Why did Boris Johnson have a fantastic August and why is September going so badly for him? The answer is that in August there was no Parliament. He generated tons of fantastic headlines by announcing large sums of money, not all of it recycled for various parts of the public realm – without having to worry about how he’d find the revenue or get those revenue-raisers past Parliament. He talked with great purpose about how he’d get Brexit “sorted” by 31 October. Civil servants raved (sincerely) about how while they mostly loathed the government’s aims, they at least had some direction from the centre again.
But his central problem – which is acting like you are a political leader with the same sort of majority that Tony Blair had doesn’t mean you actually have the same sort of majority that Tony Blair had – hadn’t gone away. It was just on holiday.
Although Johnson has made a number of strategic decisions that have made the return of his problem from holiday worse, ultimately what has shifted the narrative is that he has started losing again. We think of this week as seeing Johnson’s first four losses in the House of Commons – and his first 16 in the House of Lords – but actually, his first real loss occurred when Theresa May was still prime minister but MPs knew that Johnson was inevitable. They moved to sharply limit his ability to prorogue parliament, with a majority of similar size to the one that defeated him this week, having opted not to pursue similar strategies under May.
Team Johnson are making obvious and silly mistakes, it’s true, but they were making obvious and silly mistakes before, whether in making more enemies than they needed to with their brutal reshuffle or in their maladroit handling of the row in Carrie Symonds’ flat.
It’s just then those mistakes were conveniently brushed out of the narrative because they didn’t fit. His rambling and incoherent – and not in the jokey way he has done so effectively in the past, I mean as in it was genuinely impossible to follow – speech in front of a large group of trainee police officers is a case in point. Viewed one way you have a prime minister using the powers of his office to guarantee a clip of him in front of a wall of police officers on the News at Six and a headline showing him saying he would “die” rather than fail to deliver Brexit with the same picture on the BBC homepage, the single most important web address as far as political news and the question of winning and losing elections in the United Kingdom is concerned.
Viewed through the prism of his crashing defeats in parliament and the dominant story is of the police officer who fell ill during his speech, having had to wait for upwards of an hour due to Johnson’s lateness.
It’s not that one version of Johnson is more real than the other – they are both real. It’s just that blundering, retreating Johnson becomes important only because of the brute fact of his defeats in parliament while the media-savvy operation behind him loses its lustre every time he’s defeated in the House of Commons.
The risk that MPs are running in delaying the election date, in the hope that his next two months will be more like this week than they were like August is that the source of his pain – his lack of a parliamentary majority – will once again be on holiday. While the ailing, bungling prime minister who came a cropper this week won’t be any less real, his failings may become less perceptible if the next two months take place outside parliament.