The Minister was raging. ‘People keep saying the Government is all over the place. But it isn’t the Government, or even the Cabinet. We aren’t being told of plans or developments. We are all basically having to live through Boris’s midlife crisis.’
Many men experience a loss of confidence as middle age wraps them in its uncomfortable embrace. But when they do, most dream of remoulding themselves as the new Steve McQueen or Oliver Reed.
To the bemusement of his colleagues, Boris Johnson currently seems intent on becoming the new Ed Miliband.
A war on ‘junk food’. An online sales tax. Mandatory wearing of masks. The axing of the Spanish air bridge, with the Transport Secretary marooned on the other side. A panicked reintroduction of lockdown in the North, and the scrapping of plans to further ease it across the nation.
Pictured: Boris Johnson trying out a North Yorkshire Police Rural Taskforce bike which is a Zero FX an Electric Bike during a visit to North Yorkshire Police headquarters, Northallerton
‘None of us really know what’s going on with him,’ one backbench ally told me. ‘He’s not speaking to any of us. We all just look at each other and say “I don’t know what he’s up to, do you?”. And everyone just shakes their head.’
To be fair to a Prime Minister who marked his first year in office a week ago, what’s been going on over the past 12 months would test anyone to the limit. His ascent to the highest office in the land, the battle to deliver Brexit, a General Election, a divorce, the birth of his first child with fiancee Carrie Symonds, a global pandemic and his own near-death experience at its hands.
One Minister says that, despite traversing this political and personal firestorm, Boris is actually rediscovering his old vigour. ‘Last time I spoke to him he looked very upbeat. Very up for it. I’m not sure where this midlife crisis stuff is coming from.’ But many others are. In particular, they point to his sudden assault on obesity as an example of how recent events have left their mark. And are now in danger of leaving a mark on the entire country. ‘The weight thing has really spooked him,’ a friend concedes. ‘He was totally opposed to the whole “sin tax” agenda. But being in hospital really rocked him.’
Some people in Government have suggested his sudden grasping at the apron strings of the Nanny State actually represents the re-emergence of ‘the real Boris’. That now the Brexit log jam has been broken, and Labour’s Red Wall demolished, he intends to return to the liberal, one nation Conservatism that secured him back-to-back terms as London Mayor.
The problem with that argument is the real Boris hates the sin tax agenda as well. In 2006 he created a storm at Tory conference by hitting out at celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, and backing ‘pie-pushing mums’. There was ‘too much pressure’ on children to eat healthily, he told a Bournemouth fringe meeting. ‘I say let people eat what they like. Why shouldn’t they push pies through railings?’
But last week the increasingly portly Oliver – who once proudly proclaimed, ‘Give me Boris f*****g Johnson as our Prime Minister and I’m done. I’m out’ – was heaping praise on his initiative. ‘This could be a pivotal moment,’ he cooed. ‘Boris seems to be the one that’s got a plan here.’
Others are less sure. And one of them is Michael Gove. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is said by colleagues to be ‘on manoeuvres’. ‘Michael’s out there,’ says a Cabinet Minister. ‘He’s meeting people. He’s courting them. It’s pretty blatant. I don’t know whether Boris is blind to it, or he just doesn’t care.’
In Gove’s defence, a number of Tory MPs are becoming increasingly desperate for the courtship. They’re alarmed at what they see as a loss of control from No10. ‘Michael’s easily the cleverest member of the Government,’ says a senior backbencher. ‘He’s got experience and grip. And that’s what we need at the moment.’
Gove has made a calculated effort to distance himself from the more heavy-handed Government interventions. On the eve of the announcement that masks would be made compulsory, he stated: ‘It’s always best to trust people’s common sense’, then pointedly allowed himself to be photographed buying a Pret sandwich without one.
He is also said to be building a strong alliance with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who has won his own plaudits from Tory MPs for the mature way he took temporary charge when Boris was hospitalised. ‘In a difficult market it’s those two guys I’m buying shares in,’ said a Minister.
While Gove is said by allies to be concerned by the Government’s post-Covid drift towards benign authoritarianism, what is most alarming him is what he views as the growing threat to the Union. ‘Michael is very worried about Scotland,’ says one. ‘His view is that if Brexit is delivered but we lose the Union the entire project will have been a catastrophic failure.’
For now there is little prospect of a re-run of Gove’s 2016 kamikaze bid for the leadership. But our Prime Minister is still going to need to pull himself together.
Despite his bombastic reputation, Boris is a more private and sensitive character than his critics and even some friends perceive. His brush with death, coming in such close alignment to the birth of his and his partner Carrie Symonds’ first child, has understandably affected him in ways the Westminster bear pit does not allow him to publicly acknowledge.
But the reality is the nation cannot afford timid, negative leadership. Not in good times, and certainly not now.
Anyone with even the most basic understanding of economics can see this is not the moment for tax increases and advertising bans. Not on so-called junk food. Not on online goods. Not on anything. We are a country that is about to enter the fight of its economic life. It cannot do that with Jamie Oliver holding one hand behind its back, while Boris pinions the other.
There is another harsh reality. Britain cannot afford for its Prime Minister to embark on a dark night of the soul. Especially not this Prime Minister. Energy. Optimism. A can-do enthusiasm. This is the Boris the nation responds to. And it’s the Boris the nation has to have.
‘We should now squeeze the brake pedal to keep the virus under control,’ he told the country last week. But he was not elected to squeeze the brakes. He was elected to drive the bulldozer through the wall.
We cannot defeat Covid-19 one bowling alley and casino at a time. And we are not going to stave off economic catastrophe by interring Britain every time there is a marginal spike in infection rates.
If Boris really does feel like embarking on a midlife crisis, fine. He should buy a leather jacket. Or get a motorbike. Or start listening to Steely Dan. And then he needs to come back and start leading again.
Your family needs you Boris. But your country does as well.