Can Boris make a comeback?

A year after winning his dazzling majority, the Prime Minister is a shadow of his former self

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December 8, 2020

The idea of the Prime Minister as ‘first among equals’ is a polite fiction — and always has been. Leaders are meant to lead. If they can’t direct their deputies, they’re done for. But Boris Johnson has gone further than any previous PM. For him and his right-hand men, ‘taking back control’ is like charity — it begins at home. The only power base allowed anywhere in Whitehall is in Downing Street. Not even the Treasury is exempt.

Hence the drama of the post-election reshuffle, back in February. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, was told to sack his advisors and make room for a team of Downing Street heavies. Honourably, he refused — and so he was forced out too.

The message was unambiguous: the whole Cabinet, from the Chancellor down, would have to submit to central control — or else. Henceforth, the relationship between Number 10 and every minister, no matter how senior, would be modelled on that between Matthew Corbett and Sooty.

And yet the puppet show has not gone to plan.

Last month, the chief puppeteer — Dominic Cummings — lost the battle for Downing Street. While he’d eliminated all resistance in the Cabinet room, he hadn’t accounted for the upstairs flat. Big mistake.

And then there’s the Prime Minister himself — who these days looks like a ghost at his own feast. All leaders fade away eventually, but the pace of events has accelerated his career trajectory. To sink from conquering hero to yesterday’s man in a space of a year is going some.

Finally, and most tellingly, there are the puppets. The supposedly synchronised Cabinet is all over the place. Their individual performances range from stellar to abysmal. So, as it turns out, who you appoint to the top jobs still matters, no matter how centralised your style of government. Eight examples prove the point:

1. Rishi Sunak

Two years ago, Rishi Sunak was the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Local Government — just about the most junior of junior ministers. Now, he’s Chancellor of the Exchequer and the favourite to succeed his boss. There was never any doubting his potential, but he owes his meteoric rise to Boris Johnson’s model of government.

It’s an age-old trick: ensure loyalty by promoting those who haven’t earned it. Appointees are indebted to their patrons; and the principle of ‘easy come, easy go’ means it’s straightforward to dispense with them. Look down the list of Secretaries of State and you’ll find one example after another.

With Sunak, however, the cipher turned out to be a star. Which is just as well, given events. As a competent manager and reassuring communicator, he’s implemented crisis socialism without freaking out the markets, the public or his own party.

We’ve also seen some hints of creativity. He’ll need more, though, because you can’t recover from an unprecedented crisis without new ideas. His proposal for a National Infrastructure Bank is a key test. If it can raise and lend money like a real bank (instead of just being glorified government fund), we might just be able to ‘build back better’.

2. Dominic Raab

The idea of a politician ‘rising without trace’ has become a cliché, but it’s a fitting description of Raab’s CV. As Foreign Secretary (and, before that, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union), Brexit should have been the making or breaking of him. But Brexit policy consists of two kinds of decision — the really big ones made by the Prime Minister and the excruciatingly fine detail handled by the negotiating team. There’s nothing much in between for the Cabinet minister.

The fact is that Raab is in the wrong job — appointed to the FCO not for what he can do, but for what he represents (i.e. the Eurosceptic Right of his party). For the Cabinet’s tough guy it’s a mismatch — like putting Chuck Norris in charge of a Swiss finishing school. Raab needs a big spending department to run; and though that would technically be a demotion, it would be the best thing that could happen to him.

3. Priti Patel

The Home Secretary was also appointed to make a point. A hardliner on both Brexit and immigration, her elevation from the backbenches to one of the great offices of state was a clear signal of the government’s intention to get Brexit done and control our borders.

Of course, she was only on the backbenches because she’d resigned from the Cabinet in 2017 after unauthorised meetings with the Israeli government came to light. Few people expected her to return to office so soon, or indeed at all; but salvaging a capsized career is another way in which Downing Street can ensure the loyalty of its appointees.

Since her return, Patel has again fallen foul of the ministerial code — this time in regard to bullying allegations. Despite the official enquiry into the matter, she escaped unscathed. Two things protected her: first, the self-defeating nastiness of the Left — which loves to target women and people of colour who dare to have the ‘wrong’ opinions; and, second, the fact that Patel, despite her obvious limitations, is stubbornly pushing forward on the immigration reforms that were promised in the Conservative manifesto.

Of course, it’s one thing to tighten border control in theory, another to maintain it in practice. As with all Home Secretaries, Patel’s fate ultimately depends on upholding the law as it stands.

