“He doesn’t like not being liked,” said Katie Perrior of Boris Johnson in this 2016 of the then outgoing Mayor of London in this 2016 essay by Jeremy Cliffe. Those words have stuck with me since reading that essay back then, and today it is perhaps time to revisit those words, especially in light of this tweet of mine yesterday about Johnson that proved surprisingly popular.
So the prevailing way of thinking goes, Johnson is in an immensely powerful position. He won the Tory leadership with two thirds of the vote. He purged the moderates out of the Tory Party and ended up with a majority of 80 seats in the Commons after the 2019 General Election. He is the Heineken politician of the Tory Party – he can reach the parts of the population the rest of the party cannot reach. And he actually managed to get the UK out of the EU by 31 January, and did so passing a Withdrawal Agreement Bill that denied the Commons pretty much any say over what comes next. He is master of all he surveys.
But let us look at it the other way. The Tory Party, with about 160000 members, is not connected to its base the way it once was. It, and Johnson, only did so well because it was facing Corbyn (and more widely, a divided opposition) at the General Election. The Conservatives received 13,966,454 votes, up by just 300k from the 13,636,684 the party received in 2017.
Johnson’s behaviour last autumn was, in retrospect, a pointer of what has happened since – he ducked an interview with Andrew Neil during the election campaign, was berated by an angry father at a hospital, sent Sunak to replace him in a debate, and was regularly heckled. It is also not as if Johnson was immensely popular prior to the 2019 General Election – his ratings were mostly negative, while Corbyn’s were all negative.
And then look at what has happened since. Johnson tried to impose his will on Sajid Javid (who’s hardly a Tory softie!) and Javid resigned rather than submit to the PM’s demands, and was replaced by Rishi Sunak, one of the least experienced Chancellors in modern times. Filling the cabinet with conformists is not a sign of strength, but of insecurity. Rutnam resigned as Permanent Secretary of the Home Office, laying blame squarely with Priti Patel (who, based on her previous behaviour, was a questionable appointment in the first place). Johnson even had to announce an engagement and pregnancy as a dead cat to distract from that one.
The next stage of Brexit is not going well – a waffle of a speech by Johnson in Greenwich, the shelving of the plan to publish a draft deal to wrestle control of the negotiations, the environment minister being booed by farmers, and business groups getting angry. Meanwhile Johnson has been criticised for disappearing during the recent flooding, and for not being ready to deal with Coronavirus swiftly enough. And there has even been a first sign of the press realising Number 10’s behaviour is all too much. And on 4th April Labour will announce its new leader, with Keir Starmer favourite to succeed – a tenacious ex-lawyer versus Johnson at PMQs is not going to be comfortable or pretty for the Prime Minister.
Look then at who Johnson has around him. He has Cummings – effective, but such an abrasive character he is hardly going to make Johnson feel good. And indeed, deep down, Cummings probably has disgust for Johnson (and Cummings was a Gove man in the first place). Look at Johnson’s Cabinet – there are none of these people who are useful confidants, perhaps with the exception of Gove (with whom Johnson had, well, a spat, although it is largely solved). And while we might all laugh at Johnson’s chaotic personal life, any really effective leader needs stable, strong and thoughtful people around them, and it does not look to me like Johnson has that. As Alexander Clarkson puts it, he was always going to enjoy becoming Prime Minister more than actually doing it.
It looks to me that Johnson then, holed up in Number 10, surrounded by lackeys and cranks, and with a complicated personal situation, is much more fragile than we think. When a crisis really hits, be that Coronavirus, further floods, the fall out from Rutnam-Patel, Brexit talks failing, or something we have not even thought of yet, his situation could become very fragile very fast. I’m counting on him not seeing out his full term until 2024 as Prime Minister.