It is not unusual for a jaded and jiggered prime minister to try to relaunch himself. It is unusual for this to happen quite so early in a premiership. Boris Johnson’s attempt comes less than a year since he won an election that was hailed by Tories as a stonking victory. How he yearns to return 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 appeared to be quite promising. The dark pall cast over his premiership by Covid has been somewhat lifted by reports of success from three different projects to develop a vaccine. This cannot efface the government’s serial bungling of the response to the crisis, nor make us forget that Britain has the highest death toll in Europe, but it offers some hope to Number 10 that public morale will be raised and voter discontent eased by the thought that relief is in prospect. The vaccine news has had some tranquillising effect on previously mutinous Conservative MPs. Those of the libertarian right who hate the Covid restrictions have had the wind knocked out of their contention that we ought to “learn to live with the virus”. It is trickier to argue for a policy that would lead to more Covid-related deaths when a vaccine is on the horizon.
The removal of Dominic Cummings has also offered Mr Johnson an opportunity to reboot his premiership by putting a less arrogantly snarly face on Number 10 and establishing a smoother relationship with Conservative MPs, business and the civil service. On top of which, Sir Keir Starmer has been sucked into a swampy dispute about how Jeremy Corbyn should be treated. The Labour leader has no obvious exit from that bog that will not leave one group or another feeling very angry.
With the prospects for a relaunch looking reasonably good, Mr Johnson delivered two “keynote” announcements. One was devoted to defence and the other was about addressing the climate crisis. The timing of these initiatives was much more informative than the content. They were designed to demonstrate, not least to his own party, that the Tory leader can do more than preside over a series of debacles.
The idea was to show that he has a sense of direction and is in possession of an upbeat agenda for life beyond Covid. Those Tories who share his fiancee’s liking for eco-Conservatism got a bit of greenery. Those Tories who prefer macho-Conservatism were promised more moolah for the military. The green-coloured statement projected homes powered by hydrogen and streets buzzing with electric cars. The red, white and blue speech conjured up visions of British warships exterminating the enemy with “directed energy weapons”, which will destroy targets with “inexhaustible lasers”.
Presumably these will be powered from renewable sources.
If these many wonders ever materialise, it will not be for some years to come. That doesn’t bother Mr Johnson. He prefers to live in the future, that land of dreams where your failure to deliver on your promises has yet to catch up with you. The future is a much happier territory for him than the now. The now is a land where he defends the indefensible when his home secretary is found in breach of the ministerial code. The now is a land of self-inflicted embarrassment when some idiot in the cabinet delights the Scottish Nationalists by describing devolution as “a disaster”. The now is a land of scandalous shockers such as the National Audit Office investigation, which has revealed that safeguards to ensure the proper use of public money were tossed aside when the government awarded more than £17bn of contracts related to coronavirus during the first six months of the epidemic.
Critics of his green announcements were quick to spot that many were recycled and the sums pledged to decarbonisation are nothing like the commitment required to get on target to achieve net zero-emissions by 2050. Number 10 will have expected this pushback, but still been glad that Mr Johnson got attention for something other than factional infighting and government incompetence. The prime minister will have been most pleased to hear Tory MPs cheering the extra dosh for defence.
That’s better than Tory MPs growling at him, which is what they have been doing for months now, but this was not enough to make the week a decisive turning point for the better for Mr Johnson. It was never going to be enough. If his premiership is to recover, it will not be by making hyperbolic promises about the future, but by finding a hitherto absent talent for governing well in the present. Even as a public-relations exercise, the relaunch failed. It was sabotaged and the person who blew the biggest hole in it was the prime minister himself. He did so not with a Star Wars-type weapon but with the more traditional gun-aimed-at-own-foot method.
One of the toughest challenges looming over his premiership is the growing support for independence in Scotland. The Nationalist demand for another referendum will escalate into a clamour when they win next spring’s election to the Holyrood parliament. Some of the prime minister’s officials have been acknowledging that aggressive attacks on Scottish independence aren’t working. They have been briefing 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 Scottish devolution has been “a disaster”. For the SNP, which will now say that Scots must back independence or the Tories will abolish the Holyrood parliament, Mr Johnson is the gift that keeps on giving. This did not exactly help him convince his own party that he can be an asset rather than an ill-disciplined buffoon. Another thing we were told following the removal of Mr Cummings is that his brutal ways would be banished with him. There would be a less adversarial relationship with the civil service and more recognition that Britain will not be governed decently unless there is a trusting and productive relationship between politicians and their officials. One way to reassure the civil service that the time of terror is truly over would be to guarantee that ministers will be expected to treat their officials properly and adhere to the rules that protect their staff from bullying.
Precisely the opposite has occurred in the case of Priti Patel. The home secretary’s conduct has been judged a breach of the ministerial code, but she remains in post. It is the author of the report into her behaviour, Sir Alex Allen, who has quit, saying he can’t in all conscience carry on as the independent inviligator of ministerial conduct if the prime minister is simply going to ignore his recommendations. For the civil service, and everyone else, it is a reminder of how easy it is to break the institutional restraints on bad ministerial behaviour when you have a prime minister who ignores the rules. Anyone else found guilty of bullying in the workplace would face disciplinary action or the sack. Mr Cummings may be gone from Number 10, but his “rules are for the little people” credo still inhabits the building because it is the life motto of the prime minister.
Poisoned relations between politicians and their officials will make it harder for government to navigate the perilous seas that lie ahead. Very close to the deadline, there is still no definite agreement with the EU to avoid a disaster Brexit. Even if a deal is announced, it will be a thin one, which means disruption to trade and harm to the economy.
The financial statement to be delivered by Rishi Sunak this week will come accompanied by extremely stark figures. The deficit has surged to around £400bn this year, twice the level seen in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. The prime minister has previously sworn there will be no return to George Osborne-era austerity. It won’t be feeling that way to millions of employees in the public sector who will be told by the government that, unless they work for the NHS, their salaries are going to be frozen.
Scotland, Brexit and the damage, division and debt bequeathed by the coronavirus. Enormous challenges, all of which have the potential to blow up into fresh crises, face Mr Johnson as we approach the turn of the year. Little wonder he prefers to take himself off into a future world where the Royal Navy zaps Johnny Foreigner with laser weapons. Perhaps it signals not so much a desire to relaunch himself as a desperation to escape the fierce reality of now.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer