Boris Johnson survives another disaster

Image Petr Kratochvil, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Boris Johnson, Britain’s Prime Minister, was nicknamed “the greased piglet” by his predecessor and Oxford contemporary David Cameron, for his ability to get out of tight situations. He has demonstrated those skills yet again after last week’s very poor local election results for the Conservatives. Instead the pressure is on his Labour counterpart, Sir Keir Starmer.

The Conservatives lost about 500 council seats across Britain, against the low base of when these seats were last fought in 2018, in the midst of the floundering of his predecessor, Theresa May. Many Tory MPs had supposedly been waiting for these results to decide whether they would ask for a vote of confidence. And yet Mr Johnson looks confident and there is little talk of unseating him. Those Tory MPs will put off their decision until the next event, such as the publication of Sue Gray’s report into lockdown shenanigans. But if these MPs were going to do the dirty, they would have done it long ago. There will always be a reason why today is not the day, and mr Johnson’s supporters are adept at providing them.

Mr Johnson’s confidence is not faked. The party’s disasters in London and Scotland were “priced in” in the popular expression. Not too many Tory MPs seats are at stake in these areas. Meanwhile in the “Red Wall” of former Labour seats taken by the Conservatives they fared better; there is no sign of an impending Tory collapse. The Conservatives also lost a lot of seats in their rural heartlands across southern England. But mostly they lost these to the Liberal Democrats, with some to the Greens, as well as a few to Labour. Mr Johnson seems a lot less worried about these than about the Red Wall. A general election is very different to these local elections, and mostly the parliamentary seats are held with very comfortable majorities. The party knows how to sow doubt into voters’ minds, enough to limit any Lib Dem rise to a small number of seats. Meanwhile his line of attack on Labour, as having been taken over by an evil alliance of out-of-touch metropolitan middle classes and urban lefties, remains intact. There is work to do, but the next election looks quite winnable for Mr Johnson, albeit with a reduced majority. All he has to do is communicate this to his wavering backbench MPS. They seem ready to be convinced.

Which is one reason why the pressure is on Sir Keir. His supporters claim that the results show Labour has turned the corner in the Red Wall. But pulling back a bit from the low point in 2019 is not good enough for Labour. The results show that these seats are still in play – and pose the question of what would happen to Labour in a full strength general election campaign. Sir Keir has devoted all his energy to slaying the ghost of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. This seems to be largely successful: Tory taunts that Labour is in the grip of extremists looks off the mark. That was a huge negative for the party in 2019, when many voters were put off by Mr Corbyn’s leadership. But Mr Corbyn’s leadership came with positives too – he was able to invoke enthusiasm amongst his supporters, and he managed to reach parts of the electorate that others did not. This was most evident in 2017 but was surely still there in 2019. But Sir Keir has lost this, and he isn’t able to rustle up much enthusiasm amongst people in the political centre either – in the way that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were able to. The local elections have done nothing to allay those doubts.

The second reason Sir Keir is under pressure is a police investigation into an alleged breach of lockdown rules in 2021 while campaigning in a by election. This follows a persistent campaign by a tabloid newspaper, in an attempt to deflect pressure from the Prime Minister’s apparent serial breaches in Downing Street. Because Sir Keir has pursued Mr Johnson so aggressively on this issue, he is accused of hypocrisy, in the time-honoured manner of British politics. The truth is that the lockdown rules were unclear, especially with regard to work meetings, and many people pushed the boundaries without being challenged. The police have also levied fines when they shouldn’t. Sir Keir’s lapse, if that is what it was, does not compare to the goings on in Downing Street under Mr Johnson’s supervision. But in order to keep the pressure up on Mr Johnson, Sir Keir has now said that he will resign if he is fined. Which puts the local police in a very difficult situation. It also puts Sir Keir’s leadership in limbo.

What of the Lib Dems? They had an excellent set of elections, and, alongside the two spectacular by election victories last year, they have fought their way back into political relevance. They only did well where they had local strength, and even then, struggled against Labour in places like London. But they have now built a platform from which they can substantially build on their parliamentary representation – provided the voters are not scared that they might let in a Labour government, as they were in 2019. Lib Dems were quite happy with Labour being led by Sir Keir, as he is unlikely to scare off their floating voters. All this is a vindication of the leadership of Sir Ed Davey, and especially his decision, criticised within the party, of not mentioning Brexit. The party has shown an ability to come back in Brexit-supporting parts of the country, such as Somerset. But will they be able to do enough to stop the Conservatives from gaining a majority?

Mr Johnson’s strengths in political survival and campaigning are not matched by skills in government. His avowed radicalism has dissipated into gesture politics. Meanwhile an economic storm is gathering pace. This would be a tricky challenge for any government, let alone the current hapless one. Can the greased piglet survive that too?

Politics trumps reality again in Britain

Maybe it’s one of those aging things, like the policemen getting younger – but to me our country’s political leaders seem to be becoming more overtly political. I thought that of Tony Blair’s New Labour in 1997, who set the trend for leaders since. And now our current prime minister, Boris Johnson, has taken it to a previously unthinkable extreme. This is evident in yesterday’s statement by Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor. The politics was blatant; a clear strategy for making the country a better place was not.

Mr Sunak was once a rising star in British politics, but now he look as if he will join the long list of politicians (and others) whose careers have been indelibly tarnished by association with Mr Johnson. Yesterday’s effort did not measure up to the difficult economic situation that so many people in the country face – and he instead focused on a number of core interest groups that the conservatives hope will secure them another general election victory, through their votes or donations. This was all too transparent, and not helped by Mr Sunak’s ridiculous claims, such as that he was a tax-cutting Chancellor.

To be fair, the government’s job in managing the economy is unusually difficult right now. Managing a modern economy is like riding a bronco – it is mostly about responding to collective decisions made by individuals and businesses, inside and outside the country, that can quickly overwhelm the tax and spending measures that are the government’s main tools of control. The government’s difficulties are not really of its own making on this occasion. The root causes are the covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the ongoing challenge of climate change. These have delivered a series of economic shocks of a type that policymakers are completely unused to dealing with. The pandemic delivered a major but temporary shock to demand – and the government won plaudits for its drastic policies, like the furlough scheme to underwrite jobs. But it also dealt a huge blow to world supply chains, and that is what policymakers were unready for. From the 1990s onwards new technologies and globalisation bequeathed a highly flexible system of global supply, which people have taken for granted. Even before the pandemic these changes were going into reverse. As demand recovered from the shock, supply did not recover as quickly – and inflation is the result. The problem emerged in 2021, but policymakers responded with denial – including the politically independent central bankers. Nobody seems to know what to do. The last time anything like this happened was in the 1970s, and that was a very different world.

