Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Boris Johnson's last cabinet meeting.

Today Boris Johnson will chair his last scheduled cabinet meeting. 

He has said that he will be praising the resilience of public sector workers as we mark the one year anniversary of step 4 in the covid roadmap with the majority of restrictions lifted. Other points being made on his behalf are as follows:

  • The pandemic was the greatest global threat to public health and the NHS in over a century, and our response would not have been possible without the superhuman efforts of our NHS staff, volunteers, scientists and clinicians who helped take on the virus.
  • That is why the Prime Minister will praise the resilience of our public sector workers at his last scheduled cabinet today – as we mark the one year anniversary of England moving to step 4 of the covid roadmap, when the majority of restrictions were lifted, which would not have been possible without their incredible work and millions coming forward to get jabbed.
  • One year on from a successful reopening, we can reflect on what our brilliant NHS and country and has achieved, and we should be proud of how far we have come.

I agree with every word of that, and in many ways I regret the necessessity for Boris Johnson to leave office because he had some very real achievements.

However, politics is a team activity in which trust and loyalty need to flow in both directions. And the simple reality is that Boris Johnson had conducted his government in a way which had eroded that trust with his own MPs to such an extent that he lost the confidence of the parliamentary Conservative party. 

And therefore, although the House of Commons voted last night that it has confidence in the government as a whole and implicitly therefore for Boris Johnson to remain as caretaker PM until his successor has been elected by the Conservative party, Boris had lost the confidence of the House of Commons and could no longer remain PM.

As I wrote in my blog shortly after his defenestration, there were some legitimate questions about whether the PM should remain until his successor is elected, and I understand why, but it  is the normal procedure which has been followed every time in the past thirty plus years when there is a change in PM other than at a general election. 

Margaret Thatcher withdrew during a Conservative leadership election but remained PM until John Major had won it: Tony Blair remained PM after announcing his resignation until Labour had elected Gordon Brown to succeed him: David Cameron remained in Number Ten after his resignation until Theresa May had been elected to succeed him and she in turn remained PM after announcing her decision to quit until Boris Johnson had been elected. 

So in announcing his resignation as Conservative leader but waiting until his successor has been elected to resign as PM, Boris Johnson was following the precedent of the last four Conservative and Labour Prime Ministers to face an equivalent situation, and that has now effectively been agreed by the House of Commons,

As I have written, in many ways I deeply regret the need for Boris Johnson to stand down, but it was the right thing to do.

There are at least four myths  being spread by various people about why Boris Johnson went, 

The most ridiculous, an idea being inferred by friends of the Putin regime in Russia, is that his resignation was in some way the "logical result" of Britain's support for Ukraine and might weaken that support, with Moscow gloating that "Ukraine's best friends are departing."

If Moscow thinks that the departure of one man will stop Britain supporting a free and independent Ukraine, they have another think coming. If anything the invasion of Ukraine and Boris Johnson's strong support for Ukraine in that situation actually prolonged his time in office. Although I regard his early and strong support for Ukraine as one of Boris Johnson's most important achievements, the policy has strong cross-party backing and I am 100% certain that whoever succeeds Boris as PM will continue to give aid and comfort to Ukraine.

I'm going to reiterate what I wrote after his resignation.

Three other myths are that

  • Boris was brought down by the Press, or
  • Boris was brought down by "Remainers," or
  • Boris was brought down  by major disagreements over policy.
None of these contains more than a scintilla of truth.

No, I am afraid that Boris was brought down by Boris Johnson. 

Indeed, the joke that "Boris Johnson ahs become the third Prime Minister brought down by Boris Johnson is an example of many a true word being spoken in jest.

There are certainly elements of the press and elements of those who voted Remain who have never forgiven Boris Johnson for the "Leave" vote, and have never made any secret of their hostility towards him. But those people were unable to prevent him winning the Conservative leadership or the 2019 general election and they would never have been able to bring about the end of his premiership had he not also lost the support of other people who disagree with them over just about everything. For months many of the loudest voices calling on him to go have belonged to strong Brexit supporters.

Nor does any suggestion that he was brought down over policy stack up. There are differences over policy in any government, but there was no strong consensus in the party in favour of a radically different approach on any particular issue. The one partial exception is Northern Ireland, on which the government's U-turns and flirting with a unilateralist approach may have reinforced the Prime Minister's most serious perceived weakness - trust.