4. Matt Hancock

The Secretary of State for Health gives every impression of being another rapid riser. In fact, he had five years in junior ministerial roles before making it to Cabinet — which is an eternity these days. This year, he’s had to draw on every scrap of his experience.

It’s unclear how Hancock will be judged by history (and the inevitable public enquiries) — because the record is so mixed. Will he be remembered for the various test-and-trace fiascos or the triumphs of vaccine policy? How does one balance the failure to protect our care homes from Covid with the fact that the NHS has not been overwhelmed by the greatest challenge in its history?

Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is a big job at the best of times. But in 2020 it grew too big for any one incumbent. A Government that understood the importance of ministers would have carved out special Covid-related roles at Cabinet level (a test-and-trace minister, for instance) — leaving the Health Secretary to focus exclusively on the core issues.

Churchill’s wartime Cabinet was reshaped around the demands of the war effort — and something similar should have happened in this war too.

5. Michael Gove

Michael Gove is by far the most experienced member of the Cabinet. Apart from a brief period of exile following the Brexit referendum, he’s been a senior figure since 2010 — serving three Prime Ministers.

Paradoxically, he’s survived for so long by embracing unpopularity. He’s the political equivalent of a sin-eater: the outcasts who were once paid to take on the sins of others through the consumption of a ritual meal. Of late, these meals have been substantial — with Gove sent out to defend the Government through its imperfect improvisations of lockdown policy.

Allied to his knowledge of the inner workings of the Whitehall machine, Gove has become indispensable. And yet his talents could be better deployed. He is, at heart, a radical — willing to pursue reform in the face of entrenched opposition. As soon as the Covid crisis is over, he should be put in charge of solving another problem that’s been left unsolved for the last decade or more: housing.

6. Robert Jenrick

This would be a good point at which to examine the record of the latest Secretary of State who hasn’t solved the housing crisis. Robert Jenrick is the sixth Cabinet minister in this role since 2010. Some have been real talents, others not so much, and none has been left in post long enough to sort out Britain’s single greatest structural problem.

Indeed, none has been allowed to state the obvious, which is that rampant house price inflation is a bad thing. If the Conservatives want to rescue Generation Rent and revive their vision of a property-owning democracy, then house prices must fall relative to wages.

A generic placeman such as Jenrick is incapable of true reform. His atrocious planning white paper maintains the fiction that the planning system is to blame for the housing crisis — instead of the land bankers. If Boris is serious about building back better then he needs to set Gove loose on the vested interests standing in the way.

7. Gavin Williamson

Oh dear, what can one say? Any politician capable of a media performance like this one has no business being a minister, let alone a Cabinet minister.

In any case, Williamson is unlikely to survive the next reshuffle — not after the results debacle earlier this year. He wasn’t to blame for the closure of schools during lockdown and the cancellation of exams. However, he did oversee the grade allocation algorithm that caused such upset and fury.

His department made the classic mistake of targeting one objective — i.e. the prevention of grade inflation — without considering the wider ramifications. In particular, the downward adjustment of grades based on the past performance not only of the pupil but also the school could not have been more contrary to the principle of levelling up. If you want to succeed as a government’s minister, then best not to drive a coach-and-horses through its domestic agenda.

Robert Jenrick’s housing target algorithm is a similar fiasco — and a further lesson in the foolishness of entrusting policy to mindless robots.

8. Liz Truss

Liz Truss isn’t exactly my kind of conservative. Her infamous tribute to a generation of “#Uber-riding #Airbnb-ing #Deliveroo-eating #freedomfighters” didn’t just make me cringe, but evoked a soul-crushing void.

But, fair’s fair, she’s done a decent job as Secretary of State for International Trade. It’s still early days, but to rebuild a long-abandoned function of sovereign government (i.e. trade diplomacy) is a painstaking task that she’s diligently got on with.

It remains to be seen what purpose this new capacity will be put to — especially when it comes to the looming trade deal with America. The fate of the British countryside hangs in the balance and I hope that Truss makes a stand for the things that matter more than the bottom line. You wouldn’t want to feed chlorine chicken to those Deliveroo-eating freedom fighters, would you Liz?

Nevertheless, she’s had a good year. While she bombed at DEFRA and as Lord Chancellor, she’s undoubtedly found her niche. Which goes to show that getting the right people into Cabinet is only half the struggle. The other half is getting them into the right positions.

Perhaps Downing Street should stop appointing people to roles that they haven’t actually asked for. Instead they should invite applications from candidates who actually want to do each job. They’d thus be able to prepare for the position, think about what they want to do with it and then present their case to the appropriate decision-makers.

I know, it’s a crazy idea — but it seems to work for well-run organisations.