The government is faced with three big and immediate problems: benefits, public sector pay and help for people on lower incomes. Costs for basics, such as food, fuel and heating are rising much faster than incomes and this is creating widespread hardship. The government’s response is to offer some help to working people on lower incomes (provided they are above the minimum tax threshold), and that is about it. Government services are not being given additional budgets to deal with additional pay demands; benefits are being uplifted by a wholly outdated figure for inflation. Most of the help being offered is in fact an offset to rises in National Insurance contributions (NICs) (by changing the rate of pay at which NICs kick in), rather than an actual cut – though at least this targets lower incomes better than deferring the rises altogether. A summer of hardship lies ahead. The country is facing a big squeeze on living standards, and poorer people will feel this the most.

There are two main constraints to the government using the public purse to alleviate hardship. The first is the balance of supply and demand. If the economy cannot deliver the goods and services paid for by government largesse, then inflation will result, with the potential for a wage-price spiral. That was not a problem in the early phase of the pandemic, when government support was very generous, as private demand plummeted even faster than capacity to supply. It is clearly a problem now, and tricky to offset with tax rises, as these tend to affect demand less if they target the better. The second constraint is on public finances – the government’s ability to raise funds if spending outstrips taxation. It is a lot less clear that this is in fact a problem, though levels of public debt are high, and the Bank of England cannot help out by buying bonds through Quantitive Easing, as it could until recently. Still, solutions have been suggested, such as a windfall tax on oil and gas producers operating in Britain’s North Sea. The case for such a tax is a very strong one, but it is completely contrary to Treasury orthodoxy. This holds that it undermines the climate for business investment. In fact investment in oil and gas production in the UK has been very low. The government may feel that it wants that to change, with businesses investing their windfall profits in increasing production to make up reduced supply from Russia. But the government is hardly waving a big stick in order to get such a response.

I can accept that these constraints, especially the inflation risk, are real. But the crisis on living standards demands the taking of bigger risks with the economy than the government is willing to contemplate. In particular bringing forward increases to benefits for inflation looked like a no-brainer. The government’s thinking on that seems to be guided by pure politics. People on benefits (apart from pensioners) don’t vote Conservative and aren’t likely to. Instead the government is focusing help on people in work, and especially those with some stake in property (it is temporarily reducing property taxes, announced before yesterday’s statement). Pensioners are being spared the increase in NICs (which they are exempt from), and doubtless their incomes will catch up later in the parliament, using the “triple-lock” system of increasing the state pension.

Most remarkable of the measures announced yesterday was Mr Sunak’s plan to cut the rate of income tax in two year’s time. Given the ever-growing pressure on public services, it is hard to see how this can possibly be justified, except as a short-term gimmick for electoral advantage. It leaves me feeling exasperated. I am retired and drawing a generous private-sector pension (I’m not old enough for the state one). I was never going to suffer the increase in NICs, but I’m still going to benefit from the Council tax rebate, the fuel duty rebate, and, if it comes, the reduced rate in income tax. I am not facing any kind of hardship. This just doesn’t seem fair.

Will Mr Johnson get away with it? Labour is better placed to capitalise on the unfairness than it was when led by Jeremy Corbyn, but it is still tricky for them. There a still a broad swathe of conservative voters out there ready to be persuaded that people on benefits have only themselves to blame. But I think that pressure on public services, which now includes demand to increase our armed forces, is going to be very hard for the government to manage. Eventually reality will strike.

But in the short-term I think it will be Mr Sunak who will pay the political price rather than his boss.

Will Boris Johnson survive?

I do not usually use this blog to indulge in short-term political speculation. I have access to no special inside sources – I simply make use of the information pumped out by sections of the mainstream media, being mainly the BBC and the Financial Times, supplemented by newsletters from The Guardian, The Times and the New Statesman. But I can’t resist it in the case of Boris Johnson’s future tenure as UK Prime Minister. There are some wider themes.

By last Friday Mr Johnson had hit a new low, as yet more revelations about parties in Downing Street emerged. Significantly these came through the Daily Telegraph, a paper that has been very supportive of Mr Johnson, with the angle that disrespect was being shown to the Queen, as these events occurred on the night before the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh. Conservative MPs were reported to be going to their constituencies over the weekend to “take soundings”. This process is often referred to, but it don’t actually know what it means. Clearly comments coming through to MPs through email and social media are highly unrepresentative. But what can you do over a weekend? We are meant to conjure up pictures of MPs going out to high streets and knocking on doors to talk to ordinary voters. But if they do this, the coverage is likely to be small and equally unrepresentative. And it doesn’t sound the sort of thing Tory MPs do on cold days in January. Instead, presumably what happens is that the MPs have a chat to a few usual suspects: party officers and donors, in their Conservative Association – people that they need to keep onside in the shenanigans of local internal party politics. This morning a BBC correspondent was suggesting that the feedback was not as terrible as the emails last week. But it is hard to say how reliable this feedback is. Mr Johnson has not acted out of character after all, and he has a huge stock of capital to deplete.

Meanwhile Mr Johnson has been working on a recovery strategy. The first step is to buy time by asking people to wait for an investigation by civil servant Sue Gray to be completed. Then there has been spin that these are trivial events compared to the great affairs of state that Mr Johnson has supposedly got right, and that anyway he has made a fulsome apology. This apology was made last Wednesday before Prime Minister’s Questions in parliament. This in fact covered only one of the events, and hid behind the lame idea that he thought it was a “work event” that was within the rules at the time. Mr Johnson did look abject on that occasion, but few think that this had anything to do with being genuinely sorry. Alas this dissembling on the apology is typical of how politicians operate, and it is a foretaste of how Ms Gary’s report is going to be spun. It will be presented as answering a question that was actually outside its terms of reference – whether the events were illegal.

The next part of the strategy is to have a clear-out of the staff at 10 Downing Street, whose culture appears to be so out of tune with the public zeitgeist. This supports Mr Johnson’s narrative (to insiders) that he has been badly let down by his staff. This is well-trodden territory for incompetent leaders, and personnel changes almost never work.

But the most curious part of Mr Johnson’s survival initiative has been a series of policy ideas presented to Tory backbenchers as “red meat”. These include putting the Royal Navy in charge of stopping the flow of migrants in small boats coming across the Channel, and ending the BBC licence fee. These invite the question of why, if they are such good ideas, they hadn’t been progressed already. Worse, they look like an invitation to a political quagmire. In the case of migrants, it is hardly clear how this is actually going to solve the problem – instead it looks like more over-promising. Priti Patel, The Home Secretary, has already seen her reputation amongst Conservative activists nosedive for being unable to deliver on fierce rhetoric. And as for the BBC – this could very easily be presented as a vindictive attack an all its works, from Strictly Come Dancing to the Green Planet, from excessively doctrinaire Tories who resent the BBC’s political coverage. The public may have cooled a bit on the BBC, but it is still a much-loved institution amongst the middle of the road voters that the Conservatives need to hold onto.

So this strategy might be called an alligator strategy, after the famous James Bond scene where he escapes from a trap by using the backs of alligators as stepping stones to cross a pool. Tory MPs who are frightened of taking such a drastic step as unseating the PM must be given a possible path to safety. The point is to weather the crisis, not to create a winning strategy for the next two years. And since I think that these MPs are genuinely frightened of making awkward choices, and yearn for the feel-good days of Mr Johnson’s past, I think it could well work.

Which surely leaves Mr Johnson in a similar position to John Major in 1992, when his credibility collapsed with the ERM crisis. He limped on for over four years before succumbing to the worst electoral defeat in the party’s history. Mr Major is the exact opposite personality to Mr Johnson, but that will not stop them from suffering the same fate.

If Mr Johnson survives, it will be a vindication for the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, whose strategy has always been to differentiate himself from the Conservatives mainly on competence. After two years when this approach seemed to be taking Labour backwards, it is at last paying dividends. It is unlikely to work if Mr Johnson is replaced by Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss or, especially, Jeremy Hunt. But a wounded Mr Johnson is the perfect target.

Boris Johnson’s political achievements are astonishing. His fall will be as spectacular as his rise. My guess is that this will occur at the next General Election – but it could be much sooner if Conservative MPs have any sense.

Tory MPs must ditch Boris Johnson

By common consent last week was terrible for the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. He failed to bluff his way through the story of a party a year ago in Downing Street, in apparent breach of covid regulations. More juicy details are leaked out whenever the story might be dying down. A video of a mock press conference held a few days after the party told us all we needed to know about this event: it happened; it was wrong; and they knew it. Meanwhile the Conservative Party was fined by the Electoral Commission or failing to disclose donations properly on the refurbishment of his flat – and it turns out that some of his statements on this affair have been less than complete. Then he has been forced to introduce “Plan B” of covid restrictions in the face of the Omicron variant – much to the consternation of many Tory MPs and lobbyists, who accuse him of doing this prematurely to divert attention from his other troubles. It says something about the trouble he is in that the birth this of his daughter failed to gain much attention at all.

It is possible to have some sympathy for Mr Johnson. The party in Downing Street was a long time ago, and doubtless many other similar events took place across the country, unpunished, even as many ordinary members of the public cancelled their plans, and were separated from their loved ones. I find the suggestion that the police should waste resources by investigating it a bit outrageous. There is clearly a malicious hand behind the way information is being leaked, and not least that video. The time for a fuss was a year ago; this is just political manoeuvres. Similarly on the flat, the bottom line is that the public were not asked to pay for it, and the fact that some external party donors might have been involved is, I’m afraid, just how many politicians run their lives. The Electoral Commission’s rules are often confusing, and they have the tendency of all regulators to pursue the minor infractions of the well-intentioned, rather than the serious stuff that is so much harder to pin down – a version of the proverb “Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves”, ending up as “Penny wise, pound foolish”. And as for the new covid regulations, these look sensible and well-timed. As usual sceptics fail to understand the dynamics of exponential phenomena, as well as the reasons why it is important to keep the flow of cases to our hospitals manageable. Days make a difference; this was a welcome departure from reacting far too late, which has been the government’s usual habit. That is being too kind, of course: the first two stories illustrates mr Johnson’s fondness of flouting rules designed for everybody else; the third invites he question of by he did not act more promptly in previous critical moments in the never-ending covid drama.

But there is a much deeper problem. We have been spun the story that Mr Johnson is a man of radical strategic vision, who does not get bogged down the detail – his supporters like to compare him to Winston Churchill in World War 2. But Mr Churchill had many years of experience in and around government by then, and knew the value of competent people. Mr Johnson has little governmental experience, and treats competent people as a threat. This week’s Economist bemoans the fact that all the radical promise of his takeover of government in 2019 has dissipated. But there is absolutely nothing surprising about any of this. It was always clear that Mr Johnson was a ducker and diver, with little of the grasp required of effective leaders. He was chosen by MPs and party members out of frustration with his predecessor, Theresa May, and then by the public, largely because his opponents lacked credibility. His majority is as much rejection of Corbynism as an endorsement of a new Conservative vision of levelling up, deregulation and the sweeping aside of complacent liberals.

As The Economist points out, Mr Johnson’s progress on the big issues is no better than his handling of the trivia. Covid has been a huge distraction, but the government gets stuck as soon as it hits anything difficult – such as liberalising planning policy, managing Brexit, investing in infrastructure, or many other things. The government’s handling of the pandemic is mixed at best. Mr Johnson often seems to be aiming for a middle way between lockdown advocates and sceptics that is the worst of both worlds. Ironically his recent handling of the Omicron variant has been very sound – it is an astute combination of short-term measures to buy time, and the promotion of a longer term solution through booster jabs; the public has clearly responded. And yet he cannot break free from the suggestion that he is using the issue to distract attention; the manner of his broadcast on Sunday night has few other convincing explanations.

The onus is now on Conservative MPs. They got themselves and us into this mess, and they need to get us out. Under Britain’s constitutional arrangements only they can remove the Prime Minister, outside an election, if he does not go of his own accord. They simply have submit no-confidence letters to the chairman of the 1922 Committee. And yet they seem reluctant. Some justify this on the grounds that he is an “election-winner”. But what is the use of somebody who wins elections but cannot govern? That is an unbelievably bleak view of the purpose of politics. Besides, the favourable circumstances of the last election will be hard to recreate. One problem is the lack of a challenger to wield the knife, as Margaret Thatcher did for Ted Heath in 1974 (as Matthew Parris points out). At least two cabinet ministers are on manoeuvres (Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, excoriated by Mr Parris). Clearly of greater stature is Jeremy Hunt, who lost out to Mr Johnson in the last leadership election. Surely one of these can break cover?

Maybe they are waiting for Thursday’s by election in North Shropshire. But Britain needs somebody, somewhere to make a stand, and soon.

The curious case of Owen Paterson

Last week was acutely embarrassing for the British Conservative government, led by Boris Johnson. After an excoriating report by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, the House of Commons was due to censure former Tory cabinet minister Owen Paterson for repeated paid lobbying. Mr Paterson was popular on Conservative benches, and was vociferously maintaining his innocence – so Mr Johnson thought he’d help him out and rewrite the standards system, which he heartily despises, in one fell swoop. Thanks to a three-line whip, and the decisive voting support of a number of MPs who had fallen foul of the system, he narrowly won the vote last Wednesday. This caused such a stink that he promptly reversed course the following day, and now Mr Paterson has resigned as MP. All those Tory MPs who loyally voted for the wrecking motion endured the stink for nothing. I find the whole affair a bit puzzling.

