DURING the seemingly endless dog days of Theresa May’s government, the Conservative Home website polled its membership panel month by month to find out who was deemed most suitable to succeed her when she finally threw in the towel. Boris Johnson consistently led the field from August 2018 until he eventually replaced her.
Here at TCW we reluctantly recognised a Johnson premiership was inevitable (despite the Editors’ express reservations and warnings about his character) and even foresaw the collapse of the Red Wall. As I wrote at the time, it was hardly surprising that Johnson attracted so much antagonism from his fellow parliamentarians. ‘Labour MPs are jealous because Boris is more popular with their voters than they are themselves while for the bulk of Conservatives, it’s because he is cleverer and wittier. It must be galling to spout sanitised approved lines with always an eye to the weathercock of political correctness while what Boris effortlessly delivers off the cuff is more effective and credible.’ https://commentcentral.co.uk/only-boris-can-save-us-now/
So even if those with experience of working with Johnson had serious reservations, his ebullient personality and his bullish approach to getting Brexit done had broad appeal to Conservative supporters and the wider electorate.
But there were naysayers also among those who did not know the man personally. Some pointed to his record at the Foreign Office which was at best undistinguished, others that he had buckled by voting with the Government at May’s third attempt to get a meaningful vote on her Withdrawal Agreement through the House of Commons (while European Research Group stalwarts stood firm). And there were many who thought that his rackety not-so-private life demonstrated that he was fundamentally not a man of his word.
Despite the expectation of change when Johnson moved into Number Ten, every major decision that he approved in the early days of his government was in keeping with Whitehall received wisdom. On HS2, on Huawei’s participation in 5G, on the Flybe bail-out, there was nothing in Johnson’s placatory approach that marked a change from Theresa May’s way of doing things or David Cameron’s or, in all likelihood, Jeremy Corbyn’s.
Did these issues bore him so that decision-making was left to others or was he just disappointingly conventional?
When it came to his handling of SARS-CoV-2 there is a great deal that could and that will be said. But in summary he might as well not have been there.
And again, is it possible for someone with responsibility for running a country to be as economically illiterate as Johnson? In this respect he certainly differs from May and from Cameron and probably out-Corbyns Corbyn in his faith in the power of uncontrolled spending.
To take one example, who in his right mind would pursue policies that make energy more expensive and then promise that the less well-off will be subsidised? Who would seek to promote electric vehicles while simultaneously imperilling the country’s electricity generating capacity in the name of saving the world from climate change?
The Conservative Home monthly survey is currently ranking members of Johnson’s cabinet and the table at the foot of this piece reproduces, with acknowledgement and thanks, the results over the last six months of polling.
A pair of graphics provide a snapshot of how the membership rates the people who govern us, their performance and their policies.
Let’s start with the winners:
Liz Truss is the consistent firm favourite, possibly because she has been unflamboyantly successful in securing trade arrangements around the world and partly because she sounds like a Conservative. Lord Frost, similarly, has been doing good work on post-Brexit implementation and we shall doubtless be seeing and hearing more from him as the fish-fight develops and the renegotiation of the Northern Ireland Protocol gains traction in the media.
It is no coincidence that the popularity of Truss and Frost rests on a good performance coupled with a popular policy which involves the implementation of a manifesto pledge.
The other noteworthy aspect here is the fortune of men holding the Health and Education briefs. The fact of not being Matt Hancock and Gavin Williamson has done wonders for the respective post-reshuffle incumbents – but look! – Sajid Javid has already dropped two places since August and so may have started to lose his sheen. Next month will tell whether his announcement at conference that there will be a year-long study into how to improve the NHS is thought sound or whether the inconvenient health can is being kicked down the road. A braver minister would have given a hint into his thinking, given the manifest failure of the NHS on so many levels over the entire Johnson era.
Now for the losers:
Chancellor Rishi Sunak, responsible for implementation of Johnson’s manifesto-breaking decision on National Insurance, has taken a hit and will probably fall further in the wake of his conference speech which promises yet more fiscal profligacy. Dominic Raab suffered a serious knock with his minor tour of Crete at the wrong moment but has made up some ground thanks to his move to Justice Secretary, though goodness knows why.
Priti Patel has tanked, in large measure because she has been entirely ineffectual at stemming illegal immigration and in sorting out the police. While she used to talk a good talk she’s noticeably and justifiably more subdued now, but one ought to feel a pang of sympathy for her because she has received so little support from the top.
The interesting one among the losers is Alok Sharma. From a lowly number 17 slot in the Hit Parade in April he has plummeted into the zone unvisited by pop pickers. Why is this? One explanation is that he was previously just one of that middle ground group of ministers whose faces one doesn’t recognise, whose names mean nothing to most people and whose briefs are known to only the most assiduous political nerds. His profile has been rising in tandem with that of the COP26 summit for which he is responsible and if Green Crap (© David Cameron) is unpopular with Conservative insiders, that’s as nothing to how well it will go down with the electorate as a whole.
The prime loser is of course Boris Johnson himself and he has only himself to blame if the number of doomsters continues to increase and their voices grow louder. Is one to believe that Johnson has suddenly become uxorious after so many decades, or is there comfort to be drawn from Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that when a man marries his mistress he creates a vacancy? How welcome would be a reshuffle which removed his current officially declared partner from having an influence on policy.
As things stand, Johnson fails to engage seriously with the primary functions of his role but is instead led by the, shall we say, nose to pursue an economically catastrophic green agenda and, as of this week, an expansion of gay rights. Boosterism can shore up a rickety project for only so long.