One of the great political set-pieces coming in the new year to Boris Johnson’s Downing Street is the relaunch.
Always an implicit admission that nothing is going right, the relaunch dramatises the fond hope that a politician can change. It hardly ever works. The structural problems that caused the need for a relaunch in the first place don’t simply disappear.
Johnson is who he is, and he will never change. He cannot change and shouldn’t even try. But when things are going awry the relaunch is the best you can do, and it is better to do one than not.
That Johnson himself cannot change is a given. Frank Field’s edited collection The Politics of Character contains an essay in which Clement Attlee nails the essential point: “There is one thing about politics that I think cannot be disputed; if a man stays in them long enough, they nearly always reveal him for what he is, and he tends to get not only what he deserves, but to find in his fate the reflection of his own strength and weakness.”
Johnson came to power on the back of his strength, and his weakness means he cannot do the job he craved. The Tory backbench rebellion over tighter Covid restrictions is a demonstration of his declining authority. Johnson, meanwhile, goes on live television to deliver a sober address on a pandemic and somehow manages to give the impression that he has just stepped off the set of Have I Got News For You.
The populist shtick, which got him through Brexit and into office with an 80-seat majority, is not working any more. Indeed, his inability to tell a straight story is planting the seeds not just of electoral defeat, but of a reason to despise the Tory party.
The callous nature of the Thatcher governments and the air of entitlement emitted did not start to disperse until 2002 when Theresa May had to concede that the public thought of the Tories as “the nasty party”. This is what Johnson is doing right now to his party and his MPs need to wake up to him. They need a delegation to march in and demand that, even if he cannot become anything different, he does at least have to try something else.
For all his surface bonhomie, Johnson is a chippy kind of cove. He is trying to keep Brexit alive as an issue so he can carry on sounding furious that he won. This obsession turns up most obviously in some terrible cabinet choices. Gavin Williamson, Priti Patel and Nadine Dorries are the most conspicuously bad appointments to the cabinet, made because the Prime Minister has always granted a ludicrous priority to loyalty over ability. He cannot carry the weight of the government alone but, by choosing to surround himself with lightweights, he has placed that heavy burden upon himself. Johnson has always given the impression of being scared of good people. Not for him the team of rivals.
There is no need for such an approach. The relaunch could, if he could ever admit he has been at fault, introduce a cabinet of greater ability and promise. Imagine that Jeremy Hunt, Johnson’s former leadership rival, Theresa May, his predecessor, and his ex-cabinet colleagues Greg Clark and Robert Buckland returned to the front line. A team built on talent should see promotions, too, for Tracey Crouch, the well-liked former sports minister, and Tom Tugendhat, the thoughtful chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.
To make space, the nation would surely bear the loss of Patel, Dorries, Dominic Raab and Stephen Barclay. Jacob Rees-Mogg could retire his performance as the all-licensed fool and Suella Braverman could give way as attorney general to someone prepared to defy the Prime Minister. The government would immediately look more grown up and sound less frantic and embattled.
Then, if Johnson retains any sense of theatre, the relaunch could have one more flourish. As a candidate to be mayor of London, Johnson was kept out of serious strife by the iron hand of the Tories’ favourite election guru, Lynton Crosby. Johnson has no discipline at all, but Crosby practically patented the concept.
It is obvious that Johnson badly misses the energy of his former aide Dominic Cummings, who brought strategic discipline to his operation. Or at least, he tried to. Now, the “trolley” – to use Cummings’s preferred insult for his former boss – is veering all over the place. Johnson desperately needs a consigliere who can keep the trolley on the straight and narrow path.
If he really wanted to signal a change, Johnson could copy Gordon Brown’s brilliant coup de théâtre from October 2008, when he brought Peter Mandelson back into the cabinet as business secretary and chief strategist. The equivalent would be to bring back the Tory Mandelson, George Osborne, as business secretary. That would have the bonus of allowing Kwasi Kwarteng to spend more time preening at leisure. It would also boost the important idea of the Northern Powerhouse. Then put Edward Timpson, Tory MP and scion of the best firm in the country, into Osborne’s department and the Tories could start to talk to business about something more important than Peppa Pig.
The main benefit of such a move would be strategic discipline. Who better than Lord Osborne of Gainful Employment, an intensely political former chancellor who has had a makeover, to keep a watchful eye on Rishi Sunak, Johnson’s current closest rival? Who better to make the campaigning choices for a party looking towards the next election against a Labour opposition that, like a teenager coming into adulthood, has suddenly shot up?
There is no doubt that the subtext of persuading Osborne to return would be a confession by the Prime Minister that he cannot really cope. That was true of Mandelson’s mercy mission too. But it’s true and the Prime Minister might as well face an inconvenient truth for once in his life.
Johnson will probably do none of this, of course. His character may well be so set that he cannot even conceive that he needs to look as if he has changed. But he does. To adapt Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s great line that Malcolm Rifkind once cited: if the Prime Minister wants things to stay the same around here, then things are going to have to change.