The first curiosity was why Mr Patterson resisted the Standards Committee’s report so vociferously. At the start of the week the BBC interviewed him, and he vehemently maintained his innocence. He claimed that the whole standards process was unfair, saying that 17 witnesses that he had put forward were not heard, and that he had no way of making a proper defence, and not even a right of appeal. He even claimed that the way he was being persecuted over the two years of the investigation led to his wife’s tragic suicide. This was pretty strong stuff, though I had heard this kind of thing before from senior Tories. I will never forget Jonathan Aitken and his claim of “the sword of truth”, before being found guilty. His alternative course would have been contrition, admitting what he had done was wrong, and throwing himself on the mercy of his fellow MPs. Given his popularity, and his personal tragedy, this might well have worked – he could have got away with no suspension or a short one, that would not have had the possibility of triggering a by-election. He may well have believed what he was saying – but, as Matthew Syed points out in The Sunday Times, the human capacity for self-deception is massive, especially when it is in our interests. He would not have got himself in so deep if he had thought what he was doing was dodgy, but he does not appear to have been well-advised.

The next puzzle is why the first initial media response to Mr Paterson’s claims were so muted. On the BBC there was only a formulaic rebuttal, saying that the standards process was independent; none of the specific issues that he raised was responded to; it wasn’t even very clear what he was being accused of; his interviewer certainly didn’t press him. It was not until the debate itself that it emerged just how flimsy Mr Paterson’s defence of was, both in his explanation of his behaviour, and his criticism of a parliamentary process that has been in place for decades. He behaviour was clearly and repeatedly in breach of standards; his 17 witnesses had submitted written statements; the process allowed Mr Paterson to make what amounted to an appeal; and so on. Given the Tory onslaught on the supposed bias of the BBC, I’m not surprised that they wouldn’t take it on, though it says much for the sad state of that institution. But nobody else did either, until that debate. My New Statesmen daily email wittered away about other things. There were no articles in my online Financial Times, nor in the email newsletters from The Times or the Guardian. Where they cowed by the threat of legal action until the parliamentary debate laid things bare? Did they not understand the importance of the story? Where they leaving a trap for the Conservatives to fall into? I’m too far away from the action to have much idea. Once the case against Mr Paterson was properly explained in the debate, though, the papers turned on him.

And then there is the puzzle of why Mr Johnson ordered a three-line whip on the rather bizarre wrecking motion, which basically suspended Mr Paterson’s case until the rules were rewritten by a committee with an inbuilt Conservative majority. This brought the whole thing back onto him and his government. Perhaps the initiailly muted press reaction lulled him into a false sense of security. But if sentiment in his party was strongly for Mr Paterson, and against the standards system, he surely did not need a three-line whip? And if it wasn’t, he was obviously taking a big risk. Mr Johnson certainly wants to dismantle the standards system, which he himself has run foul of, and which may well cause him trouble in future (the rather curious episode of the financing of the refurbishment of his flat is a case in point). Perhaps he was not aware of just how overwhelming the case against Mr Paterson was. It had ben a busy week and he has a distaste for detail. He also seems to have been badly advised by either or both of his Chief Whip and the Leader of the House.

It remains to be seen how much damage the affair will actually do. I suspect that the opposition’s aerated claims of corruption will not cut much ice in themselves, though attacks from fellow Conservatives, such as Sir John Major, might. It is still likely to be another dent in the government’s reputation, which will make support harder to rally in future. Perhaps more serious is that the prime minister will have lost credibility with his MPs; he will find them less willing to go into the lobbies to support any future dodgy business. There is no immediate threat to his leadership, though.

Still, this whole curious business shows that there is a level below which the government is not allowed to sink, much as it might want to. That is something.

New Labour was not about making hard choices

I have now finished watching Blair & Brown – the New Labour Revolution, a 5-part series from the BBC on the Labour government of 1997 to 2010. For politicos like me it was compulsive viewing, for all its flaws. Does it say anything to us about politics now?

One criticism of the series is that it was too long. Five episodes of one hour each is indeed a lot of time, but I was hooked, as were many of the reviewers. We learnt quite a few new things, and the tension between its two principal characters gives the subject a fascinating dynamic. In fact the main problem seemed to be on how much it left out. There was no coherent commentary from the left of the party, for example, and the causes of the Global Financial Crisis were not examined. This left two critical parts of the New Labour narrative (or myth in the word’s broader sense simplified story) unchallenged – that “Old Labour” was unelectable, and that the GFC was something that happened from out of the blue from the USA that the government neither contributed to, nor could do much about. Both warrant challenge, even if emotionally I am bought into the first of those myths, while strongly disagreeing with the second. But neither is a simple question to unpick, and the argument on the GFC is probably asking too much for most political journalists to be able to handle, alas. Instead they took a whole episode to dig into the Iraq War – an editorial decision that it is hard to gainsay. The first episode covered the period before they won power, and there was episode for each of the three terms – so there was a logical structure to the whole series. Quite a bit of time was spent on pregnant pauses within the interviews (which included both main protagonists amongst many other important figures), but the overall pace was not slow.

I am struck by how deeply flawed the partnership was. The two leaders worked as a team before the 1997 election, but after that Gordon Brown jealously guarded the Treasury as his fiefdom and kept Tony Blair at arms length. I have no doubt that it was Mr Brown who was primarily at fault here. One of the most remarkable moments came when it dawned on Mr Blair that the government had to dramatically raise its spending on the NHS, to bring it into line with the average of health spending in Europe. This was a brilliant insight (which I have explained recently on one of my blogs) that very few people in the governing elite seem to understand – instead seeing the NHS as a spending black hole that needs to be contained somehow. But the only way Mr Blair could persuade Mr Brown to follow this line was by announcing it in a television interview. Mr Brown could not see the wood for the trees. It turned out to be one of New Labour’s best, and most popular, policies.

It would be tempting to characterise the partnership as Mr Blair being strong on vision, and Mr Brown being good on the detail. But Mr Blair was wrong about a lot of vision things too. He was wrong to push for joining the European currency (though at the time I was on Mr Blair’s side) – another disagreement resolved through the news media; he was wrong about joining the Americans in the Iraq war; he was wrong about trying to bring a private sector ethos into the public services, such as the NHS and schools. On all of these Mr Brown’s judgement seems to have been better, though he was and remains very unengaged on Iraq. But Mr Brown became complacent, especially with his hands-off approach to the financial sector. He put in place a tripartite system for managing national finance, between his Treasury, the Bank of England, and the Financial Services Authority (FSA). All well and good, but it was clearly his job to ensure that the system as a whole was working. He did not seem to grasp the seriousness of the situation until the collapse of Lehman in late 2008, by which time he was Prime Minister. His response then was magnificent – but more insight in 2007, when the risks were becoming obvious, would have helped. Instead he cut the rate of Income Tax, which left the country very vulnerable when the bubble burst. He was so blinkered by his success in “no more boom and bust” that he would not see the risks building up in the system.

