There’s nothing like a political crisis — especially if you’re in Number 10. But when the news broke yesterday that Boris Johnson, Carrie Johnson and Rishi Sunak had all been issued with Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs), one suspects the mood was particularly frenzied. The verdict of the Metropolitan Police was in: the phoney war was over — the real one had begun.
This is the true politics of wartime: battling with your political enemies (always on your own side), fighting your political opponents (the invariably smug, self-satisfied opposition parties), and wrestling with the media. As Tony Blair’s Political Secretary during the cash-for-peerages scandal in 2006 — the last time the Met investigated Number 10 — I know this well.
From time to time, I find myself wondering what I would advise Boris Johnson if he asked Switch, the legendary Number 10 switchboard which can find anyone the PM wants to talk to anywhere in the world, to get me on the line. What I would say today, with a bit of help from Ronald Reagan, is that the answer is simple, but it’s not easy.
First, Prime Minister, take it on the chin. Great leadership involves making the final decision, and that is balanced by taking full responsibility for it, even if it appears only tangential to you. So accept the judgement of the Met in full — don’t quibble with it. No-one recalls whether Jeremy Corbyn had a case to make about the EHRC investigation into the Labour Party. They remember his grumbling with the report — something which he had no authority to do. When you are being investigated, no matter how high your rank is, the authority always lies with the investigator. No equivocation. Be true to your brand, Boris. Be the Anti-Corbyn.
Next, make an apology. I know you have made them before, but new circumstances require fresh words. And contrition. You can do that, as you showed the first time you went to the House of Commons to say sorry. Today we need a performance of the same power, but one that also shows generosity and selflessness. Again, you have to take this on the chin.
You could say something like:
“The verdict of the Metropolitan Police is clear. I will not contest this judgement. I accept it unreservedly. I will not contest the facts. I broke the rules, and I have been fined. I paid the fine immediately. I will not seek to blame others, whether civil servants or advisers. As a great man once said, the buck stops here.
“This is the greatest country in the world. It is a privilege to lead and I have fallen below the standards you expect of me. I cannot change what happened in Number 10 in the past, but I promise you that my failure, when so many sacrificed so much, will spur me to deliver for each and every one of you, in every corner of our great nation.”
Apologise once, deeply, sincerely, profoundly. But don’t repeat it again and again. That undermines the impact. Just look at how Labour’s constant attempts to disavow Jeremy Corbyn and all his works has made them seem obsessed with him, as if they have something to hide.
Then, take your punishment like a man. The local elections were always going to be rugged. Now they are going to be your version of Tony Blair’s “masochism strategy”. These elections were never going to be politically important from your point of view. The ballot four years ago culminated in a pretty high tide which was always likely to ebb. Now voters can have a major political outburst – the moment when they vent their pent up anger. When you’re out campaigning, don’t ask what they are angry about, let alone argue with them. Just let them get it off their chest. Far better they scream at you this May than at the next General Election.
Finally, show you’ve changed, don’t just keep saying you will. Move swiftly after the local elections to have a mini-Budget. Use it as an opportunity to abandon the cuts in your Spring Statement. No voter will care that it’s a U-turn, so long as it gives them what they need. And what they need is cash, and quickly. Stop pandering to the Treasury orthodoxy. Indeed, there will be no better time, given the Icarean fate of your once-illustrious neighbour. This is politics. What’s good for the voters is good for the government.
Perhaps most importantly, do this fast: speed kills, in politics too. Don’t be distracted from the simple strategy. Apologise, take your medicine, give the public what they want.
There will be bumps in the road. There will be endless talking heads droning on about “convention”. Others will parse Hansard. There will be an obsession with processology: who said what to whom, who did what when, and who knew what. But don’t get involved in relitigating the past. That, after all, is the point of taking full responsibility.
Instead, briefly remind people that you took full responsibility and rapidly pivot to delivering real help to the punters. This should be genuine help: don’t just have a mini-Budget. The iron law of government communications is that you can have one multi-billion pound announcement, or billions of one pound announcements. I know which suits your style.
Yes, this is undoubtedly a brutal moment to be in Number Ten, but politics is, and always has been, a contact sport. As an adviser you spend a lot of time stopping bad things happening. If you doubt that, just ask former advisers about their proudest achievements — they will reel off a list of averted disasters. (Like the time John Prescott wanted to abandon the “right to buy” scheme: technocratically neat, politically disastrous.)
Well, the worst has happened now for the Prime Minister. A Metropolitan Police investigation isn’t unprecedented. (Though in the case of ”cash for peerages”, we were cleared.) What is unprecedented is the world we lived in during lockdown. We are all relieved that it is over, and hope it will never come again.
The challenge for the Prime Minister is if the FPNs bring back that pain, and wash away the gains of our recent freedom. The challenge for Number 10 is to allow the anger and pain an outlet, while harnessing the feeling that we have turned a corner. Battered and bruised, but still standing, should be their ambition for Boris Johnson.