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The wrong friends

The wrong friends

For a long time, Boris Johnson’s problem was that he had no firm friends. Now he has a worse problem: he has the wrong ones


Is the Queen deliberately snubbing Boris Johnson? 

One of the editors at Tortoise – Keith Blackmore – is convinced she is. She doesn’t show up for the Queen’s Speech because she doesn’t want to read the drivel that passes for the government’s programme of legislation; but the next day she pops up at the Windsor Horse Trials. 

She wouldn’t, of course, dream of commenting on Priti Patel’s immigration policy or, if she’d even known about it, the Rwanda deportation plan; but, on her Jubilee, she chose to have tea with Paddington, Britain’s most beloved illegal immigrant. 

Of course, she’s not well. But Keith – mischievously, but not entirely unseriously – points out the Queen knows how closely her every public move is scrutinised and, at no point this year, has she gone out of her way to get alongside the Partygate PM.

Not like Nadine Dorries. Or Jacob Rees-Mogg. Or Grant Shapps. His forever friends. 

I’m James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, I want to note that Boris Johnson, long known for having no firm friends, now has a worse problem: he has the wrong ones. 

At university, he ran with a fast – if preposterously posh and foppish – crowd. Those Bullingdon men were, in more ways than one, top of the class; then, through many years in politics, it’s been striking that he’s had no enduring professional friendships, no aides or allies who’ve stuck with him; but now, when he really needs friends in Parliament, his most stalwart backers – people like Dorries, Rees-Mogg and Shapps – are seen by so many of their Conservative colleagues as lightweights, a laughing stock. 

A Conservative MP explained to me that there are now two types of cabinet ministers: one, those toying with a leadership challenge, who don’t want to speak out for fear they ruin their chances by wielding the knife; the other, those who are no-hopers, knowing all too well they’d never get another job under any other prime minister. The cabinet, most likely, prolongs the limbo we’re now in. 

Meanwhile, civil servants must surely be heading for the cricket. The precarious position of the prime minister, the mutual suspicions across the cabinet table, the ineffectual record of his friends in office, the Treasury’s constipating effect on government and the Conservatives’ open hostility to their own civil servants all conspire to disincentivise Whitehall from actually doing anything. Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a civil servant who knows how much effort it takes actually to make things happen in government – i.e. grinding meetings, a lot of long hours, an effective secretary of state and a prime minister with a strong working majority. Why bother? After this week, you’d size up your chances of getting anything worthwhile done, and phone it in for the summer – if not until the next election. 

Jesse Norman, the Hereford MP, wrote a letter to Boris Johnson setting out the reasons he could no longer support him; describing the Sue Gray report as a “vindication” was “grotesque”, Norman said; the Brexit policy in Northern Ireland is putting the Union of the United Kingdom at risk; the Rwanda policy “ugly”, the proposed privatisation of Channel 4 unnecessary and the intended ban on noisy protest an attack on basic human freedoms; and the government has no plan, but just keeps trying to distract by changing the subject and divide by playing culture-war politics.

“Worse still,” Norman said, “you are apparently trying to import elements of a presidential system of government that is entirely foreign to our constitution and law. But you are not a president, and you have no mandate other than as an MP, and from the confidence of your colleagues. Attempts to centralise powers in 10 Downing Street are not merely yet another ill-advised political distraction, but almost certain to compound and accelerate the problems listed above.”

And this rang a worrying bell. This week, we published the findings of months of work at Tortoise, where, together with Peter Kellner, the pollster, and Deltapoll, the polling company, we’ve set out to get a sense of the state of democracy in Britain. We commissioned a poll on a big sample – 10,000 people – asking a series of questions around the theme: “Does democracy work for you?”

One finding stood out: nearly one third think that the country needs a strong leader who doesn’t have to consult Parliament. In other words, there’s a constituency for a politics that’s more presidential. And when we held our ThinkIn to discuss the poll findings on Wednesday, it was striking how many people who fear strongman politics were, nonetheless, fed up with Parliament.

This week in the face of the rebellion of his own MPs, Boris Johnson said: “I humbly submit to you that this is not the moment for a leisurely and entirely unforced domestic political drama.” You’ve got to begin to think he doesn’t know what ‘humbly’ means. Because the irony of the situation – after 148 MPs voted against him this week – is that the prime minister is going to try to be more presidential; he’s hobbled in Parliament, so he will have to use the authority of Downing Street to make his presence felt.

All of which is to say that, at the end of a week in which we’ve seen a shamed and now widely disliked prime minister propped up by a minority of MPs and a handful of eccentric loyalists, Parliament itself is discredited, a jerry-rigged presidential politics more likely and democracy in Britain further doubted. We are more like Trump-era America than we’d like to think.

Even if she were feeling well enough to attend, you could hardly blame the Queen for preferring the show-jumping at Windsor to the state opening of Parliament.