by Peter Franklin
Monday, 6
June 2022
Analysis
10:55

Boris Johnson isn’t the problem

Our political system is based on shallow short-termism
by Peter Franklin
The problems go much deeper than Boris. Credit: Getty

There were 54 letters from Conservative MPs, which triggered today’s vote of confidence in Boris Johnson. I’ve no idea whether Jesse Norman’s was the 54th — but he had the honour of being the last to publish his reasons before the vote was announced earlier this morning.

He does so in an open letter to the Prime Minister, which you can read here.  Unsurprisingly, Norman mentions Partygate — followed by some government policies that he disapproves of. But then he gets to heart of the matter:

…under you the Government seems to lack a sense of mission. It has a large majority, but no long-term plan. There is no sign, for example, that it has even begun to get to grips with the need for greater security and resilience in a range of policy areas.

Rather, you are simply seeking to campaign, to keep changing the subject…

- Jesse Norman, MP

Jesse Norman is a very different kind of Tory to Dominic Cummings (indeed the latter isn’t any kind of Tory). However, it’s telling that they home in on the same core criticism. The fundamental problem with Boris is his inconstancy — his inability to stick to an agreed course of action (which is why Cummings likens his former boss to a shopping trolley with a wonky wheel). 

Both Norman and Cummings are correct in concluding that there’s no chance of the government ever having a long-term plan with the current PM in place. However, it can’t be stressed enough that the problem goes much deeper than the flaws of one man. Pathological short-termism is in the very marrow of modern politics.

Many years ago, when I was a junior apparatchik in what was then called Conservative Central Office, I made an embarrassing mistake — I alerted a press officer to something that was happening in two weeks’ time. She looked at me as if I’d just shared my predictions for life in the year 3000. Slowly, it began to dawn on me that party politics was dominated by the shortest of time horizons. Even the few individuals who were tasked with long-term planning had no interest in the future beyond the next general election. 

There is precious little interest in the past either — which is why the people surrounding Boris Johnson were unable to learn from it. Just look at their comprehensive failure to prevent Partygate. Early lockdown scandals, such as those surrounding Dominic Cummings and Neil Ferguson should have been all the warning needed. But far from enacting a plan to avoid the merest suggestion of rule breaking, the masters of Downing Street — civil servants and political appointees alike — went out of their way to make matters worse. 

None of this is to absolve the PM of all responsibility. But Conservative MPs need to be aware that binning Boris doesn’t guarantee a fresh start. He may be gone before long, but until the last comms specialist is strangled with the guts of the last campaigns guru, our rotten culture of politics will persist.  

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Samir Iker
Samir Iker
5 months ago

“the masters of Downing Street — civil servants and political appointees alike — went out of their way to make matters worse. ”
Why do the civil servants always seem to get away with it though?

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
5 months ago

If I ever set up a political party, I think “until the last comms specialist is strangled with the guts of the last campaigns guru” wouldn’t be a half-bad slogan. Anyone who talked about ‘the need for greater security and resilience in a range of policy areas’ would be on thin ice too.

Philippe W
Philippe W
5 months ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

I’d vote for you. Need a good name though. Presently the parties which claim to offer an alternative also have names which smack of short-termism (UK Independence, Reclaim, Reform and so on).