What can we learn from Boris?
Before he jogs on for good, let's understand why he has been successful
Don’t worry, it really is Sunday today. The Ruffian is over a day late due to supply chain issues.
The last few weeks have been punishing for Boris Johnson. First, there was Paterson. Then there was Peppa. This week, there was Partygate (updated today). Not to mention the wallpaper, the unravelling of his position on the Irish border, and opposition from his own MPs to new Covid restrictions. All within the space of a month! Last week his wife gave birth to a baby girl, a better class of trouble, but not what you’d call respite.
It pains me to say what everyone else is saying (many of whom have been saying it repeatedly for over a year, like economists who predict six out of three recessions) but this time I will join the chorus: this is probably it for Boris. I don’t think he’s going anywhere imminently but he’s now in the zone where his MPs believe he’s a drag on their chances of re-election and it’s very hard to return from that. I don’t know how long he’ll shelter-in-place but it now seems unlikely he will be in Downing Street when the next election is called.
Johnson is resilient and he has rebounded before but even he is subject to the political equivalent of Hooke’s law: at some point, the spring stops springing and all you’re left with is a piece of bent wire.
If this is right, it’s worth asking why voters are calling time on him. The first and most obvious reason is that he isn’t seen as trustworthy. I’m not a fan of John Bercow but he puts it very well here and for once I think he might actually be in tune with how voters feel. Even those who found Johnson’s slipperiness attractively naughty are now fed up with it.
A second reason is that he’s become widely regarded as incompetent, which of course, he is. Johnson hasn’t been a total washout as PM, by any means. He oversaw a successful vaccination programme and his major decisions on the pandemic in 2021 have been largely vindicated. He delivered on Brexit, as he promised in 2019, even if it is a botch job. He passed a social care bill. But he hasn’t come close to doing anything of significance on his other domestic priorities, like “levelling up”, and he is flamboyantly ill-suited to the position of the nation’s chief executive.
The job of a British Prime Minister - unlike, say, a Mayor of London - involves taking lots of decisions at speed. Mistakes are inevitable; minimising them requires a developed set of political instincts and a readiness to actually decide rather than procrastinate. It is painfully apparent to anyone who has seen him operate up close that Johnson has neither. It isn’t that he can’t do detail (one of the leaked Cummings WhatsApps showed him asking for the raw data on Covid rates, rather than in memo form, to read in the evening) it’s that in most areas of policy he has no strong intuition and no consistent aim other than getting through the next week.
It’s also that he hates displeasing people, especially those who might support him. A PM can’t move without pissing someone off; they either reconcile themselves to that or they don’t. Boris has not and the result is that tough decisions are avoided, right up until they are taken for him. It might take voters a while to notice when a leader is overwhelmed by the job, but they do catch on.
Being seen as a shyster is not actually fatal to a politician, since voters regard most politicians as dishonest to some degree (that’s why direct political attacks on integrity tend not to work). But being seen as dishonest and incompetent is hard to come back from. In fact, perceived incompetence is fatal all by itself. The voters did not regard John Major as a bad man, as Bercow points out, but by 1997 they had decided he was hapless. Most of the outrage from Johnson’s critics is directed at his integrity, since the left loves a moralising attack line. But it’s the sense that he has no grip which is the real killer.
So far all I’ve done is state the obvious: Johnson is unpopular because voters see him as dishonest and incompetent, and they see him that way because he is. The more interesting question is why he has been so successful - phenomenally so, given his manifold flaws, which have been on full display throughout his career. Call it the Johnson conundrum: how did someone so comically ill-suited to the job of Prime Minister make it to Number 10, win a thumping general election victory, and appear for such a long period immune to political gravity?
Beyond the paywall: some answers to the Johnson conundrum and what other politicians can learn from them. Plus: why we shouldn’t trust behavioural science, my favourite writing on Get Back, and the usual assortment of juicy links.