Source: Daily Telegraph
There are two kinds of prime minister: those who successfully mould and make history, shifting their country’s path forever, and those who are buffeted by events and crises, too weak and disorganised to attempt anything other than survival. Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair belonged to the former category; Sir Anthony Eden, John Major and Theresa May to the latter.
How will historians judge Boris Johnson? His supporters know that he has it in himself to reach for greatness, but even they are starting to panic as the Government’s failures continue to mount. The collapse of the Covid testing system at the first sighting of a second wave has been bitterly disappointing, and the skirmish over the internal market mishandled. Why didn’t the Government start off by arguing that the EU was negotiating in bad faith? Why didn’t Brandon Lewis simply explain that all self-respecting countries put their internal integrity first? What was the point of it all, if Johnson is now climbing down?
Yet it still isn’t too late for the Prime Minister. Support for the Tories remains at elevated levels, though the reservoir of goodwill is almost drained. The reality is that Johnson has six months to save his legacy and his premiership, and force himself back into the pantheon of the greats. His window of opportunity will soon close, so he must act decisively, competently and urgently, and push through the core policies that will define his time in office. The challenge is awe-inspiring: he needs to land a series of victories in the face of severe opposition while dealing with the pandemic, the most complex crisis to have engulfed the country since the Second World War.
A more sustainable Covid strategy is obviously the overwhelming priority, a necessary but not sufficient condition to getting the Government back on track. It is too late now, given the decision to give so much power to a particular strand of scientific and public health thinking, to hope for a full, immediate switch to a Swedish approach. But an even more ambitious version of the “Moonshot” testing strategy would make a huge difference. We need millions of daily tests: the healthy must be free to attend to their business, with only those who are infected and the most vulnerable self-isolating. The liberating effect of mass testing would also allow Johnson to row back from his Government’s increasingly ugly authoritarianism.
Unfortunately, the current chaos reveals that Britain is going backwards. Many people with symptoms aren’t getting tests, and the all too predictable response will be yet further lockdown measures. This would be hugely regrettable, and Johnson needs to realise that failing to fix testing is now the biggest single threat to his legacy. This is another reason why reforming the structures of government, and building state capacity, a project close to Dominic Cummings’ heart, is so important.
Brexit is the next challenge. Success requires leaving properly, with no last minute surrender, handling any temporary disruption in an adequate manner and structuring international and domestic arrangements in such a way as to lock in our independence permanently. We need to diverge in a number of areas as soon as possible, and sign new trade deals, like Japan’s, which enshrine a new approach. It needs to be fiendishly difficult for any pro-Rejoin future prime minister to move us back into the EU’s orbit.
If the route to this is via no deal, then so be it – but we must be prepared for the aftermath. The Government must do more on logistics and customs: January mustn’t be defined by chaos, and Rishi Sunak must stand ready to help. This time, it will be impossible to blame the Remainers.
If he is to be remembered as the man who rejuvenated our democracy, Johnson will also need to tackle the Blairite “human rights” revolution. He cannot flunk this test. The current balance isn’t right: judicial activists have too much power, and all too often legislate from the bench. British politicians, rather than an unaccountable juristocracy in London and Luxembourg, should make our laws, ideally constrained by a British Bill of Rights. No 10 believes that it can only get a grip of immigration and crime if at least some of these issues are resolved, which is a further reason why Johnson must deliver. Crime needs to be noticeably lower by 2024, and the public must continue to believe that he has regained control of immigration, or else Johnson’s support will haemorrhage.
Tax and spend is a central issue: the Tories cannot afford to botch the next Budget and Comprehensive Spending Review. Massive increases in tax would doom this Government, condemn Britain to European-style stagnation and ruin Johnson’s legacy. They must be resisted at all costs, which means that the PM cannot afford to go down as another failed social democrat. Instead, spending cuts need to be found and Johnson must rediscover his supply-side instincts. Which takes us to planning and housing, another crucial battle. Britain must build a lot more homes to ensure their affordability: the young voted for Thatcher in the Eighties but they will be all Starmerites in four years’ time if the supply of housing doesn’t increase significantly. Tory MPs must back a version of Johnson’s planning reforms.
At some point over the next six months, Johnson must also devise a fresh approach to Scotland. The PM should call Nicola Sturgeon’s bluff, refuse to concede another referendum, and explain in stark terms what leaving the UK would mean for Scotland’s welfare state. But he must also start wooing the Scots properly.
Last but not least, Johnson has to go to war against the cult of woke. It is the next great threat to capitalism, liberalism and conservatism.
Can Johnson pull it off? Can he handle the exhausting hand-to-hand combat, the intrigue, the hatred, the defections and the rage of a spurned establishment? Will his Government successfully deliver a series of complex projects on Covid and Brexit? Can he learn to stop trying to keep everybody happy, that the magic money tree really doesn’t exist? We will know by the spring whether we are entering a Johnsonian era of self-renewal, or whether it was just another false dawn.