You know the old gag: what is the difference between God and Boris Johnson? God is everywhere. And Boris Johnson is everywhere but Westminster.
Since the Conservatives’ double thumping in Thursday’s by-elections, the most striking feature of the prime minister’s fightback has been his absence from the UK. On the day that votes were cast in the constituencies of Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton – which fell to Labour and the Lib Dems respectively – he was in Kigali for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
Next, he headed to Schloss Elmau in the Bavarian Alps for the G7’s gathering. Tomorrow, he will be in Madrid for the Nato summit, not heading home until Thursday – having conveniently missed Prime Minister’s Questions the day before.
Yesterday, he invited his fellow heads of government to “take our clothes off” and “show our pecs” to demonstrate “that we’re tougher than Putin.” He and Emmanuel Macron hugged like long-lost brothers, celebrating what the PM called “le bromance” (though he and the French president did not find time, it transpires, to discuss how their respective nations might better cooperate on unauthorised cross-Channel migration).
Meanwhile, it has been left to others back home to explain why his ex-parrot of a premiership, nailed to its perch in Downing Street, is not, in fact, dead, but only pining for the fjords. As I predicted last week, it was indeed Brandon Lewis who was sent out on the Sunday media round to claim that the Norwegian Blue at the helm of the government has, in fact, retained its beautiful plumage, is merely resting and – contrary to all available evidence – is at no risk of political mortality.
As the miserably shiny Northern Ireland secretary put it to Sky’s Trevor Phillips: “I think Boris Johnson is the right person to lead us into the next general election, and I think he’ll do that successfully.” To the BBC’s Sophie Raworth, he elaborated: “What I think is really good with this prime minister, and I see this every day, [is] his enthusiasm and drive to deliver for our country.” Through the rictus of political loyalty, you can detect the cost to Lewis’s soul every time he is dispatched on one of these wretched missions.
Nor was his job made any easier by what the absent PM had to say about his own future between summits, bilaterals and manly bear-hugs. For, over the weekend, Johnson broke two cardinal rules of political leadership: first, never discuss your state of mind or innermost personality; and second, never speculate publicly about the duration of your time in office.
On the BBC’s Today programme on Saturday, Mishal Husain asked him how he responded to Oliver Dowden’s declaration, in his letter resigning as Conservative party chair, that “[w]e cannot carry on with business as usual.” Johnson replied to Husain in the most revealing terms: “If you’re saying you want me to undergo some sort of psychological transformation, I think that our listeners would know that is not going to happen.”
In this unsolicited defence of his character and emotional traits, the PM had made precisely the point that most vexes his opponents inside and outside the Tory Party: that he is incapable of personal evolution and, worse, does not think that any such adjustment is necessary.
The unforced deployment of the word “psychological” was especially unwise – recalling, in political folklore, the famous allegation, reported by the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley in January 1998, by “someone who has an extremely good claim to know the mind” of Tony Blair, that Gordon Brown was afflicted by “psychological flaws.”
In his diary on 21 February 1998, Alastair Campbell recorded: “TB said the problem with “psychological flaws” was its brutal truth, which is why it hurt [Brown] so much.” Rawnsley’s scoop led to a furious escalation in the Blair-Brown rivalry, from which the Labour government never truly recovered.
And the allegation stuck. Eleven years later, Brown – by then prime minister – was furious to be asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr on the eve of the Labour Party conference whether he took “prescription painkillers and pills” to help him “get through”.
As it happens, I am a rather old-fashioned adherent of the spirit and letter of the so-called Goldwater Rule: the principle adopted in 1973 by the American Psychiatric Association that psychiatrists should not give a professional opinion about public figures whom they have not examined in person, and from whom they have not obtained explicit consent to disclose such opinions. This followed the extraordinary declaration of 1,189 mental health professionals in 1964 that the Republican presidential contender, Barry Goldwater, was unfit for the top job.
On the whole, it is bad practice for anyone – medically qualified or otherwise – who has not had direct clinical contact with a public individual, and not been authorised by them to discuss the matter openly, to speculate about their mental wellbeing or psychological equilibrium. The trouble arises when senior politicians themselves invite us to do so.
In January 2018, Donald Trump responded to allegations in Michael Wolff’s best-selling book, Fire and Fury, that many around the US president were concerned about his mental fitness to govern, by declaring in a tweet that he was “a very stable genius.” In so doing, Trump declared open season upon further speculation: the main point being that, by definition, a “very stable genius” would never insist that he was one.
Johnson has not gone that far; and nobody, to my knowledge, is questioning his psychiatric welfare. But he has – very foolishly – lifted the crown of his skull and invited friend and foe alike to peer within. His declaration was no doubt intended to come across as a statement of vigorous defiance: Boris is Boris. Let Bartlet be Bartlet. I am what I am (as both Benjamin Franklin and Gloria Gaynor put it).
But this particular kind of defiance is not helping his cause, or his party’s. As one exasperated minister put it to me: “He is drawing attention to the whole effing problem – that he has no intention of changing anything at all about himself. This is cutting through to the public. They have clocked that he blames everyone but himself.”
All of which is especially important in the age of populist politics. In his Today programme interview, Johnson drew an entirely arbitrary line between personality and character on the one hand, and policy and delivery on the other.
“I think,” he said, reflecting upon the by-election losses, “probably voters were really fed up with hearing a lot of conversation about me in relation to things that they thought I shouldn’t have been doing, and stuff that I got wrong, when what they wanted to hear about was what we were doing for them, for the country and for their lives.”
