The biggest question facing Boris Johnson this week isn’t whether or not he said that he would prefer to see “bodies pile high” rather than lead England into a third lockdown. It isn’t about whether he was willing to bend the rules to the advantage of businesses with close social ties to him. It isn’t even about whether he oversaw a murky plan to fund the redevelopment of his Downing Street flat using covert funds from private donors. It’s about how long his biggest political trick – of acquiring principles and people, and then discarding them when they become inconvenient – remains an asset, rather than a liability, both to him and to the Conservative Party.
The ongoing “he said, no he said” row between Johnson and his former chief strategist Dominic Cummings is a good example of this. Downing Street has blamed Cummings for a series of damaging leaks about, among other things: the funding scheme for the Prime Minister’s flat; texts between Johnson and the vacuum cleaner manufacturer James Dyson; and, on 30 October last year, plans for a second national lockdown. In response, Cummings fired back on his blog, denying that he was behind the leaks and claiming that he had advised Johnson that the alleged scheme to fund the flat’s renovation was “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules” on disclosing donations to political parties.
The stories are serious because, in the long term, corrupt states tend to fail. Countries in which there are unmonitored and opaque channels of communication to decide which businesses and individuals receive government largesse tend to be ones in which projects are mismanaged. In the short term, the stories are politically dangerous because taken together, they risk conveying the impression that Johnson’s government is both sleazy and divided.
Whether Johnson’s suspicion that Cummings is behind the leaks is right or not, the row between the two is part of a broader problem for the Prime Minister. In the summer of 2019, Johnson promised Cummings the keys to the kingdom if he could find a way out of the Conservative Party’s political predicament. Johnson was even willing to protect Cummings when his lockdown breach in April 2020 imperilled the reputation of the government. Then, as he has so often done in the past, the Prime Minister went back on his word. Cummings was forced out in the winter of 2020.
Now, with almost perfect symmetry, the row between Johnson and Cummings has sprung into the open in the same week that Allegra Stratton – whose appointment as press secretary and host of the government’s televised briefings presaged the ousting of Cummings – has been sidelined and moved to a new role, with the briefings scrapped before a single one aired. (Her de facto demotion to chief spinner for the forthcoming intergovernmental conference on climate change was announced on 21 April.)
Johnson’s habit of first pledging one thing and then reneging on it has a parliamentary echo. Like the row between Johnson and Cummings, it is the story of two different men. The first is Johnny Mercer, the Plymouth Moor View MP sacked as minister for veterans on 20 April, and the second is Alan Mak, the Havant MP who was brought into the government as a result. Since his election in 2015, Mercer has made a name for himself at Westminster due to his willingness to speak his mind, often in ways unhelpful to his own side. The cause of his exit was a breach of Johnson’s promise to protect British soldiers from criminal prosecution for their actions in Northern Ireland: Mercer, who had planned to resign, was sacked before he could do so.
Mak, first elected in 2015, is famously loyal: he has never rebelled against the party line and is known at Westminster as a willing outlet for supportive questions of the, “Does the Prime Minister agree with me that under the Conservatives the skies are brighter, the days longer and the pints cheaper?” variety.
How you think about the two men says something about how you view politics. Is Mercer a preening egotist or a principled maverick? Is Mak a party drone or a good team player? Whichever is closer to your own view, the essential fact is that a political party in a parliamentary democracy cannot run itself or the country if it has more Mercers than Maks.
One of Johnson’s self-made problems as prime minister is that, whether by accident or design, he has left many of his MPs with the impression that the path to success lies through Mercer-like disobedience rather than Mak esque loyalty. Johnson’s latest Downing Street is, in many ways, a Mercer-to-Mak-style transition, in which dissenters such as Cummings are eased out in favour of hard-working team players. It is far from clear, however, whether the present Downing Street set-up can expect any greater loyalty than before. With loud exceptions such as Cummings, sacked or sidelined aides tend to fade into the background. But disgruntled and betrayed MPs can inflict parliamentary defeats and ultimately bring premierships to an abrupt end.
In many ways, the most quietly damning thing about the allegations facing Johnson is the part that no one seriously disputes: that he set himself firmly against a third lockdown before doing what he always does – abandoning his previous positions and pledges when they become too difficult to implement.
This is the gravest question facing Johnson: how many times can he retreat from his promises and disown his colleagues before he looks around Westminster and sees only Mercer-style rebels? Eventually he will have betrayed and alienated so many that his own position becomes untenable. It may not be this week – but it will happen one day.
This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas