What does Boris Johnson stand for? Does he stand for anything? Does he have strong political beliefs?
He got Brexit done, it’s true, though at the cost of keeping Northern Ireland partly under the thumb of Brussels and within the Single Market, which could turn out to be too high a price.
But since then he hasn’t had to reveal his hand because of Covid. The pandemic has dominated everything. It consumed most of the Prime Minister’s energy and time, and nearly took his life.
Not that it can be said he has played a blinder. There has been confusion, contradiction and incompetence — as we have seen during the nonsense of the ‘pingdemic’. Without the triumph of the vaccine rollout, the Government would have scored three out of ten in my book. As it is, five?
Now, though, even the normally grim ‘Professor Lockdown’ — aka Neil Ferguson — suggests that by October we may be looking back at the pandemic through our rear-view mirror, despite the virus still being around. Thank goodness quarantine rules are being dropped for double-jabbed travellers from the EU and U.S.
Covid appears to be ebbing away, at any rate in this country. This creates a problem, as well as an opportunity, for Boris Johnson. Whether he likes it or not, we are at last going to see what he is really made of.
STEPHEN GLOVER: The pandemic has consumed most of the Prime Minister’s energy and time, and nearly took his life
He is well aware of this, of course. A couple of weeks ago he delivered what was billed as a keynote speech. The subject was ‘levelling up’. If you didn’t know what this meant when he began to speak, you were probably none the wiser after he had finished.
There were the usual jokes and rhetorical flourishes. The PM said strong leadership was ‘the yeast that lifts the whole mattress of dough, the magic sauce, the ketchup of catch-up’. He would like to see more local mayors, but was a bit worried about the ‘loony Left’ taking charge.
The joke about ketchup is funny, though not excessively so, and one wonders whether his editor might have advised him to take it out if he had included it in one of his Telegraph columns. It doesn’t mean anything.
Two days ago, Mr Johnson set out a second stall in order to show that the Government has other robust ideas for a post-Covid country. It is his ‘Beating Crime Plan’, which is, in principle, thoroughly laudable.
Sometimes almost woke-ish, Boris on this occasion channelled his inner Genghis Khan. He promised to force offenders to work in ‘fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs’ to deter people from antisocial behaviour.
I personally would have no qualms if recidivist burglars, scammers (if ever apprehended) and inveterate muggers were subjected to such treatment, but we all know that it is never going to happen.
To paraphrase a Boris Johnson column from years ago, I will eat my hat garnished with bacon if I ever see a chain gang of criminals in fluorescent overalls sweeping the streets or clearing the drains.
STEPHEN GLOVER: Now, though, even the normally grim ‘Professor Lockdown’ — aka Neil Ferguson (pictured) — suggests that by October we may be looking back at the pandemic through our rear-view mirror
It’s crowd-pleasing stuff. Not that I am against sometimes pleasing the crowd. But it is infinitely easier to crack a joke or conjure an image than it is to go through the grind of introducing new policies that make a discernible difference.
In the case of burglary and petty crimes, offenders won’t be deterred so long as they know the police haven’t the faintest intention of arresting them, far less charging them. A revolution in the thinking of senior police officers is needed — and that is a mighty task.
To return to ‘levelling up’, a few more local mayors are unlikely to make much difference. If economically depressed areas are going to recover, they will need higher productivity, better training, more investment and, I would argue, lower taxes. Are they going to receive any of those things?
The fact is that this Government, having hardly covered itself in glory during the pandemic, faces more daunting challenges that any of its recent predecessors. Is it up to them?
STEPHEN GLOVER: I doubt Priti Patel has the intellectual acumen to thrive at the Home Office and suspect her talents would be better employed in another job, such as party chairman
Social care, rising crime, an overstretched NHS, housing shortages, illegal immigration, squabbles with the EU, threats from Russia and China . . . the list is very long.
And it’s likely that when — or if — the Government grapples with these problems, it will do so against a background of rising inflation and a growing number of debilitating strikes in the public sector, where the wages of many workers are in real terms significantly less than they were ten years ago.
If one were able to bring back a post-war prime minister from the dead to cope with the many crises we face, I would probably choose Clement Attlee or Margaret Thatcher.
Of course, the two of them differed greatly politically. But both were characterised by principle, determination, attention to detail and ceaseless hard work.
Can the more easygoing and less focused Boris Johnson rise to the test? It is one thing to dash about cracking jokes and producing colourful phrases. It is a far, far more difficult thing to govern.
Moreover, Attlee and Thatcher were each surrounded by a number of highly competent Cabinet ministers, although in her first term Thatcher was undermined by the so-called wets.
Boris, by contrast, is hardly blessed with first-rate lieutenants. A clearout of over-promoted and ineffectual ministers is overdue.
I doubt Priti Patel has the intellectual acumen to thrive at the Home Office and suspect her talents would be better employed in another job, such as party chairman.
The questions are: can Boris steel himself to wield the axe in the right places? And are there enough high-quality middle-ranking ministers to step into the shoes of those who should be sacked?
There are numerous reasons for worrying about the next few years, though I don’t doubt the economy will bounce back in the short term. But Boris does at least have one thing in his favour. He is a highly ambitious man who cares deeply about his legacy.
He has read some history and must know that posterity will not be especially interested in jokes or vivid turns of phrase. He will be judged by his achievements.
If, for example, he can summon the courage to grip the issue of social care and find a just way of raising the estimated £10 billion needed to fund a decent scheme, he will be rightly celebrated by future generations.
However, raising more National Insurance from those in work to pay for social care — but not from the over-65s who are closer to needing it — would almost certainly be divisive and widely unpopular.
With careful and energetic planning, ‘Johnsonism’ could be remembered not as a set of off-the-cuff and purely pragmatic responses, but as a coherent collection of policies. Even ‘levelling up’ might make sense if clever people in Whitehall took the trouble to think about it.
After the national trauma of Covid, people’s hopes and expectations are very high. Particularly in deprived former Labour ‘Red Wall’ seats in the North and the Midlands, many yearn for an honest politician who finally does what he promises.
Words and jokes can amuse and divert, but in the end they aren’t enough. As Covid recedes, a new era begins. There will be a horrendous backlash if Boris Johnson fails to deliver.