To which one can only say: it’s a bit late for that, mate. If you make your name presenting Have I Got News for You?, getting stuck on a zip wire, and playing court jester to the nation, you cannot complain when your character comes under scrutiny, or claim that you were a bespectacled policy wonk all along.
The whole point of Johnson’s leadership has been to reduce party and government to a cult of personality; to present him as the indispensable man of the hour; to insist that his unique fusion of character, conviction and charisma are the political formula that will drive Britain forward. This was the entire basis of his pitch to become prime minister in 2019 – and, indeed, of the Times article published on 5 June that year, co-authored by Rishi Sunak (now in a state of entrenched rivalry with the PM), Robert Jenrick (sacked from Cabinet in September), and Dowden (freshly departed from the party chairmanship).
Could Johnson make matters worse? Why even pose the question any more? Later on Saturday in Kigali, he was asked if he intended to serve a full second term in office. Now: every prime minister knows that this kind of elephant trap inquiry requires, in almost all circumstances, a bland, boilerplate answer, to the effect that his or her bosses are the British people and that he or she must seek re-election first.
Instead, Johnson took for granted not only his victory in the next general election – but triumph in the one after that: “At the moment I am thinking actively about the third term and you know, what could happen then.” Pressed on the matter, he was even more explicit that he was talking “about a third term – mid 2030s.”
One wonders what is going through the PM’s mind when he says such things. Has he set his avaricious heart on beating Margaret Thatcher’s 11 years and 208 days in Number 10? The Iron Lady stands at number seven in the ranking of longest serving prime ministers, which is headed by Sir Robert Walpole’s thumping 20 years and 314 days.
With six years and 63 days under his belt, David Cameron is presently number 22 in the ranking – well ahead of Johnson, who, after only two years and 338 days, is only 35th in the league table and still behind Theresa May who, at three years and 11 days, is 33rd. Trust me: this is the sort of thing that really bugs the boy who wanted to be “World King”.
The irony is that all precedent shows the counter-productive folly of discussing how long you intend to stick around in Number 10. Thatcher’s declaration after the 1987 election that she hoped to go “on and on” alarmed those who, in spite of her victory, feared she was losing touch with political reality – and drove her from office three years later.
In September 2004, Tony Blair sought to soothe relations with the Brown camp – and manage media coverage of his minor heart surgery – by disclosing that, if re-elected, he would serve a full third term, “but I would not then stand for a fourth term”.
In practice, this only inflamed the supporters of the then chancellor who believed that Blair owed it to Brown to step down much sooner and that his statement, by setting a time limit of any sort, was an indication of political weakness. The factional mayhem was, if anything, intensified and – though he won a comfortable third victory in May 2005 – Blair felt obliged, only 16 months later, to pre-announce that the 2006 Labour conference would be his last as leader, paving the way to his resignation as PM on 27 June 2007.
In March 2015, David Cameron offered a good-humoured variant on this approach, telling the BBC’s James Landale: “You know, there’s plenty of talent there. I’m surrounded by very good people… I’ve said I’ll stand for a full second term, but I think after that it will be time for new leadership. Terms are like Shredded Wheat – two are wonderful but three might just be too many.”
Cameron’s intention was to reassure his ambitious colleagues that, if, as was by no means sure, the Tories held on to power in the election, he did not intend to hang around forever (quite true). Again, however, by setting his own terminus ante quem – the date beyond which he would definitely not be prime minister – he encouraged the faction that became the Brexiteers and, eventually, the Vote Leave campaign, in their belief that he was losing his taste for battle and that he could be destroyed. In the event, destruction came in the EU membership referendum little more than a year later.
It is no surprise that Johnson does not endorse Cameron’s Shredded Wheat doctrine. This is not, of course, constitutionally improper: in this country, there is no equivalent of the 22nd Amendment, limiting US presidents to two terms. As long as he or she commands a majority in the Commons – or has brokered a sustainable pact with other parties – a prime minister can, in theory, remain in office indefinitely.
But what is constitutionally feasible may not be politically viable. And, in Johnson’s case, all talk of a third term is not only ill-advised but downright delusional. This, after all, is a prime minister who has been found guilty of breaking his own Covid laws; whose leadership of Number 10 has been seriously criticised by Sue Gray’s partygate report; who has lost not one, but two independent advisers on ministerial interests; whose own party chairman has quit in the wake of a double by-election trouncing, on the pointed grounds that “[s]omebody must take responsibility”; and – lest we forget – heads a parliamentary party of whom 41 per cent, only three weeks ago, voted to sack him. Let us spell it out: in such circumstances, acting as though the next two general elections are in the bag is quite simply ridiculous.
Which is the nub of the matter. It is quite possible that the forthcoming elections to the 1922 executive committee will lead to a rule change enabling a further confidence vote (at present, Johnson cannot face another such ballot of Tory MPs before June 6 2023). It is conceivable, too, that the Commons standards committee will find that he deliberately misled the House over rule-breaking gatherings in Downing Street.
Yet increasingly I think it is absurdity, rather than a technical process, that will finish him off. Already, he is being referred to around Westminster, in his absence, as Boris “Three Terms” Johnson – in homage to the classic Monty Python sketch in which a distinguished composer is introduced as Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson.
Ridicule is a deadly force in politics: worse, perhaps, than being caught red-handed in misdemeanour, or lying, or behaving hypocritically. There is no sound more lethal to a politician than that of the voters’ mockery.
No wonder Johnson wants to stay abroad, with his powerful friends, talking of geo-strategy, and Putin’s pecs, and global finance and safe things like that. At home, he will find that the clowning – the mirth that has served him so well, for so long – has gone seriously sour. They’re not laughing with you, prime minister. They’re laughing at you.