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 11, 2020

In the first few weeks of the coalition, I overheard someone ask Theresa May if she was enjoying being Home Secretary. She paused and replied: “I’m glad I’m doing it.” Having watched her as Prime Minister, we’re all now familiar with her particular brand of purposeful but joyless energy. Duty, honour and blind tedium. May paved the way for her successor by proving once and for all that a Prime Minister needs to enjoy the job to be good at it.

So along came Boris. Many people argued about whether he’d be a decent PM, but no one doubted he’d have a riot in the top job. After all: he’d rioted and partied his way through a host of jobs that most people take seriously yet had never come to much harm. He’d spent his whole life aspiring to the highest office, so even if he didn’t read his briefs, or bungled Brexit, at least he would bounce into Downing Street with vim, vigour and vitality — and we could all feel just a touch of vicarious pleasure watching him.

And yet it didn’t happen. The Boris we see is a pale tribute act of the one we knew. He doesn’t look like he’s enjoying the job. He doesn’t even look like he’s glad to be doing it. He’s finally realised what I imagine Theresa May was thinking in that pause before she spoke: this is bloody difficult.

First: the hours. You have a full working day of meetings, then most nights of the week you pop into a reception for worthy people somewhere in the building, or a dinner for your donors. Then you go home to a red box full of papers that need to be read, decided upon, and signed, by morning. You can limit the meetings, you can do your box at 6am instead of 11pm, you can make sure not to attend more than one dinner a day, you can set rules to make sure your papers are brief and make sense before they get to you. But that’s the way to make this a 60-hour-a-week job, instead of 90. You are always on. You are always thinking. There will always be a crisis for which you are unprepared.

Next: the people. You don’t get to pick the people you want. Yes, you get special advisers. But most of your civil servants are new and unfamiliar. More importantly, your Cabinet are the people you had to appoint, not the competent, coherent senior leadership team you’d appoint if government were a business. So you will spend most of your time navigating, cajoling and manipulating people you probably despise.

The people you like, who do the things you ask, won’t get face time, because you’re too busy. An example: David Cameron spent endless hours trying to keep Iain Duncan Smith inside the tent, far too many of them scrutinising the microscopic details of welfare policy he didn’t give two hoots about.

Third: the place and its puritan rules. Our Prime Minister is well paid, by any normal measure. And yet the job requires you to circulate among CEOs and billionaires who would spend your annual salary on a single party — which would make even the most abstemious of us feel hard done by at least occasionally.

On top of that, we have ludicrously guidelines about what the Prime Minister has to be charged for: no free breakfasts or catered lunch at your desk. Everything will be charged to your account. Your diary secretary will probably keep your credit card on her or his desk ready to pay for all manner of trivialities, because God forbid you get a sandwich off the taxpayer. In my first week in government there was a nice man who came around with coffee to people’s desks, but he was got rid of. The cafetieres were put away and only cracked out once a week for Cabinet.

Finally, and of course most importantly, is the responsibility. In normal times, that will include military decisions where lives will be lost and you yourself will call the bereaved parents to console them. Welfare decisions where your choices will make the difference to how many families can make their rent and keep the heating on. Economic choices that will topple or turbo boost livelihoods. Policing decisions that will keep terrorists on or off the streets.

And then along comes a pandemic where the life and death decisions happen not just every day but every hour. You have to be a remarkable person to be able to take those kind of decisions at all without crumbling.

I’ve chosen the word “remarkable” quite deliberately. I don’t mean likeable or even admirable, in a conventional sense.

I remember Nick Clegg being astonished at the speed and facility with which David Cameron made his decision about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. In the face of unknowable risks on either side, Cameron thought about it overnight, and then he simply decided and moved on. Now, I like Nick Clegg a lot more than I ever liked David Cameron, and yet Cameron’s lightness — his ability not to get bogged down in the uncertainty — made him better at the job than Nick was.

Moral philosophers debate what they call the “trolley problem”. You imagine a heavy trolley racing down a track towards a group of five people. It will kill them. There are points on the track, and if you pull a lever, you can divert the trolley to a track where it will only kill one person. Do you pull the lever? Most people say yes. The next stage is to consider whether you would push a fat man — heavy enough to stop the trolley — onto the tracks. The net result is the same: one death instead of five. And yet most people say no.

The general lesson is that it’s only when separated from the visceral realities of our actions that we are able to do what utilitarianism would say is the correct thing: we can kill with a lever, or a button, but to shove a warm, living body to its death is a step too far. But when I think about what I would do if confronted with a real life trolley problem, the lesson I take is different.

I think I would pull the lever. I might push the fat man, too: I don’t know. But I do know that even pulling the lever would haunt me forever, and that’s one of the reasons why I would be a poor prime minister. Some of the decisions you take in Number 10 literally involve deciding who will live or die. But even the ordinary day-to-day decisions require you to make trade-offs. You are always choosing between the one and the five. And if the guilt about the suffering of that one person paralyses you, then you are doomed.

That doesn’t mean our leaders should aspire to Stalin-hood: to be so closed off to the reality of the suffering they cause for some supposed greater good that they allow tens of millions to perish. I simply believe that a great Prime Minister must be able to take a cool, utilitarian view of costs and benefits. If they couldn’t then the burden of office would be too great to bear.

Which brings us back to fun. It’s the ability to carry the burden lightly that allows a great Prime Minister to have fun, even at the darkest hour. A great Prime Minister is someone for whom responsibility itself is a drug: someone who feels the hand of history on their shoulder, whose narcissistic sense of themselves is actually boosted by working hard, taking tough decisions and shaping the lives and deaths of millions of citizens. Someone who looks at a crisis and says: cometh the hour, cometh me.

We have seen some of that chutzpah from President Macron, who hasn’t done a particularly good job of controlling Covid, and yet even when he speaks of lessons learned and personal humility, he seems to exude the confident certainty that this was his manifest destiny. Along with Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon and New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden, Macron gives the impression he is grateful to have been leader at this moment of direst need, because his country needs, very specifically, him. Of course: these are narcissistic delusions. It doesn’t make these people good company. But it makes them good leaders.

The great mystery is why Boris Johnson, a man who was at the front of the queue when narcissism and chutzpah were handed out, is so different. He appears miserable in the face of responsibility. His people brief that Covid got in the way of his plans, and bleat about the unfairness of the hand he was dealt. He’s good at the fun stuff, they argue: the sunlit uplands and the boosterism. Pandemics aren’t really his style.

But how can a man whose hero is Winston Churchill be so turned off by a crisis? Did he not read his own biography of the man — The Churchill Factor — in which he outlines quite how much hard work it was to fight the Second World War? It’s as if Boris got so dazzled by the idea that a great prime minister could also be a drinker and an orator and an egotist and a Nobel-prize winning writer, that he forgot these were just the added extras — the icing, not the cake. And so he spent the formative years of his life learning cake-decorating skills instead of baking.

And so the country is stuck with a miserable prime minister, with neither the energy nor the diligence to figure out how to do the job well. If Boris is going to make a comeback, he’ll need to channel the whole of Churchill — the sense of duty as well as the sense of fun.