15 February 2020

The Johnson treatment


As ever with Boris Johnson’s government, hyperbole about this week’s reshuffle was not in short supply.

The Liberal Democrats spoke breathlessly of a “dangerous, authoritarian Conservative government”, the Scottish Nationalists lauded the outgoing Chancellor, Sajid Javid, for resisting Number 10’s “authoritarian control”.

The reaction to this week’s events is partly down to political knockabout, partly the surprise of Mr Javid’s exit, which few had seen coming.

Another part is what our editor-in-chief once labelled Boris Derangement Syndrome. One of the only things the Prime Minister genuinely shares with Donald Trump is his ability to work his opponents into an intolerable lather.

The fondness for over-dramatising Johnson’s actions is not limited to hardcore Corbynistas or the anti-Brexit hobbyists until recently camped outside Parliament. Back in September one of our most eminent historians, Richard Evans, claimed the prorogation of Parliament was Britain’s ‘Reichstag Fire Decree’ moment. And the journalist Nick Cohen, one of the most astute and respected voices on the British left, recently wrote a column comparing the Johnson government to the ghastly Hungarian leader Viktor Orban.

This week’s events have also fuelled the mystique around the PM’s adviser, Dominic Cummings. There is, of course, no doubt that he wields a great deal of influence, as have various other unelected advisers in previous governments.

But to suggest Cummings, rather than the PM, is running the show is to indulge in what one of our contributors has called the “Westminster-wide trend of woefully underestimating Boris Johnson’s agency over himself”. Bear in mind too that just last week the big, controversial decision to go ahead with HS2 was taken against Cummings’ wishes.

Perhaps the biggest change to come to terms with, however, is that for the first time in many years, we now have a Prime Minister with a sizeable majority able to wield power as he sees fit.

You could make a case that there has not been a truly commanding PM since the early days of Tony Blair’s third term, before talk turned to curry house plots and Gordon’s takeover.

Save a brief honeymoon period Brown’s time in Downing Street could only be characterised as “embattled”.  David Cameron spent five of his six years at the helm in awkward lockstep with Nick Clegg. The short time he did enjoy with a slim majority was almost entirely dominated by Brexit. Likewise Theresa May, who felt sufficiently hampered by the size of that majority to call an ill-fated snap election.

The fact Johnson can make sweeping changes to his team and strengthen his command of government is not the sign of some authoritarian streak in the Prime Minister, but the product of a political system that has long vested great power in the executive. Guardian editorials might bemoan the fact that Mr Johnson is not the ‘first among equals’ of politics textbooks, but that is hardly a new development.  Indeed, as the US academic and presidential adviser Richard Neustadt once observed, discussions over whether the British system was being ‘presidentialised’ have been going on since the late 1950s.

He is also helped no end by a lame duck opposition. Remarkably, we still have until the beginning of April before Labour elect a new leader. Whoever they choose will surely do a better job of scrutinising this government than the hapless Jeremy Corbyn.

But as this week’s events show, they – and others – will have to get used to a world in which the Prime Minister is very firmly in control.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX