Boris Johnson

Boris moves in

Published: 2 August 2019
Author: Richard Parry

The desire to save space lies behind the appendage ‘universally known as AKK’ on stories about the German Defence Minister and CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. The new UK Prime Minister’s name is short enough and now unlikely to be confused with Labour’s Alan Johnson or indeed his own brother Jo. A century ago at Westminster, first-name monikers attached to Austen Chamberlain and Winston Churchill to distinguish them from their fathers. In Boris’s case, it has for many years conveyed a certain affection appropriate for someone with flair, wit and insouciance, a kind of Ronald Reagan with an intellect.

Equally, such a reputation based on the public’s indulgence can erode quickly. Visits to Scotland and Wales were poorly choreographed (a chicken farm near Newport?) and set a precedent of high-security isolation from local media and a hostile public. Nicola Sturgeon’s grim visage and studied lack of amiability at Bute House was reminiscent of Theresa May’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Osaka. In Cardiff, Mark Drakeford did not even come to the front door. As Foreign Secretary, Boris’s style went down like a lead balloon for his sober international colleagues.

The Boris accession showed his brutal side.  The delicate matter of making Jeremy Hunt a reasonable offer he would refuse required a vacancy in Defence, with Penny Mordaunt a regretted collateral victim.  As such, she is clear of trouble and a plausible successor to Johnson. It was neat to make Dominic Raab ‘First Secretary of State’ so denying Michael Gove the ‘Deputy Prime Minister’ tag bestowed on David Lidington. Despite suggestions, no department was merged or abolished. May’s technique of crowding the Cabinet room with chosen second-tier ministers (including Esther McVey and strong remainer Jo Johnson) continues. The recruitment of Nicky Morgan, until recently a reliable vote against no-deal, as Culture Secretary shows the lure of office-holding. 

At the highest level of political leadership, winging it is more difficult, both physically and mentally, when youth gives way to middle age. The new Prime Minister can seem garbled and incoherent, his repertoire of expression and evidence limited. In a brutal 150 minute stint at the despatch box on the hottest day in British history, he batted away 129 MPs impressively and showed some evidence of his urban liberal past. The emptying of the chamber as fascination gave way to enervation may presage things to come.

No 10 adviser Dominic Cummings is more famous in fiction (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) than in reality; it is never ends well when the adviser is cast as Rasputin. Steve Baker’s refusal of a ministerial post is telling – ‘I cannot repeat my experience of powerlessness as a junior DExEU minister with the work done in the Cabinet Office’ (tweet 26 July). This reminds us of the cleavage on 29 March between the purists like Baker (and also Priti Patel and Theresa Villiers in the new Cabinet) who again voted down the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Johnson/Raab/Rees-Mogg crowd who embraced it at the eleventh hour.

At this time of year, the calendar takes over. Visits to the four UK nations were rites of passage that do not now need to be repeated. Theresa May walked up red carpets everywhere in Europe to little effect; Johnson and his ministers have shown no desire to visit Brussels, Dublin, Paris or anywhere else continental. Parliament is out until September. Biarritz, a favourite place of UK royalty and aristocracy in times past, provides a suitable venue for Boris’s international debut as Prime Minister at the G7 summit on 24 August.

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