Though it ended badly, New Labour has to be seen as a success overall, with three successive Labour general election victories, two of them landslides. Can it tell us anything about the future? The obvious parallel takes us back to Labour, which once again is back in the doldrums. The New Labour strategy was to win by courting the political middle ground and holding back on the party’s more left wing instincts; their most important insight was that the middle ground was a rather conservative place, and not the liberalism associated with centrist political parties, though it needed that too. The party needed a firm message on law and order, and a conservative stance on taxes and spending – as well as keeping union power at bay. This meant accepting that a lot of the legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s government had to stay. That itself was not enough, because John Major’s Conservatives were firmly anchored in that middle ground, and had used that strength to pull off a victory against the odds in 1992. Mr Blair and Mr Brown also had to exude confidence and competence. This was not too hard, as the Tories were beset by divisions, and their economic prestige suffered a fatal blow with the ERM fiasco in 1992, shortly after the election.

Can Labour follow the same strategy? Its leader, Sir Keir Starmer, clearly thought so after he took over in 2020, with the government floundering with its response to the covid-19 pandemic, and seemingly led by right-wing ideologues. Mr Starmer always appeared on television with the word “leadership” on his backdrop. But the Conservative leader, Boris Johnson, has a clear eye on that middle ground, which remains generally conservative. But he also understands that the middle ground has moved on – largely thanks to New Labour. Now it means a strong commitment to state-funded public services, such as the NHS. Unlike Mr Major (now Sir John), though, he has an iron grip on his party. He has recovered from his wobbles on the pandemic, and the public (or the floating voters anyway) appear to have forgiven him. Mr Johnson’s rhetoric on climate change and the environment also marks out his fight for the middle ground. He is not presenting anything like the target that Messrs Blair and Brown were able to destroy prior to 1997.

But the problem for Mr Johnson, and anybody hoping to win on the middle ground, is that it is a have-your-cake-and- eat-it sort of place. It wants well-funded public services but no more taxes; it wants action on climate change but no addition to heating or motoring costs, and so on. This is creating growing tensions within the Conservative Party. It does not create much of a direct opportunity for Labour – who are no more able to solve the contradictions of this middle ground than the Tories. But division amongst the Tories could allow Sir Keir to appear as a more competent alternative.

But a successful challenge is unlikely to look anything like New Labour. Perhaps Labour can try its own “cake” strategy by allying itself with the Lib Dems and the Greens, each of which can cement its appeal to different segments of the anti-Conservative market while leaving there contradictions unresolved. That alliance would need to be based on the promise of electoral reform. It would be a risky strategy, and it is too early to start playing the cards now. New Labour did create an informal alliance with the Lib Dems in the 1990s, as part of its strategy of leaving nothing to chance. But the Lib Dems are weaker now, while trust between the parties is low. Mr Blair was happy to hint at electoral reform then but in the end was “unpersuaded”. Something stronger would be needed now.

Britain, along with most of the rest of the world, is confronting some difficult choices. This is much more the case than in 1990s, when the opportunities for economic growth were much better. After an initial period of austerity, New Labour did not have to navigate such treacherous waters and was able to present voters with a “both/and” proposition. Alas hard choices do not make good politics – the revolution now would be to make taking those choices electorally appealing. The New Labour experience offers us no clue on how to pull off such a feat.

What is the significance of “Tory sleaze”?

A series of incidents have made the news where Conservative party officials, and especially their leader, Boris Johnson, have had a questionable regard for compliance with rules. Labour think they are on to something by raising the spectre of “Tory sleaze”. Are they?

Well yes if the audience is liberal professional types. They equate cronyism and nepotism with corruption and inefficiency, and understand that their own careers can be badly damaged by a disregard for compliance, and assume that politicians should play to the same rules. But do things look quite the same way to everybody else? Are the rules just there as a means to an end, and shouldn’t we look to the results first and foremost?

This was brought home to me when I read a history of the Royal Navy. Back in the 18th Century and into the Napoleonic Wars and the era of Horatio Nelson, it was one of the most effective large organisations on the planet – a considerable feat since command and control was often very dispersed. This was founded on a system of rewarding effective performance. The key to this was the prize system, whereby the money made from captured ships (“prizes”) was divided between the ship’s captain, officers and crew. (As an aside this was not dissimilar to the other highly effective institution of the era: Napoleon’s French army). The captain had control over the recruitment of his ship’s complement. And nepotism and cronyism was rife. How to reconcile this? Captains still recruited highly effective crew – but nepotism and cronyism was the simplest way of hiring people they knew and could trust. But if your cousin or other contact wasn’t up to the job, they would be moved on at the first opportunity. For many that is still true. The key is whether the organisation’s leaders are truly and directly accountable for the success of their organisation. The reason why cronyism is lethal in public service is because there is no equivalent system of direct, financial accountability, such as with the old Navy’s prize system, or with profits in a small or medium-sized business – where nepotism and cronyism is also widely practised.

So what to make of the current Conservative government’s difficulties over cronyism, especially amongst the urgencies of dealing with covid-19? They claim that in the crisis government ministers were making shortcuts to get things done. And if some of the the bureaucrats were uncomfortable, that just shows how ill-equipped thy are for emergencies. The Conservatives under Boris Johnson are not starting with a great of credibility on this however. Before the pandemic, the actions of minister Robert Jenrick on a property development after lobbying from a party donor shocked many, including me, but were simply shrugged off by the Prime Minister. Still, we should try to focus on the facts, not simply what we expect.

In fact enough the most recent row, over WhatsApp exchanges between Mr Johnson and entrepreneur James Dyson, is capable of being interpreted as “getting thing done”. Mr Dyson has a formidable reputation as a practical engineer; there was a genuine panic at the time (actually misplaced in hindsight) about the lack of ventilators, so there would have been nothing wrong if the government had called Mr Dyson for help, or if they had responded positively to an offer for help from him. The situation of Mr Dyson’s enterprise being based overseas is relatively unusual for a British company, so helping out with tax paperwork could be fine. The prior relationship between the two men doubtless helped, but I find it hard to see this as the government doing a favour for a friend. Labour has to do what it does, by trying to make the most of it, as that is how politics is done. The Tories would hardly be different if the roles were reversed. But this is either faux outrage or a failure to understand what was actually going on.

