – hope briefly surged that dull competence might prevail at last inside that jerry-built, 17th century rabbit warren of Covid infestation. 

We were promised a “reset”, kinder, more consensual, sensitive to Scotland and the north, possibly more flexible towards the EU. But as a former Tory cabinet minister privately remarked, “you can’t reset a vacuum”. What we now know happened was that Boris the Vacuum was persuaded to invest a little time making peace with those red wall Tory MPs in the new Northern Research Group (NRG), whose snappy name was borrowed from the woad-wearing Brexiteers in the ERG. 

The NRG is one of several marauding bands of miscreants who have also detected a vacuum and want to fill it – with themselves. “Appoint one of us chief of staff,” they cry. Another such is – brace yourself – the Common Sense Group (CSG) which wants to wage culture war against the usual “Marxist” targets, the BBC, the universities, woke-ism, foreigners, cancel culture and Joe Biden. Never trust anyone who claims a copyright on common sense, but can’t see the damage a defeated Kulterkampferlike Donald Trump is still wreaking on the constitution and his supporters’ health.

Anyway, Boris met a few NRG types to promise them the earth, and did so in close proximity at Number 10 with the wholly predictable result that he’s now self-isolating again. It may suit his solitary nature, but it’s not ideal when Frostie’s Brexit talks are reaching a climax (or not). The Barnier clock approaches midnight on December 31 but Johnson had planned a big green reset speech and much else which must now be Zoomed.

Prepping a green speech, worrying about Brexit and Robert Jenrick’s planning U-turn, the Treasury’s latest threat to the foreign aid budget, a revenge attack on the Supreme Court etc etc,  you’d think he was busy enough even without musical chairs among his senior staff. But no, mouthy Boris found time – on Monday night – to make casually foolish remarks about devolution being a “disaster” and Tony Blair’s biggest mistake. He did so when pandering to Northern MPs on a group phone call. Thoughtful Old School Tories tore out their hair in chunks.

With Holyrood elections in sight and a tighter lockdown coming for Scots Nicola Sturgeon was pardonably grateful for the distraction. Johnson aides and vassal ministers explained that the boss is pro-devolution – after all, he built his career as a devolved mayor. What he deplored is its capture by nationalists and separatists. As if his own premiership has not been a study in English nationalism which has quite possibly ensured the separation of both Scotland and Northern Ireland from rUK and rUK from Europe. Does the eternal columnist-in-a-hurry ever pause to reflect?

Little wonder that Martin Wolf, the FT’s capo di tutti punditi,declared on Monday that Boris will be a famous PM, but only for the havoc he – and Cummings – have created: “Mr Johnson is not a serious man, he is unlikely ever to govern competently.” It is hard to escape that conclusion, though even now some MPs, analysts and voters struggle hard to make the best of him.

It has been fascinating to watch high-end Conservative pundits grapple with Cummings’ departure, an event accorded more space than the rather more important ones of Brexit, the pandemic with its 71,000 excess deaths since March, and its mounting cost to the economy for years to come: lower growth, less public spending, higher taxes. That doesn’t sound very Boris.

We might also have hoped that the Asian free trade deal announced at the weekend would have commanded more attention. The US and India – both important Anglophone markets for Brexit Britain – are not parties to it. But Xi’s China has stepped into the Trump-vacated vacuum, a larger one than Boris’s brain. Australia – for whom China is No.1 trading partner – is in too. It’s going to be chilly outside a big trading bloc, as Frostie predicted in 2016.

But hey, it’s easier to concentrate on the combative style and lacklustre career of Lee ‘Chicken’ McCain and on Dominic Cummings’s eccentric look-at-me dress sense, his self-importance so obviously on display when he chose to carry his large collection of paperclips out through Number 10’s big black door. It so reminded me of Cameron’s boy wonder, Steve Hilton, he of the shorts and t-shirts, now beached at Fox News, a Trump-backing advocate of something he calls “positive populism”.

Women columnists who have long disliked the macho, bullying style of the climate Cummings created in Number 10 took the side attributed to Carrie Symonds and her new best friend, Allegra Stratton, late of the Guardian and BBC. Stratton is smart and tough, as well as ambitious (never let them see you cry!). But her new role as on-camera spokesman is a dive from the high board into shark-infested water. The idea that she can come in and reset the cabinet’s strategic posture – the Queen’s Gambit, as chess buff, Dominic Lawson, put it in the Mail – seems fanciful. 

And was the supposedly kinder, gentler conservatism of shapeshifting Boris’s mayoral years more than a mirage? Lawson – who is, remarkably, yet to write a Mail or Sunday Times column that I have seen critical of his pals, Johnson and Cummings – argues that clever, competitive women are less abrasive than men. Despite the fictional Beth Harmon’s victories in the Netflix hit The Queen’s Gambit, men usually succeed at chess because a Fischer or Kasparov needs no social skills. The two Doms play chess together. 

