“It’s crackers that Boris Johnson was there and that Jeremy Corbyn was the choice at the general election… we should all be asking, you guys in the political parties should be asking, what is it about your parties that gave choices like Johnson versus Corbyn?”
It is a punchy observation and a very good question, one asked by many during the 2019 general election. Some of us even abandoned our longstanding party affiliations as a consequence. It is nonetheless extraordinary that the person making the observation and asking the question was Dominic Cummings, the principal adviser and strategist to the Prime Minister at the time of that election.
In the course of seven hours of testimony, Cummings described Johnson as being “unfit for the job”, “like a shopping trolley smashing from one side of the aisle to the other ”, “distracted” by his private life and personal finances, his perspective “completely mad”, his behaviour “appalling”. “The PM changes his mind ten times a day, and then calls up the media and contradicts his own policy, day after day” said Cummings.
With most prime ministers, the very fact that they chair a Cobra meeting sends a signal across Whitehall that a matter should be taken seriously. Johnson failed to chair any of the Cobra meetings during February 2020 and, according to Cummings, it is just as well. “The view of various officials inside No 10 was if we have the Prime Minister chairing Cobra meetings and he just tells everyone ‘it’s swine flu, don’t worry about it, I’m going to get Chris Whitty to inject me live on TV so everyone realises it’s nothing to be frightened of’ that would not help serious planning,” he told MPs.
To be fair, Cummings is a man of strong opinions; forcefully expressed (just ask Matt Hancock). He is also vulnerable to the charge of bitterness, having been forced out of Downing Street in November and reportedly briefed against by Johnson in April.
Nonetheless, the accusations that the Prime Minister is indecisive, not on top of the details and prone to insensitive language are not without credibility. Similar criticisms were made during his tenure as mayor of London and foreign secretary. Even his strongest supporters rarely challenge the charges but argue that he has other strengths and that, as far as the public are concerned, these faults are “priced in”.
On this latter point, they are almost certainly right. It would be a surprise if anything Cummings said to MPs will do the Prime Minister very much immediate political harm. The public appear to have made up their mind about the government’s handling of Covid-19, forgiving early errors and welcoming later successes.
The vaccines may have immunised Johnson’s record on the pandemic but Cummings’ question – what is it about the Conservative Party and the Labour Party that gave the country Johnson and Corbyn at the last general election? – remains a pertinent one. It was by some way the worst choice offered to the British public in our modern history.
My conclusion is that there are very different explanations for how two people so obviously unsuited to high office became leaders of our two great political parties. To put it most succinctly, the Labour Party does not care enough about winning, the Conservative Party cares too much.
I won’t dwell on the Labour Party on this occasion, but it was an act of extraordinary self-indulgence for it to elect as leader not just someone intellectually incapable of holding even minor office but someone so obviously unelectable. Corbyn was not chosen to win but to make party members feel good, at least for those members who do not mind opposition. Labour got lucky in 2017 in avoiding humiliation but the luck could not last.
In contrast, it was an act of political ruthlessness to make Johnson the Tory leader. Many of my former colleagues who voted for him knew that he had substantial inadequacies that in normal times would have disqualified him from becoming Prime Minister. They also concluded, however, that he was best placed to unite the right – radicalised by Brexit – and win a general election. Of the leadership candidates that went forward to Conservative MPs in 2019, Johnson was by far the weakest when it came to executive ability but was the best hope for seeing off Nigel Farage and winning a general election. As such, he became the pragmatists’ choice and, on the test of electability, they were proven right.
So what is it about the Conservative Party that meant Johnson became its leader? It is because the party correctly concluded that he was the right person to win over sufficient votes to retain power. In that sense, the Conservative Party is being true to its traditions – it exists to hold power. What has changed is the coalition of support upon which it relies. Charisma, celebrity and ostentatious patriotism now count for more than integrity or executive competence.
As to why the nature of the Conservatives’ support has changed, Cummings might like to ask himself if he has some personal responsibility for that transformation. If our political culture is too populist and undervalues truthfulness and administrative grip, it is a culture he helped create.