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  1. Election 2024
  2. UK Politics
18 November 2020

Boris Johnson yearns for the time when, as London mayor, he was popular. But those days are gone

The world the PM wants to reclaim is one when the UK had yet to be divided by Brexit. 

By Stephen Bush

If the fresh outbreak of coronavirus among Conservative MPs had taken place a few weeks earlier, Dominic Cummings might still be happily installed in Downing Street. Boris Johnson has, in recent weeks, been meeting colleagues to discuss the breakdown in relations between his government and its backbenchers, and to understand the new fractious mood in the Conservative Party. But Johnson has had to stop face-to-face meetings after Lee Anderson, MP for Ashfield, tested positive for Covid-19, forcing Johnson into self-isolation. Though the meetings continue by Zoom, in person MPs felt more able to lay out their precise concerns and objections to the government – which was bad news for Cummings.

[See also: What happened in Boris Johnson’s first virtual PMQs]

Johnson is not comfortable with confrontation: he dislikes ill feeling and is happiest soothing hurt feelings, rather than having painful arguments. That the mood in the parliamentary party has become increasingly fractious, with even committed loyalists starting to dabble in insurrection, has been a source of unhappiness and anxiety for him. It also places major limitations on the prospect of getting radical legislation through the Commons.

In recent months, a considerable effort by Johnson to “reconnect” with MPs has been under way. Serious consideration has been given to bringing in an old hand as Johnson’s parliamentary private secretary (PPS). His present choices are judged to have been poor ones. Trudy Harrison, MP for Copeland, was elected via a by-election, and therefore has no cohort of MPs with whom to form alliances. Alex Burghart, Johnson’s other PPS, is a former special adviser in a safe Tory seat; his appointment displeased well-connected MPs in marginal constituencies.

Some influential Tories have argued that putting in a more experienced hand, with a background more in common with the typical Conservative backbencher, would go some way to fixing the problem and improving Downing Street’s relationship with the parliamentary party. But during MPs’ conversations with the Prime Minister, they made clear repeatedly that their problem with Downing Street lay elsewhere: with Johnson’s combative chief strategist and, to a lesser extent, with his communications director Lee Cain. Both have since been forced out, triggering a more conciliatory approach from No 10. In addition to Johnson’s meetings with MPs, Downing Street officials are to make themselves more readily available, while control over the appointment and management of special advisers will return to cabinet ministers.

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The counter-revolution has two causes. The first is that Cummings’s lack of interest in managing the mood of MPs has ended as it was always destined to: in an assertion of the power of the parliamentary party. The second cause is a fundamental part of Johnson’s personality, which made his political alliance with Cummings unstable from the beginning.

Cummings preferred conflict to cooperation and he created dividing lines wherever possible. Johnson is at his most comfortable talking in unifying bromides and refraining from direct confrontation. The departure of Cummings doesn’t mean we are likely to see an abandonment of the government’s policy priorities, whether on Brexit or in “levelling up” in the post-industrial towns of the north. But No 10 will adopt a more emollient tone.

[See also: Why Dominic Cummings’s departure from No 10 won’t change Boris Johnson]

This “new” approach is actually an old one, which stems from Johnson’s time as mayor of London. Although many of the core staff from Johnson’s period as mayor have retired or are unavailable, the new Downing Street will resemble City Hall, in attitude if not personnel. Isaac Levido, an Australian and protégé of Lynton Crosby, was one of the key strategists in the Conservatives’ 2019 general election campaign. He has a similar style to the effective but unshowy officials Johnson favoured as London mayor. It’s unsurprising that Levido is high on the shortlist for the Prime Minister’s new chief of staff.

The trouble is that the world Johnson wants to reclaim is forever lost to him. In this supposed golden age, he was the most popular politician in the country; a celebrity as well-liked in the nation’s great cities as in its towns. It was a time when “Brexit” appeared in speeches only as a joking reference to the Greek debt crisis, and the country had yet to be divided between Remainers and Leavers.

Equally importantly, it was a world in which Johnson never had to choose between cutting spending or raising taxes. It’s one thing to be rhetorically committed to “levelling up”, but if you want to put more police on the streets in Wrexham or Ashfield, you have to be willing to raise taxes (a solution about which the Conservative Party remains sceptical) or raise borrowing (which Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, opposes, and which no plausible Tory chancellor would support).

In terms of political approach, Johnson and Cummings have differences. But the Prime Minister’s biggest problem as he seeks to regenerate his premiership is something they have in common: a style based on avoiding a candid acknowledgement of policy trade-offs and hard choices. For Cummings, the favoured distraction technique was snarling aggression and constant belligerence – a tactic that Johnson grew tired of. But Johnson’s preferred strategy of putting off difficult conversations with warm words and bonhomie, while more congenial for MPs, is no more plausible than the Cummings method. The Prime Minister will soon find that his new model retains all the problems and difficulties of the old one. 

Stephen Bush is joined by NS colleagues for “A Year of Upheaval: Politics in 2020”, a Cambridge Literary Festival online event, on 22 November;

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This article appears in the 18 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation