15 July 2019

What to look out for if Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister


Unless there’s an extraordinary upset in the Tory leadership election, Boris Johnson will become Prime Minister next week.  What kind of government are we going to get?

Could this be the start of something extraordinarily significant, a pivotal moment in our history, like the formation of the Attlee government in July 1945 or Margaret Thatcher’s in May 1979?  Or are we witnessing instead the last gasp of a tired and weary Tory party, on the verge of losing office?

We will get a very good idea as to what kind of administration this is likely to be within a few days, if not hours, of Boris entering office.  These are some of the things to watch out for:

1. Will Boris sack some of the senior civil servants?

Brexit has exposed deep and fundamental flaws in Britain’s administrative state.  It’s not just the way that the Brexit negotiations were bungled, with UK officials making bizarre concessions on everything from the sequencing of the negotiations, to the Irish backstop.

Its also pretty clear that the upper echelons of the civil service are, three years on, unwilling to reconcile themselves to the referendum result.  Those on the public payroll that still see Brexit as a problem to be managed, rather than as an opportunity that calls forth innovation and new ideas, need to work elsewhere.

Worse, the process of preparing to leave – or one might say failure to do so with verve and gusto – has exposed that there is something dysfunctional about the Whitehall machine.  Many government departments are, as Dominic Cummings, one of the chief architects of Vote Leave’s victory keeps pointing out, set up to fail.  They are full of group-think and mediocrities.

Will Boris not only install a new Cabinet Secretary, but new administrative leadership at the Treasury and elsewhere?   Will he bring in someone of Cummings calibre to oversee long overdue reforms?  Some within Team Boris urge caution.  Better to fight a battle with the mandarinate after winning a majority in a General Election than now.  Others recognise that unless this is the type of government prepared for a showdown with officials, there won’t ever be such a majority.

2.Is he prepared to use the power of patronage?

A Prime Minister has extraordinary patronage, able to elevate people into the Cabinet, as well as a myriad of government agencies and institutions.

If Boris Johnson is serious about taking on the Remain-backing establishment, he will exercise the power of patronage from the outset to effect a wider shift in attitude and outlook.

Faced with an intransigent House of Lords, for example, still determined to oppose the referendum result tooth and nail, Boris could create several hundred Leave peers.  He does not need permission to do it.  He could simply do it.

Under Theresa May, those that openly campaigned to frustrate the referendum result continued to receive Prime Ministerial favour.  Team Boris could make it clear that those still seeking to overturn the referendum result would not get a meeting with a government department, let alone an MBE.

The type of quangocrats that flounce from one government appointment to the next sinecure would pretty quickly get the message.  If Remain lobbyists still have the run of Whitehall by the end of the summer, nothing much will change elsewhere either.

3.The Lynton Crosby effect

Boris’ leadership campaign has been remarkably disciplined and focused.  To the fury of the press lobby, he sensibly avoided a head-to-head TV debate with Jeremy Hunt until as late as possible.  Much though it annoyed them, Boris avoided answering the kind of questions that political journalists think are of interest – but which are of little concern to those whose support Boris needs to win.

This is all evidence of the influence of Lynton Crosby, one of Boris’ key campaign strategists – and a man who understands that the things that animate the media class are often of limited interest to the rest of the country.

If Boris spends the summer talking about the things that matter to swing voters in suburban seats, rather than the sort of folk found at the Spectator Summer Party, it suggests Lynton is going to have a prominent role.

The press lobby will find in frustrating.  Opinion polls will start to suggest that Corbyn can be beaten. We will know by the end of August.

4. Choosing a Cabinet:

One topic will dominate the media narrative next week; who is in the Cabinet?  Is Amber in or out?  What about Rory? Blah blah.

The voters, by and large, couldn’t care less about the careers of those in SW1.

But who Boris chooses should give us an important sense of his attitude towards an election.

If it’s a broad church Cabinet, that tries to reconcile Remainers and Leavers, it implies Boris is reticent about going to the country.  It suggests he’s going to be preoccupied keeping the show on the road for as long as he can – eventually forced into fighting an election on a manifesto that tries to accommodate both David Gauke and Mark Francois.  Good luck with that.

Alternatively, if the Cabinet looks like its unequivocally committed to leaving the EU at the end of October, it suggests not only an early election soon afterwards, but a willingness to fight and win having delivered the result – and daring the Labour party to fight an election to take us back in.

5. Can he retain his good humour? 

Boris has had all sorts of nastiness thrown at him over the past few weeks.  But it will be nothing compared to what’s coming his way.  British politics is, sadly, starting to resemble American politics, dominated as it is by a narrow tribalism and kind of culture war.

It is increasingly rare to hear discussions about politics that accept that there is merit on either side of a debate.  Instead there is an attempt to delegitimise the other side.

Perhaps Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, is one of the few people with the good humour and grace to rise above the bile of contemporary politics, ignore the smear and innuendo, and give us leadership that transcends narrow party lines?

Given the toxic tide heading his way, we will know if he’s up to it long before the summers end.

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Douglas Carswell is a former Member of Parliament and the author of 'Progress Vs Parasites: A Brief History of the Conflict That's Shaped Our World'.