But what about the “VIP list” of businesses bidding for urgent contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE) early in the emergency? The urgency was real, and the need to simplify procurement procedures was doubtless justified. But did the VIP list help? This time the circumstantial evidence looks negative. The VIP list seems to be based purely on businesses being well-connected; there is no sense that they were being selected on the basis of any relevant competence. I had my reservations at the time about government procurement, and I still do. The process looks to have been too centralised and too detached from the people who actually needed the PPE. But this really needs to be picked apart by the sort of enquiry the government keeps putting off until the day after tomorrow. The point here is that is not that delegated procurement and streamlined procedures would have reduced cronyism. Indeed cronyism is the dark side of localism, and one that its advocates often neglect, myself included. But local cronyism in the circumstances of crisis, when results are short-term and obvious, is not necessarily all that harmful, as in the Royal Navy in the 18th Century. In some circumstances, if driven by the right sort of leadership, it can even be the best thing to do. The problem with the government’s procurement was that those taking the decisions, and pushing forward their proteges, were too distant from the outcomes to have an incentive to do the job well. Anyway, the VIP list was apparently far too long; it isn’t hard to imagine the feeding frenzy of businesses who could claim even a vague connection, and the lack of an incentive, or criteria, for the gatekeepers to say “not you”. The result is certainly that some inappropriate suppliers were picked; it is also probable that some people who could have helped out more effectively never got the call.

The next thing to consider is the lobbying by former Prime Minister David Cameron on behalf of Greensill Capital. On the face of it there is not much to be excited about: the lobbying failed to get extra financial support for Greensill. It is hardly surprising that Mr Cameron had privileged access. The more important question is how far Greensill had got into government procurement before the pandemic. It’s hard to understand what need the government had for a finance provider. More needs to be dug up about the relationship – but the issue isn’t just cronyism, it’s the degree of grasp of government ministers and civil servants of administrative processes. The former tend to have little commercial or organisation experience; the latter draw a false distinction between high status “policy” and lowly “implementation”. Greensill seems to have been inserting itself into the “implementation” side of things, which senior civil servants don’t feel they need to dirty their hands with.

The other issue doing the rounds on the general subject of “sleaze” is how the Prime Minister financed improvements to the Downing Street apartment, which wasn’t posh enough for his tastes. The careful wording of his spokespeople suggests that there is something to hide. But it does not appear as if public money, or much of it, was wasted here, though. The main issue is whether the Prime Minister broke rules on disclosure. I find it hard to get excited about it.

So far it doesn’t seem to be cutting through to the public. The attitude seems to be that, “They are all at it, so it doesn’t influence my vote.” They aren’t all at it in fact – but it doesn’t cut cleanly across party lines. You couldn’t get more prim and proper than Mr Johnson’s Tory predecessor, Theresa May. And Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair was quite comfortable with cosy relationships with business leaders, and the Labour Mayor of Liverpool is in deep do-do. Then again, the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer looks very straight, but that doesn’t seem to be doing him much good. I suspect that most people bend the rules a bit themselves, and don’t mind so much if others do too. Liberal professionals are in a small minority.

What could cause the public to get more angry? Personal enrichment, as happened with the MPs expenses saga in 2009, is more likely to inflame. Alas poor judgement and incompetence seem to get people less excited, as expectations appear to be low. The last time “Tory sleaze” got traction was in the mid-1990s, when the Conservative administration under John Major appeared tired and out of ideas. The expenses scandal, which engulfed all parties, was also at a time of perceived government failure, after the financial crash. The current government has some disasters to its name, but the news for it isn’t all bad. Success on vaccinations, and better judgement in 2021 on lockdown management, may erase memories of the Christmas, and earlier, disasters. Brexit is “done”, as promised, with teething problems not so far in excess of expectations – if you brush over Northern Ireland and the food export industry, which most people can.

What will be toxic for Mr Johnson is if his government starts to take on a general air of incompetence and failure. It clearly has that potential, as we saw in 2020, but it is not a foregone conclusion.

2020 ended well for Boris Johnson: do not underestimate him

“All’s well that ends well.” This seems to be the motto of Boris Johnson, our Conservative Prime Minister in the UK. He’s had a terrible 2020, with his government constantly being wrong-footed by the developments on the coronavirus epidemic. But he ended it with two major successes and that pretty much neutralised it all at a stroke. This is how he does his politics, and it is why he should never be written off.

His first success was on the virus, with the approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. The development and roll-out of vaccines is the one area of virus policy where Britain’s record stands up to international comparison (actually alongside development of treatments, though the benefits of this are less visible). And the Oxford vaccine was developed largely in Britain, and is manufactured here, as well as many other places worldwide. It seems to have the best balance between effectiveness, cost and deployability of the leading vaccines – though it lost the battle of the press releases earlier in the year, with misleading comparisons of efficacy being made with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Britain may now beat other major countries in the speed with which it tackles the crisis through vaccination, just when infection rates are starting to explode in much of the world. Britain should be among the first to see the benefits of mass vaccination.

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson’s most dangerous critics, the lockdown sceptics, have been silenced. With hospitals now under extreme stress it has become much harder to make the case that lockdowns are an unnecessary evil. And a lot of the stories being peddled by sceptics, such as that London was starting to benefit from herd immunity, have been shown to be idle speculation. Also the presence of a new, more infectious strain of the virus has served as an alibi for a lot of dodgy decisions in the run-up to Christmas. My suspicion is that much of the recent explosion in infection rates, which is leading to hospital overload, is in fact down to pre-Christmas behaviour, following the government’s announcement that a five-day easing of restrictions would be allowed. But everybody is talking about the new strain.

So, although the news from the pandemic is very depressing here in the UK, Mr Johnson has managed to limit the political fallout for him personally. The fumbling goes on, but if the vaccine goes as well as we re al hoping, then Mr Johnson can put a positive glass on the whole thing.

Mr Johnson’s second triumph is the Brexit deal. This is a huge political success, whatever one thinks of its substance. Without it there would have been a lot of Brexit-related noise and hassle in early 2021; with it the end of the transition period was a bit of an anticlimax. Furthermore, the process of pushing the conclusion of the deal to the very last moment was solid politics. Doubtless it helped to wring more concessions from the other side on the sort issues of nominal sovereignty that get his MPs so worked up. Better still, the lateness, and its proximity to Christmas, reduced public scrutiny; this critical piece of legislation was rushed through parliament in a single day. Another hope of government supporters, that the short-term economic effects of Brexit would be masked by the effects of the pandemic looks as if it will come to pass too.

It is not hard to see how the government hopes things will go from here. after a “bumpy” couple of months, the vaccine will start to push back the effects of the pandemic, precipitating an economic boom, which masks any short-term costs of Brexit. On Brexit the government doesn’t need to deliver on its preposterous promises of economic benefits (which isn’t to that there won’t be benefits), it just needs to say “There, that didn’t hurt so much did it?”. Remainers painted a picture of short-term economic catastrophe. There has been such a catastrophe, of course, but that is clearly because of covid-19, not Brexit, and the country will bounce back.

Of course this does not mean that things will keep on going well for Mr Johnson. His serial incompetence and weak ministerial team will lead him into yet more mess and muddle. It is not at all clear how he plans to get away from the carnage inflicted n government finances – though the betting is that he will try to ignore it, which is what quite a few sensible people are saying he should do. He will have a huge political headache in dealing with the bid for Scottish independence, which will be harder to ignore, though there may be political capital to be made in England.

But the point is this: we should not underestimate Boris Johnson’s command of the art of low politics. He may well last until another election (likely to be before 2024), and win it.

UPDATE

I started drafting this piece last week, and, in spite of some edits, its perspective is a bit last week. Soon after I pressed the button to publish, Boris Johnson went on the television to announce six weeks or more of heavy lockdown in England, including the reversal of his position on schools that he had been defending only that morning. To many this just shows how bad he is at managing this crisis. This could all have been done long a go – the evidence was clear then – but leaving it until later ensures that the damage inflicted will be greater. So that looks like a bad start to 2021.

But my main point stands. If the government can implement the rapid rollout of the vaccine, and if that succeeds in beating back the virus, the momentum will switch and the trials and tribulations will be forgotten. Neither proposition is a certainty, but both look probable. What is currently missing is expanded financial support for those adversely affected by the measures – but looks as if it is on its way.

September: the virus strikes back

I still have not yet recovered blogging groove, as I settle down in my new home, and with family caring issues taking priority. So I am doing a consolidated look-back on the last month’s news again. If last time the central theme was the rise of Great Power politics, this time the theme is the virus.

After the Spring crisis passed, more or less, in the developed world (not so much in the US), people relaxed in the summer (or winter depending on your hemisphere). But the virus is coming back, with the world both better prepared, but less psychologically and economically resilient. The stress is showing.

The virus’s most spectacular victim was the US President. This drama is still playing out. What has emerged is interesting, though. Donald Trump has made a great show of not allowing the virus to affect him, being rarely seen in a mask. But in fact huge efforts are made to screen anybody that comes near him, with extensive use of a quick-turnaround test. But such measures only work so far, and if enough people come into proximity, the test is bound to have miss a few. A reception for his nominee for the Supreme Court appears to have been too hubristic.

Once Mr Trump was infected his behaviour stands in complete contrast to our own Boris Johnson. Mr Johnson soldiered on valiantly, did what the doctors told him, and went to a public hospital only when he had to, with treatment recognisably similar to any member of the public. Such a passive approach was not for Mr Trump. He quickly ordered the most aggressive treatment possible, and checked himself into and then out of an elite hospital. He now claims to have conquered the virus in days. We shall see. This probably reflects cultural differences between our two countries as much as personality. Many Americans, and especially the rich and powerful, struggle with the idea that they can’t take full control of their treatment, as is often the case with the UK’s NHS. Private treatment is available here, but, quite often the best expertise is tied to the public service, and Britons don’t like public and private to mix. It is one reason why nationalising health care is unpopular in the US, even if less well-off Americans have little practical control.

But what effect will this have on the US election campaign? Democrats continue to have reason for quiet confidence. A month ago they seemed a bit rattled, as Mr Trump had forced the narrative onto his own agenda: law and order. But the Democrats’ candidate, Joe Biden, is a seasoned campaigner, backed up by a solid team. He held his nerve. The riots subsided and soon the news was dominated by the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the unseemly haste to replace her before the election. Mr Biden refused the invitation to stoke up the culture war on abortion, but instead moved the narrative on to court challenges to President Obama’s health care system, which many working class Americans now depend on. This was followed by the first TV debate, dominated by Mr Trump’s hyper=aggressive behaviour. Mr Biden was not given the rope to hang himself with, and the focus became the personality of the President, which the Democrats are quite happy with. And now Mr Trump’s infection has put the virus centre stage. Mr Biden’s poll lead seems to be holding up, and perhaps even increasing. Most Americans have chosen who they will vote for, and not a few have voted already. Everything that is happening seems to reinforcing those choices, on both sides, and making each side more motivated. As in the mid-term Congressional elections in 2018, that is mainly working for the Democrats. Can they seize the Senate?

But the biggest question to me is what will happen after the election, with the country so bitterly divided. Mr Trump doesn’t seem to care. But if Mr Biden wins, he will have a big job on his hands. He does seem to be aware of this.

Here in Britain, the UK government’s reputation is floundering. There is something curious about this. After its initial fumblings, and the appalling early death rate that resulted, the country’s record bears comparison with many of its peers. The record of the US is worse, and so is that of France, since June. Also the records of England (directly under the control of the UK government) and Scotland (mainly under the control of the devolved SNP government) is pretty similar. But Mr Johnson’s Conservatives have suffered much worse damage to their reputation. Mr Johnson’s style is ill-suited to the occasion, and, worse, he has surrounded himself with weak ministers, while more competent people remain on the sidelines criticising his record. There is a lot to criticise, of course, especially with the government’s failure to understand effective process management (with vastly inappropriate and over-centralised structures), and the lack of a clear strategy, as different factions vie to be heard. But others are making the same or worse mistakes and getting away with it. Mr Johnson is failing at the sorts of things politicians are supposed to be good at, as well as the ones for which they have little expertise. Many of theConservatives that voted Mr Johnson into office last year seem surprised; but most others are not.

So far the big winner from the crisis appears to be China. Although they too fumbled the early stages, with dire consequences for the rest of the world, their brand of totalitarian government has stamped out the disease and kept the virus at bay. Meanwhile everybody else is struggling: as they ease restrictions to let life go on as it should, the virus comes back, and the exponential dynamics of infectious diseases stoke. Still, some countries seem better able to handle the challenge than others. But it is hard to generalise. Herd immunity can be bought only at a very high price, in direct and indirect deaths, and debilitating “long-covid”, and may not last long-term anyway. But containment comes at a very high price too. A vaccine seems the best hope.

The Cummings Affair exposes the shallowness of the Johnson project

I have often come across the idea of the strategic manager. He (and the gender stereotype is appropriate here) thinks that it is his job to look at the big picture, and leave the detail to his underlings. Indeed, too much detail could cloud judgement, as could working too hard. More than one of my bosses in my professional career had this idea. It always ended in tears. And so it is in politics and in military affairs too. The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, turns out to be the latest victim.

