The most important thing to understand about Boris Johnson is that he enjoys a practical joke. One of his most frequent – which he has played on any number of unsuspecting audiences over the years – is turning up at an event and pretending that he has either mislaid his speech or hadn’t expected to have to deliver one. The joke has a sequel once he begins speaking: many of Johnson’s speeches are written to make it appear as if the thread of his argument is rapidly getting away from him, only for him to recover.
Was Johnson’s ill-received address to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) on 22 November – in which he rambled about Peppa Pig, compared himself to Moses and appeared to struggle to navigate his own text – a joke that didn’t work? Or a sign of a Prime Minister in serious difficulty?
Downing Street’s official line is that he stumbled with his speech, a misfortune that can befall anyone. But some MPs fear that the trouble is more fundamental. The Prime Minister has always relied on humour to compensate for his lack of preparation and attention to detail. Whether as a result of the passage of time or the lingering effects of his battle with Covid-19, they see the CBI speech as proof that Johnson can no longer use his wits to get him out of a crisis at the lectern.
Others suspect, however, that the real problem was that Johnson’s joke failed to wow its audience. “It’s a classic Boris manoeuvre,” one Tory MP said. “But usually, it works because the audience wants him to succeed. It was basic ineptitude to try to do it in front of the CBI, who almost all hate him anyway.”
The speculation about the Prime Minister’s bad speech echoes the Conservative Party’s chatter about Johnson’s administration more generally. Is the issue the ineptitude of the Downing Street operation that sent the Prime Minister out to give a speech ill-suited for an audience with the CBI? Or is it the Prime Minister himself?
Some MPs – not all of them Johnson loyalists – reject the question entirely. “What problem?” they ask. Zoom out, and all that’s happened is that a government, several years ahead of the next election – a contest whose date will be chosen by the Prime Minister in any case – is level-pegging with or a little behind the opposition in the polls.
Controversial measures to tackle the cost of adult social care, to the benefit of the wealthiest in the country and the detriment of the poorest, have been passed by parliament and will become law. A tax-raising Budget has sapped both the popularity of the government and the good standing of its most well liked minister, Rishi Sunak. These aren’t insurmountable or even unexpected difficulties. But one reason that talk of a leadership crisis is now everywhere is that Westminster and the attendant media are simply bored, and a small dose of intra-Tory warfare makes for a nice change of pace.
Most of Johnson’s difficulties are fairly typical for a governing party, particularly one that has been in office for longer than a decade. The Conservatives’ social care proposals are so divisive because they are, in effect, a transfer of wealth and asset protection away from Tory voters in marginal seats where homes tend to have a lower nominal value, and towards Tory voters in reliably Conservative seats whose houses tend to cost much more.
This reflects the long-established divide between Tory MPs who sit on comfortable majorities and those looking over their shoulders in tight marginals. One MP who holds a safe seat told me that effective governments “govern for the majority of their people, not just the people out in the marginals”. Those on the front line of the battle with Labour hold the opposite view about how to retain power – look after the marginals and everything else will take care of itself.
There are other structural reasons for the discontent. The government’s working majority in the Commons of 77 is regularly slashed to as little as 20 in parliamentary votes because the Conservative benches are heavy with rebel MPs who have either been sacked by Johnson or believe they will never achieve high office under him. All prime ministers find their jobs harder as their enemies pile up on the back benches.
The woes that presently afflict No 10 matter for the long-term prospects of the Conservatives in government. Johnson’s great gift to the Tories in 2019 is that he imbued them with an air of freshness. He made a clapped-out administration that had been in power for the best part of ten years look like an insurgent force. The reality is that when you look at the government today, it isn’t new and it isn’t fresh. It doesn’t have a swathe of policies it has waited years to be able to enact, as David Cameron had in 2010, or Tony Blair in 1997. It does have a parliamentary party filled with the dispossessed and the never-possessed, as Gordon Brown and John Major did before they lost power.
Johnson’s government promised a level of youthful energy that may well be impossible to provide after more than a decade in office. For all his faults, the Prime Minister is probably the best leader available to the Tory party if they want to win the next election. But many MPs don’t like that fact, and grumbling and unhappiness inevitably follow. A bad speech won’t be the end of Boris Johnson – but the reaction to it is a warning of bigger problems to come.
This article appears in the 24 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Agent of Chaos