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9 February 2022updated 10 Feb 2022 9:35am

Lionel Barber’s Diary: Boris Johnson’s new leaf, inflation fears, and being headhunted by Ofcom

We are led to believe the Prime Minister is about to drop the habits of a lifetime, but the changes at Downing Street are a recipe for chaos.

By Lionel Barber

Writing Boris Johnson’s political obituary still feels premature, but here’s a tip: start with Middelfart in central Denmark. In early 1993, I was the FT correspondent in Brussels working the same patch as the twenty-something Johnson, then the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent. Middelfart – memorable in name only – was the setting for an EU foreign ministers meeting dominated by the Bosnian conflict.

Johnson was a minor celebrity in Denmark – the reporter-pundit who had sensationally revealed Jacques Delors’ “plan to rule Europe”. His story was a wild exaggeration, but no matter. In Danish (and Telegraph) folklore, Johnson single-handedly swayed the Danes to vote against the Maastricht Treaty in a 1992 referendum.

At the Foreign Office (FO) news briefing, our hero was as usual nowhere to be seen. Balkan questions exhausted, an enterprising reporter asked the FO spokesman, a gent by the name of Francis Cornish, what he made of Boris Johnson. Cornish, who went on to be consul general in Hong Kong and ambassador to Israel, sighed: “Boris has to make up his mind. Either he can start being serious or he can continue playing the clown.”

Downing Street reset won’t work

Throughout his journalistic and political career, Johnson has avoided making a choice. He weaponised his unseriousness. The British public had a few laughs. Rivals underestimated him. Finally, a Brexit-weary Tory party embraced him.

We are now led to believe that Johnson is about to drop the habits of a lifetime. Steve Barclay, a White House-style chief of staff, will restore discipline. A new permanent secretary for Downing Street will help coordinate a grandly titled Office of the Prime Minister. Johnson, now on his fourth director of communications, will deploy his old aide Guto “there’s fun to be had” Harri to sharpen his image and message.

Where Simon Case, the youthful Cabinet Secretary, fits into the new set-up is a moot question. Staff turnover at Downing Street has reached the levels of the Trump White House. The much-touted “reset” looks like a recipe for organised chaos.

Fair criticism for Bank governor

Is inflation transitory or permanent? As a former editor of the FT, I am supposed to know the answer. What I suspect – a very different proposition – is that we face a nasty short-term shock that may well turn into something worse. The combination of cheap money, higher energy bills, and Covid-related shocks to global supply chains has fuelled inflationary pressures in Western economies (Asia has to date been the exception, but that’s another story). Some may prove transitory, but higher inflation, partly due to the costs of the green transition, looks permanent.

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Central banks have reverted to their role as inflation fighters, a more mundane task than tackling the global financial crisis and the Covid pandemic with measures such as quantitative easing (which has in itself contributed to asset price inflation).

The era of rock-star central bankers such as Mario “whatever it takes” Draghi is over. Andrew Bailey, the governor of the Bank of England, is not the only one finding the adjustment difficult. When Bailey suggested workers should moderate their pay demands to avoid stoking inflation, now running at 5 per cent, he was savaged as “the Plank of England”. The Daily Star front page was not alone in concluding that taming inflation is your job, Mr Governor!

We must stand strong against Putin

What does Vladimir Putin want? My answer, based on a post-midnight interview in the Kremlin in 2019, is that he is determined to test Western resolve and reverse the Soviet Union’s humiliating defeat at the end of the Cold War. Putin also fears pro-democracy “colour” revolutions. In both respects, Ukraine is key. The West should stand firm and call his bluff.

Off the Ofcom list

The other day, I was flattered to hear from a headhunter inquiring whether I might be interested in becoming chairman of Ofcom, the media regulator. The idea of stepping in after Paul Dacre’s withdrawal was briefly appealing – until, mindful of my past role as editor of the “Daily Remoaner”, I remembered that Boris Johnson would have the final say.

I asked the headhunter: “On a scale of one to ten, what are my chances?” Much waffling. So I switched to a scale of “very likely” to “very unlikely”. The answer was brief and to the point. Very unlikely.

Lionel Barber was editor of the Financial Times 2005-20

[See also: Is Rishi Sunak determined enough to end the farce of the Johnson premiership?]

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This article appears in the 09 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak's Game