Mr Johnson was a particularly prominent exponent of this idea, though, typically, he has so far as I know not expressed it himself, leaving that to his acolytes. They have described how he entrusts detailed tasks to advisers, and then makes decisions based on a solid strategic understanding. He is said to have had a successful 8-year stint as London Mayor on this basis. But only supporters judge Mr Johnson’s two terms as mayor as more than an electoral success. It is devoid of substantive achievement, while marked by ill-advised vanity projects, from the new Routemaster buses (in action but late and over budget because of the unnecessary design requirements imposed on it), water cannon for the police, the infamous Garden Bridge, and so on. The one major success of his term was the London Olympics of 2012, but his personal role was minimal; the real hard work of winning the right to hold them having been done by his predecessor. Meanwhile Mr Johnson kept as low a profile as possible as Mayor, not wanting to he held to account. The job is not nearly as big as it looks, as the government has not devolved much power to the Mayor, and it does not seem a hard job to hold down without doing serious political damage to oneself. Which cannot be said of the role of being UK Prime Minister, which is genuinely one of the toughest jobs in British politics.

The problem with the notion of strategic leadership is that events are driven by detail. Big events are the summation of of lots of small ones. Strategic decisions must be executed at tactical level, and strategic choices are best based on a firm grasp of the detail. More important still is that evidence of whether a policy is working depends on understanding of detailed evidence. You can wait for big picture evidence to emerge, but by the time it does so, it is usually too late. It follows that a strategic leader is very dependent on other members of a leadership team to both provide a tactical understanding, and to filter and feed back information from the front line. This can be done in one of two ways: “Big Beasts” or “Trusted Adviser”. Leaders usually opt for a combination of the two.

The Big Beasts approach requires an alliance with another figure who has substantial political clout in their own right: another politician. The most recent successful example of this was David Cameron’s alliance with his Chancellor George Osborne. Mr Cameron, like Mr Johnson, was a light touch leader, though not to the same extreme. His career ended in ignominy when he led the losing side of the Brexit referendum, but he lasted six years, including a notable general election victory. But Mr Osborne, by no means light-touch himself, did a lot of the work, and indeed often seemed overstretched. Mr Osborne clearly had ambitions to succeed Mr Cameron, but in the end Mr Cameron’s failure finished his political career. But that relationship stands out because it was so successful. More typically such relationships become rivalries, which in turn leads to disfunction. Such was the fate of Labour prime minster Tony Blair’s relationship with Gordon Brown, also Chancellor. Mr Blair’s leadership style alternated from strategic to getting into the detail if required, and his partnership with Mr Brown was at first highly successful. But Mr Brown became jealous, and things started to break down. Given that successful politicians are driven people, this is the normal fate of reliance on Big Beasts. The best leaders use alliances with several allied politicians and don’t become dependent – but that is very hard work, and cannot be equated to the sort of strategic leadership to which Mr Johnson aspires. Mr Johnson instead has taken the opposite tack of keeping any potential rival at a safe distance. His cabinet has nobody close to being a political rival. Only two members stand out as having any political weight. One is Matt Hancock, the health secretary, who is progressively being eaten up by the crisis and will surely be politically destroyed by it. The other is the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who has had a good crisis, but is so new to senior politics that he cannot be seen as a serious rival yet.

Instead Mr Johnson has gone entirely for the Trusted Adviser approach. In this the leader appoints a team of advisers entirely beholden to him, and selected on ability and trustworthiness. This team keeps a low profile and carries out the detailed work, including the digestion of information coming in from the front line. Such a team usually has a leader. All British prime ministers have used some variation of this strategy. Few have had the implied power of Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings. The biggest danger of the Trusted Adviser approach is sycophancy: the tendency to filter out the bad news before it reaches the centre. There is an inevitability to this, and wise leaders learn to adjust for this and try to triangulate with other sources of information. But again that is hard work. Mr Johnson has done something a bit more interesting, by appointing a maverick who is less inclined to be sycophantic.

But there is a cost. With political rivals cleared away, with Mr Johnson’s preference for a low personal profile, and with Mr Cummings’s maverick style, public attention naturally gravitates to the adviser, who becomes seen as the real power, and one that is not politically accountable. And that has now been exposed to breaking point with Mr Cummings’s rather loose interpretation of the lockdown rules so far as his family is concerned. In ordinary circumstances he would have gone, but Mr Johnson’s refusal to sack him confirms to everybody how dependent he has become on his adviser. Mr Johnson himself seems to be at sea, with only the vaguest grasp of details. His recent illness with Covid-19 seems to have taken its toll.

Personally I have some sympathy with Mr Cummings’s predicament in the episode that is at the heart of this affair: the decisions he took back in March when his wife started to show symptoms. My view about rules is that the intent is more important than the letter, and my instinct is to interpret them flexibly, or with “common sense”. That doesn’t let him off the hook entirely. He moved his family from an area of high Covid incidence to one that was at the time a low one (a situation that has since reversed); did he really not expose others to risk during his journey or while he was there?

But the problem for Mr Johnson is a much bigger one. I am in a minority when it comes to my attitude to rules. Most people prefer for rules to be set and obeyed to the letter, as then everybody knows where they are. And people have been sticking to the rules at huge personal cost. Mr Cummings’s behaviour reignites a belief that there is a ruling elite that doesn’t really care about the trials and tribulations of “ordinary people”.(an expression I dislike, but I digress). This is particularly difficult for both Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings because they have built their careers on being champions of “ordinary people” against arrogant elites. This is now exposed as being the fraud it always was.

But even if this affair hadn’t blown up, Mr Johnson would be in trouble. His model of leadership places too much pressure on too few people. It is vastly over-centralised, and it is faced by two huge challenges. The first is managing the next phase of the Coronavirus crisis, which is the loosening of the lockdown, the search for a new normal, and the alleviation of widespread hardship. Second there is Brexit. The transition period is set to end on 31 December, and the government has no intention of extending it. And yet there is an impasse with the EU as what is to replace it. This is not necessarily an impossible challenge. The government can compromise on EU demands (which are after all based on the political declaration that was part of the Brexit deal) and declare victory. But that will take brains and leadership, which are now otherwise occupied, on both sides of the Channel. The government may be successful in passing the blame on to the EU side, with Remainers still in deep depression and wary of stoking up old divisions. But it will look chaotic and add to the general impression of haplessness which is becoming the current government’s hallmark.

Take away Dominic Cummings and what is left? There is no vision of what this country is supposed to become. Successful political leadership is a “both and” business. Both strategic understanding and command of detail. Both an effective core of advisers and cooperation with other substantial political figures. And it is very hard work. With Mr Johnson at the helm Britain is drifting. Can it really last another four years/