24 July 2019

Why ‘energy’ will not be enough for Boris Johnson


“In his victory speech yesterday, Boris Johnson talked a lot about “energy”. In many of the congratulatory messages from MPs, well-wishers and party activists, it is regularly mentioned as a positive attribute.

It’s not hard to see why.

One of the complaints made about Theresa May was that there was not enough “Action this Day”.

The process for delivering the domestic change mandated by the Brexit vote was, it was said, too slow in coming, too ponderous, too managerial. Consultations were followed by formal green papers, Cabinet sub-committees, a white paper, further Cabinet discussions before, eventually, a policy, kicking and screaming, was born.

Critics say there should have been more desk-banging, more haste, more angry, impatient shaking of the Governmental tree to get its fruit to fall.

Those who advocate the Churchillian-style “Action this Day” have, in Boris Johnson, apparent cause for celebration.

His verve, his drive and, yes, his energy will, they hope, be enough to drag the Government machine with him – like a heavy horse desperate to break into a trot so as to complete the task while the plough it pulls digs deeper into the soil.

On key domestic issues, though, the problem is that there is a clear difference between energy and actual progress. The speed Johnson requires in the early months of a high-wire premiership to show he can deliver rapid change is frustratingly difficult to generate. I found it remarkable how hard No10 had to campaign day in and day out against forces within May’s own Government to make change happen. Johnson doesn’t have that time.

The cogs of Government will require frantic greasing and perhaps even some circumvention to produce any transformation from idea to effective policy. Cabinet ministers, even those most supportive of Johnson, will not take kindly to being sidestepped in the name of haste.

Johnson’s team will no doubt become frustrated at certain key departments’ inability to dance to the tempo of their tune. They will just not be able to get the announcements out of the door as quickly as it seems No10 is going to require. No amount of desk-banging is going to change that in the short term.

So in the absence of swift substance, enter “energy”. Boris Johnson will be able to give the impression of speed by announcing the direction of travel early , boldly and regularly in a way that Theresa May who for fear of over-promising and under-delivering (and deeply aware that she would be held accountable for outcomes) didn’t find easy.

He will be able, as May did, to ride an early wave of optimism until the pressure comes to actually unwrap the gift that we’ll have been energetically promised.

And will Boris Johnson’s style of governing mean that he will then be able to shrug off that personal accountability that May took so seriously? Will his “team of stars”, or indeed his own Government, take the hit?

Exhorting them that they need to deliver for him, and having devolved power to them, will a frustrated PM who doesn’t have the luxury of time readily conclude that failure to resolve the problem is not his fault?

To that end, Johnson could position himself as the go-getting, energetic, “action this day” Prime Minister who is being thwarted by “Whitehall”.

Awaiting us may be a clash of cultures between a careful, incrementalistic Government machine and a much more impatient, frenetic political clamour.

Prime Minister Johnson will need to identify early on some easy domestic wins by which to claim progress is being made, otherwise that huge energy may well be wasted.”

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Tom Swarbrick is a broadcaster and former adviser to Theresa May