The central claim of the populist leader is that politics is easy. As his sorrows gather in a battalion, Boris Johnson is beginning to find out that running the country is harder than it looks.
The reform of social care, which squeaked through the House of Commons on Monday night (22 November), is an issue into which government fortunes tend to dissolve. The front pages of regional and local newspapers in the north of England last week told a tale of betrayal on the rail network. The mist of corruption drifts over the government and anonymous senior figures in Downing Street have begun to brief against the boss. The populist leader skulks around the building, a little sheepish now, face to face with his own illusions.
The proceedings at the annual conference of the Confederation for British Industry (CBI) dramatised the problem. Assuming that business folk can be easily charmed by an appearance of being unprepared, a bit of children’s television and some abstruse references, Johnson played to an unsmiling audience as if he were third on the bill at the end of the pier. The rhetorical term decorum means to be appropriate to one’s setting and the Prime Minister was indecorous at the CBI. It was a childish display and the sort of foolish mistake that only a politician pretending that it is easy would make. Keir Starmer, by contrast, gave a serious address in which he enumerated the causes of weak British productivity growth, broke fiscally with the Corbyn economic extravaganza, and gave details of what Labour would seek to do to make Brexit work a little better. It was sober and it was received well, as a serious attempt to define the times.
In recent weeks, starting with his party conference speech, Starmer has been insisting on distinguishing himself from the Prime Minister with respect to how seriously he takes the laurels of office. This has attracted criticism, especially from some of the veterans of the New Labour era, as insufficiently pungent. Johnson, they say, is indeed a bad man and the public needs to know about it.
This is standard left-wing demonology – and it never works. The person who already regards Johnson as a bad man will not need persuading. The person who voted for him in 2019 will not take kindly to the implication that they too might be malign. They probably do entertain the suspicion, though, that the Prime Minister is a bit of a chancer who is getting found out. The contrast at the CBI was a vindication of Labour’s portrayal of Johnson as unserious.
The Conservative Party has reacted to the fiasco at the CBI with characteristic fervour. There is wild talk in the corridors of Westminster about acting to remove Johnson, or at least giving him a schedule by which he needs to tighten his grip. As if that were possible – Johnson likes to ride the bicycle hands-free. If Tory MPs had wanted the school swot, they ought never to have chosen him as their leader.
The reason they did is that he is a highly successful campaigner – and campaigning, compared with politics, is easy. That is not to say that everyone can do it, just that it comes naturally to those who can. As Salvador Dalí said about excellence in art, it is either easy or impossible. Johnson finds campaigning easy. It has a single objective and a series of theatrical displays. He is good at it and he enjoys it because all it demands of him is that he should wander the nation, being himself, a part he is accustomed to playing and which he usually carries off.
At the CBI, Johnson gave an easy campaigning speech, full of improper comedy and artless stuttering, when his audience craved a difficult political speech. He came to power on the standard populist assumption that politics had, until he appeared, been rigged against the people. All that was needed was a wave of his magic hand and Brexit would be done. And then, hey presto! levelling up.
Johnson hasn’t the first idea what to do next and this places those fervent Tory MPs in a cleft stick – he is fit to win office but not to hold it. I don’t mean morally, I mean professionally. He’s rubbish at his job and if normal professional standards pertained, he would be asked to pursue opportunities elsewhere. Yet here is the rub: Rishi Sunak has proved, after an imaginative and efficiently run response to the pandemic, that he is impressive in office, but I doubt he would find campaigning at all easy. Would Sunak reach the parts that Johnson can? The Labour Party is keen to find out.
The public is not yet convinced that Labour has changed enough to be rewarded with its vote. That is why Johnson’s weakness is not yet translating into a consistent deficit in the polls. But his position is fragile. The populist leader usually accompanies the claim that politics is easy with the accusation that he, the sainted leader, is the only tribune of the people, the one who understands them. It is only a matter of time before this obvious fallacy is exposed by the rigours of government. The populist leader, of all leaders, cannot afford to stand at the head of a government that is being rotted by scandal. Owen Paterson breaking the rules and the second jobs imbroglio will matter, in time.
Johnson attained office because of his virtues, and he is finding it tough because of his vices. He is fond of quoting Juvenal to the effect that if the people are given bread and circuses they will never revolt. But they will because, in the end, the people can be happy with just bread, while the appeal of the circus wears off.
[See also: Is Boris Johnson losing his way?]