Boris Johnson has not had a good second lockdown. First, his fiancée pushed his chief adviser out of Downing Street. Then, just when he was about to relaunch his party to address some of the issues that have been ignored over the last few months, his own track and trace system forced him to isolate. Now, his Home Secretary has been implicated in a bullying inquiry report. All this has highlighted not only the role of unelected officials in government, but also the steps that Boris Johnson needs to take in order to reboot his leadership, and rebrand the government that he wants to lead for the next four years. Without this, those years could well turn into months.
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, and Lee Cain, Downing Street’s former Head of Communications, have been forced to stand down amidst continuing frictions with Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds. Number 10’s First Lady has reportedly refused to accept anybody other than Allegra Stratton as the next official spokesperson. A win for Cummings’s opponents in the civil service and on the backbenches? Quite certainly. A win for the women? Perhaps. A win for open and honest politics? Less so.
Many of the criticisms of Johnson’s government stem from the secretive nature of Cummings’s behind-the-scenes working. He famously despises the backbenchers and Civil Servants who he saw as taking up unnecessary space; if the narrative of Carrie Symonds is to be believed, she does not appear to be any better when it comes to covert operations. If Boris is serious about a rebrand, this would be a good place to start. Naturally, the partner of the Prime Minister will always have some influence, but to many this appears to be two unelected bullies sacked by two more unelected bullies – at least Allegra Stratton will be in an official, salaried position. Where public affairs are concerned, we require people who are properly hired, and can be properly fired; it is vital that, if necessary, those in charge can be dragged in front of a parliamentary select committee and made to answer for their actions. Therefore, Carrie Symonds’s influence is an unhealthy one, not to be encouraged.
The people Boris Johnson surrounds himself with have arguably never been more significant. The vacuum at the heart of this story is the lack of a proper policy agenda. It is all very well recognising that parts of the North require immediate attention; that alone does not constitute political genius. What the Prime Minister has always lacked has been a comprehensive plan of specific policies to see real results. The sole aim of the Johnson project was always to achieve power. When he made it to Number 10, the conversation should have turned to the practical side of government: how they could translate their promises of “levelling up” into actual change.
The fact that Johnson himself does not seem to have a vision for his government is not in itself a bad thing. His appeal has long relied on his ability to play the cheery, grandstanding figurehead. However, in order for this to be viable, the Prime Minister must rely heavily on advisers and ministers who are prepared to challenge him; those who see the problems in society and can come up with solutions; those who are less focussed on self-interest than on the interests of the country. Instead, when Johnson took power he immediately surrounded himself with a group of yes-men, ignoring the many highly competent backbenchers and ex-ministers who could offer important insights. With the Brexit deadline on the horizon, and the government struggling with COVID, faction fighting at such a significant time only looks self-indulgent.
Dominic Cummings leaving now instead of at the end of the year, as he originally considered, offers Boris Johnson the opportunity to reset. The Prime Minister’s handling of COVID has cost him the support of many previously dedicated Conservative voters, and the turning of a blind eye to red wall seats and their concerns over the last few months has hindered his position. May’s local elections represent the next electoral challenge for the party, and for his own sake, as well as for the the sake of the country, Johnson must do all he can to prepare himself for that deadline.
Image source: BBC News