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6 October 2020

How Boris Johnson can save his premiership

Instead of running an “essay crisis” government, the Prime Minister must focus on four long-term challenges. 

By Tim Montgomerie

Our thinner Prime Minister has clearly lost some pounds. Less helpfully in the battle against Covid-19, the NHS track and trace system temporarily lost 15,841 positive cases. The local lockdowns mean the Chancellor is continuing to lose tax revenue and the Tory leadership is losing goodwill from supporters and backbench MPs. But of all the losses facing the government, the most dangerous one is the tick-tock, tick-tock of lost time. 

In theory, this parliament is still young. About 300 days have been used up and that leaves another 1,300 or so until Thursday 2 May 2024 – the scheduled date of the next general election. Bu you don’t have to be Peter Sellers’ Chauncey Gardiner to know that the gardening world has lessons for the political world. It takes serious time and hard work for long-term legislative projects to be planted, watered, protected from hostile elements and, most of all, to yield any harvest. The most strategic governments use the first half of the parliament to put in the back-breaking spadework in the hope that, by the time voters come to pass judgement, there is evidence of able stewardship.

One year has already been spent and few parliamentary seeds have been planted. While this has been due to the essential diversion of nearly all resources to tackling Covid-19, the events of the past year won’t make delayed legislation any easier to pass and sell. There is obviously less money to lubricate the passage of contentious reforms. And there is more hostility from Conservative MPs and Tory-supporting newspapers.

There has also been a reinforcement of the present Downing Street’s unhelpful modus operandi. This No 10 is much better at sprinting than running marathons. A team that triumphed most spectacularly in the Brexit referendum, in last summer’s Conservative leadership election, and again in the 2019 general election campaign, has been faced with similarly short-term challenges throughout the pandemic: getting personal protective equipment to the front line; introducing a test and trace system; providing emergency support to distressed corners of the economy. 

The government has managed these multiple projects with varying degrees of success, but the projects that will determine its long-term reputation can’t be solved in essay crisis mode – the approach that often rescued Boris Johnson when he’d missed yet another deadline for one of his Telegraph columns. They require a different set of skills; and honest, respectful relationship-building will be the most indispensable. A quick assessment of four of the key projects illustrates why:

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Long-term care: The best way to make amends for the tragic loss of life that took place in care homes during the depths of the crisis will be to institute a new, cross-party system of end-of-life care – as promised in last year’s Conservative manifesto. Is there enough trust between the main parties to build that cross-party consensus and, if not, which leading Tory is best placed to build it? Most likely not Matt Hancock, the highly political Health Secretary. 

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Levelling up: Projects such as HS2 won’t produce much political benefit for many years to come. New schools, new hospitals, new community projects and bright, shiny new buses and railway carriages are most likely to convince “Blue Wall” voters to stay blue. Much of this will need to be engineered in close cooperation with local councils – many of them Labour-run and many of which have felt neglected during recent lockdown measures.

Through his Northern Powerhouse programme – a forerunner of “levelling up” – George Osborne worked successfully with local and regional leaders. Rishi Sunak, who held a photo opportunity before his winter economic statement with the heads of both the CBI and TUC, might have the necessary bipartisan spirit to enable enough progress to satisfy understandably impatient voters.

Housebuilding: The UK hasn’t built enough new homes to meet the demands of family breakdown, an ageing population and high levels of net immigration for three decades. The consequences are evident in exorbitant house prices, long commutes to work and what Johnson memorably called “rabbit hutch-sized dwellings”. A year ago, the PM’s majority of 80 would probably have absorbed a mighty rebellion by Tory MPs vulnerable to Nimby-ist tendencies. It might not be enough today. More than 50 backbench Conservatives belong to a WhatsApp group that is dedicated to frustrating the ambitious planning reforms of Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary. Specific compromises with rebels probably won’t be enough. A general healing of relations between the executive and the legislature will be needed.

Saving the Union: And, finally, there is the biggest relationship-repairing exercise of all: preventing “Scoxit”. Everything the SNP does is done with the objective of delivering independence. It might be too much to ask that the UK government acts with similar single-mindedness, but not by much. The Union won’t be saved by occasional photo opportunities from ministers whose planes from London land one hour before and take off one hour later. The same deep listening and relationship-building work that David Cameron undertook before the 2014 independence referendum will be necessary.

The Tory party will also need to be the socially just party that it keeps promising to be. Not only focused on the working poor, but the very, very poorest whose lives are often broken but may never say “thank you” at the ballot box. The emergence of that truly One Nation party will do more to reassure Scots that “rule by Tories” does not denote social Darwinism. The work to deliver that Conservative Party cannot be accelerated quickly enough.

God willing, the new year will bring some respite from the Covid-19 crisis. It must also herald a reshuffle and reorganisation by Johnson that ensures his government is fit for the new and more sophisticated tasks confronting him. Major changes of personnel and attitude will be required. If the Prime Minister makes them, there is hope still that the biggest Tory majority government since 1987 won’t be remembered for neglecting its opportunities – and its responsibilities.