A more credible explanation of Johnson's fall is that he was brought down by misplaced loyalty to erratic subordinates and allies - Dominic Cummings, Owen Patterson, Downing Street Staff, and finally Chris Pincher. There is much more truth in this view than any of those discussed and dismissed above, although I myself regard it as a secondary reason why he lost the confidence of his colleagues. But it is not an excuse: the head of an organisation is responsible for how he allows his subordinates to behave.

The reason I deeply regret the need for Boris Johnson to go is that he has enormous talents and strengths and has notched up some genuine and significant achievements in his time as PM. 

Boris resolved the logjam of Brexit which was blocking everything else in British politics and got us out of the situation where a significant proportion of Britain's political establishment was refusing to respect the vote of the British people and in the process sabotaging progress on every other challenge facing the nation. He did "get Brexit done" with the exception of Northern Ireland and it will be an important responsibility of both whoever succeeds him and the EU to negotiate in good faith to get a better solution

In terms of COVID-19 Boris will be remembered for some brilliant successes as well as some dire mistakes: all the UK's administrations and parties got care homes wrong, but Boris Johnson's government deserves credit for one of the most effective vaccine programmes in the world and for a massive programme of aid to families and businesses which helped people through the economic disaster of the pandemic and without which the economic consequences would have been far worse. 

I have already mentioned Ukraine: without Boris Johnson's early and strong support for Ukraine the heroic struggle of the Ukrainian people against the invaders in the early days of the war would have been even more difficult. That's not just my opinion, it is that of President Zelenskyy, who expressed sadness at Boris's resignation and called him a "True Friend" to Ukraine.

Unfortunately, set against Boris Johnson's considerable talents, he also, like every human being, has flaws, and those flaws eventually eroded the trust even of those who were most keen to give him the benefit of the doubt to the extent that he lost the confidence of his party, which eventually made it impossible for him to govern. 

Most Prime Ministers would have resigned, and would have been forced out had they not resigned, after any report as damning as the Sue Gray report. 

I don't believe that any one incident caused Conservative MPs (and others) who had previously supported Boris Johnson to withdraw that support, but rather a pattern of behavior, However,  I do think one can identify the specific last straw which finally broke the camel's back and made it impossible for even the "greased piglet" to wriggle out of the situation. 

It was the letter from Lord McDonald, who had been the PM's Permanent Secretary while he was at the Foreign office, confirming that Boris had been briefed at that time about specific allegations against Chris Pincher and that a formal complaint had been made at that time, and therefore that the line Downing Street was sending out people to give the media was not correct.  

If this had been an isolated incident a heartfelt apology and promise to do better might have saved him. But it was the latest in a line of such incidents and perhaps, of all of them, the one in which clear evidence of a lack of concern for the truth was most impossible to overlook. And it came shortly after Boris Johnson had stated in public that his personality is never going to change.

In a piece which was generally quite favourable to the PM, Daniel Johnson wrote on the Article website 

"It is a tragedy that the PM’s slapdash managerial style has allowed the political, media and bureaucratic establishments to focus on questions about his personal integrity, rather than on the incomparably graver question of how we can preserve our way of life which has been imperilled by Putin’s nihilistic war of conquest."

"Nor did" (Boris Johnson) "grasp the importance attached by others to public statements: who did what and when. His careless talk has ultimately cost him his political life. " 

This brings me back full circle to one of the first points |I made in this essay: politics is a team activity. It is virtually impossible to achieve anything much in politics at any level without teamwork, which demands trust and loyalty. And these things have to run in both directions - from leader to members of the team, and from the team to their leader.

The habit of loyalty makes it very difficult for parties to turn on their leader. In fact, the only political party in the UK which ever does sack its leader is the Conservative party. 

There are plenty of people asking today why the Conservatives didn't get rid of Boris Johnson months ago. Most of this criticism is coming from members of rival parties which have never, ever, deposed one of their own leaders who wasn't willing to go.

It is time to move on and look to the future. I look forward to the election of a new Conservative leader, who will either be Britain's third woman PM, Britain's first non-white PM, or just possibly both. 

Labour talks endlessly about diversity - this leadership election proves that the Conservatives practice it

I will be looking at all the candidates with a view to what they say about the need to solve the cost of living crisis, support Ukraine, refresh and renew the levelling up agenda, and carry forward the Conservative promises of more doctors, more nurses more police, more hospital building, and building back better.

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