IIt is not unusual for a jaded and nervous prime minister to try to relaunch. It is unusual for this to happen so early in a prime minister post. Boris Johnson’s attempt comes less than a year since he won an election that was hailed by conservatives as a landslide victory. How he longs to go back to those pre-pandemic days of hype and glory when his party adored him and the world seemed to be at his feet.
The context for attempting a relaunch looked quite promising. The dark cloak that covered his position as prime minister by Covid has been lifted a bit by the success reports of three different projects to develop a vaccine. This cannot erase the series of government failures in responding to the crisis, nor can it make us forget that Britain has the higher death toll in Europe, but it offers some hope to Number 10 that public morale will rise and voter discontent will be alleviated by the idea that there are prospects for relief. News of the vaccine has had a reassuring effect on formerly riotous Conservative MPs. Those on the libertarian right who hate Covid’s restrictions have had their air taken from their claim that we should “learn to live with the virus.” It’s harder to defend a policy that would lead to more Covid-related deaths when a vaccine is on the horizon.
The impeachment of Dominic Cummings has also offered Johnson an opportunity to restart his prime ministerial role by putting a less arrogant and sarcastic face on No. 10 and establishing a more fluid relationship with Conservative MPs, business and the civil service. On top of that, Sir Keir Starmer has been drawn into a swampy dispute over how Jeremy Corbyn should be treated. The Labor leader has no obvious way out of that quagmire that will not leave one group or another very angry.
With prospects for a relaunch looking reasonably good, Johnson made two “major” announcements. One was dedicated to advocacy and the other to addressing the climate crisis. The timing of these initiatives was far more informative than the content. They were designed to show, especially to his own party, that the Conservative leader can do more than preside over a series of debacles.
The idea was to show that you have a sense of direction and that you have an optimistic agenda for life beyond Covid. Conservatives who share his fiancée’s taste for eco-conservation got some greenery. Conservatives who prefer macho conservatism were promised more moolah for the military. The green declaration projected hydrogen-fueled houses and streets full of electric cars. the speak red, white and blue it evoked visions of British warships exterminating the enemy with “directed energy weapons”, destroying targets with “inexhaustible lasers”.
Presumably, these will be powered by renewable sources.
If these many wonders ever materialize, it won’t be for a few years. That doesn’t bother Mr. Johnson. Prefer to live in the future, that land of dreams where the breach of your promises has not yet reached you. The future is much happier territory for him than it is now. He is now a land where he defends the indefensible when his Secretary of the Interior is in breach of the ministerial code. He is now a land of self-inflicted shame when some idiot in the cabinet delights Scottish nationalists by describing the return as “a disaster.” The now is a land of scandalous shocks as the National Audit Office investigation has revealed that safeguards to ensure proper use of public money were scrapped when the government awarded more than £ 17bn in coronavirus-related contracts. during the first six months. of the epidemic.
Critics of his green ads quickly realized that many were recycled and the sums pledged for decarbonisation look nothing like the commitment required to meet the goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Number 10 will have expected this setback, But he’s still glad that Johnson drew attention to more than factional infighting and government incompetence. The prime minister will have been very pleased to hear Conservative MPs cheering the extra dose for defense.
That’s better than Tory MPs growling at him, which is what they’ve been doing for months, but this wasn’t enough to make the week a decisive turning point for the better for Johnson. It was never going to be enough. If your prime minister recovers, it won’t be by making hyperbolic promises about the future, but by finding a hitherto absent talent to rule well in the present. Even as a public relations exercise, the relaunch failed. It was sabotaged and the person who made the biggest hole was the prime minister himself. He didn’t do it with a Star Warsweapon type, but with the more traditional method of pistol pointing at its own foot.
One of the toughest challenges looming over his prime ministerial position is the growing support for independence in Scotland. The nationalist demand for another referendum will become an outcry when they win next spring’s elections to the Holyrood parliament. Some of the prime minister’s officials have acknowledged that aggressive attacks on Scottish independence are not working. They have reported that the prime minister will adopt a less combative tone towards Scotland. So what does he do? He tells a Zoom meeting of English Conservative MPs that the Scottish return has been “a disaster”. For the SNP, which will now say that the Scots must back independence or the Tories will abolish the Holyrood parliament, Johnson is the gift it continues to give. This didn’t exactly help him convince his own party that he can be an asset rather than a poorly disciplined buffoon. Another thing we were told after Mr. Cummings’ impeachment is that his brutal ways would be banished with him. There would be a less contentious relationship with the civil service and more recognition that Britain will not be governed decently unless there is a productive and trusting relationship between politicians and their officials. One way to assure the civil service that the age of terror is truly over would be to ensure that ministers are expected to treat their officials appropriately and adhere to rules that protect their staff from intimidation.
The exact opposite has happened in the case of Priti Patel. The conduct of the Secretary of the Interior has been considered a violation of the ministerial code, but she remains in office. It is the author of the report on his behavior, Sir Alex Allen, who resigned, saying that he cannot in good conscience continue as the independent enforcer of ministerial conduct if the prime minister is simply going to ignore his recommendations. For the civil service, and for everyone else, it is a reminder of how easy it is to break through institutional restrictions on ministerial misbehavior when there is a prime minister who ignores the rules. Any other person found guilty of bullying in the workplace will face disciplinary action or termination. Cummings may have left No. 10, but his “rules are for little people” creed still lives in the building because it’s the prime minister’s motto for life.
The poisoned relationships between politicians and their officials will make it harder for the government to navigate the dangerous seas that lie ahead. Very close to the deadline, there is still no definitive agreement with the EU to avoid a catastrophic Brexit. Even if a deal is announced, it will be weak, meaning a disruption to trade and damage to the economy.
Rishi Sunak’s financial statement this week will be accompanied by extremely stark figures. the the deficit has increased to around £ 400bn this year, double the level seen in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The prime minister previously vowed that there will be no return to the austerity of the George Osborne era. You won’t feel that way with millions of public sector employees who will be told by the government that unless they work for the NHS their wages will be frozen.
Scotland, Brexit and the damage, division and debt left by the coronavirus. Huge challenges, all of which have the potential to erupt into new crises, faces Mr. Johnson as we approach the turn of the year. It’s no wonder he prefers to go to a future world where the Royal Navy hits Johnny Foreigner with laser weapons. Perhaps it indicates not so much a desire to relaunch as a desperation to escape the fierce reality of now.
• Andrew Rawnsley is chief political commentator for The Observer
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