Either way it’s not healthy to focus on unelected Symonds who is accused by her detractors of being “Princess Nut Nuts” who rings her fiancée 20 times a day on the private line. Marcia Williams, later Lady Falkender, used to ring Harold Wilson when her TV broke down, but at least she was his political secretary, much more experienced – and formidable – than Carrie who is 32 and has a baby. This is no way to run a country: from above the shop. It must end in more tears.

Lee Cain’s departure need not detain us long. Ignore the usual guff about Oxbridge snobbery doing down an early school leaver. Cain’s career suggests that flexible loyalty was the key to his usefulness to Johnson. That puts him in the mould of Charlie Whelan and Damian McBride, insecure Gordon Brown’s attack dogs. Bernard Ingham and Campbell-of-this-parish worked for more secure leaders and were a cut above. We are (I hope) seeing such people allowed back into the White House corridors as Donald Trump’s creeps and cyphers fade away.

I used to know Dom Cummings a little, a much more substantial disrupter, a John Bolton or HR McMaster in Trumpian terms. Scornful and impatient with lesser mortals, I remain less impressed than Dom’s advance publicity dictated. His admirers say he “got Brexit done” which – as TNE readers well know – is simply untrue. With or without a Barnier deal in the next few days – and ratification by Europeans with reasons to be as cross with its necessary compromises as the ERG’s Steve Baker – Britain will be struggling with getting it really done for decades.

The fan club goes on to say Dom shook up the civil service (are they dismantling his brand-new hub in the Cabinet Office yet?); that he created the mass vaccination Moonshot project now being trialled in Liverpool (a scandalous risk of public funds and lives, protest some experts); and that he set Brexit Britain on a high-tech, data-driven path to a future prosperity that will finally include neglected counties and regions. 

As I often says about Brexit pipe dreams “I’d love to believe it, but show me some evidence”. What I do know is that Cummings picked too many fights on too many fronts and did so with a cavalier disregard for making friends, not enemies. After his Barnard Castle eye test I recall writing here that all his victims – civil servants, MPs, judges and the rest – need now do is wait for him to self-destruct. This has now happened and the winner may be the man least mentioned this week: the new cabinet secretary, Simon Case.

The one seriously troubling thought left is that yet again a key Brexiteer has chosen to leave the battlefield before crucial decisions and votes, enabling him to disown whatever grim consequences his policies – Vote Leave’s Cummings above most of them – eventually deliver. I was much struck by a column written for the Sunday Times, by Robert Colville, youthful director of the Thatcherite Centre for Policy Studies (CPS),who sees Dom as a revolutionary thinker, a take-no-prisoners campaign manager and a strategist, no less.
Why so? Because Cummings has “precision engineered” a remaking of the Tory party away from the leafy suburbs and Georgian rectories of the soft south (Colville’s own background, I imagine) towards the angry, Leave-voting left-behind regions who are the new Tory “bedrock”. The new intake are “Cummings Children,” not David Cameron’s, he said.

That’s very Trumpish too. But it should remind us that not enough has been made of the symbolic fact that the Number 10 Covid spreader was Lee Anderson. A former Derbyshire miner, now MP for Ashfield where he was a councillor office manager for Gloria De Piero when she held the seat for Labour, he was photographed with the PM.

Needless to say, she was a Remainer, Anderson a vocal Brexiteer in 2016 who jumped party in 2018 and has become a successful culture warrior. As a parliamentary candidate, he said “nuisance” council house tenants should be forced to live in tents and pick vegetables for 12 hours a day, and he has accused Gary Lineker of “virtue signalling”.

Never forget, there’s always support for this sort of talk and Boris the Vacuum is sometimes tempted by it. Ashfield briefly went Tory in the 1970s, then back to Labour.  De Piero nearly lost it to the Lib Dems, but became a good enough local MP to crush them in 2015 and narrowly held the Tory challenge at bay in the 2017 Brexit election after Ashfield vote Leave by 70%. By 2020, Labour was third behind local council leader, standing as an independent.

I mention all this because there is a lot of pain behind such voter volatility, pain that everyone should keep in mind. Plenty of Rust Belt Americans feel the same. They voted desperately for Bush, then for Obama, then Trump and now, well, maybe Biden, but perhaps for Trump again. Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ agenda is admirable, but some northern voters are now almost as alienated as Scots were – even before Johnson’s latest SNP own goal.

Poverty and ill-health are Covid’s partners in further levelling down. Week after week the data says so. Money is going to be scarily tight. Most Ashfield voters probably don’t give a stuff about Cummings and Cain. But they like what they hear from Lee Anderson, a Boris-and-Dom creation whose impatience for better times may prove hard to control.

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