Boris Johnson deserved to be sacked

Mr Howard's judgement would have been called into question if he had not acted decisively
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Picture the scene in the Michael Howard household last Saturday afternoon as his press officer phoned with the intimation of the further tabloid disclosures about Boris. Exasperation and anger would have probably only been two of the many emotions felt by the Tory leader.

Picture the scene in the Michael Howard household last Saturday afternoon as his press officer phoned with the intimation of the further tabloid disclosures about Boris. Exasperation and anger would have probably only been two of the many emotions felt by the Tory leader.

During the previous month, Boris had already got 11 points on his political driving licence, and the latest offence, normally worth maybe only a couple of points, simply took him off the political road. In less than 48 hours, Boris was due to unveil the Tory arts policy at a press conference. Imagine Mr Howard's horror as he conjured up the spectacle of Boris grappling with the media scrum while trying to launch a serious new policy.

The truth is that Boris had run out of road, and the judgement of the party leader would have been called into question had he not acted decisively. Now, however, in some quarters at least, it is Boris who is the hero and Mr Howard who is the party pooper. But can anyone imagine Tony Blair, at least during the height of the Alastair Campbell reign of terror, tolerating a similar incident for more than a nanosecond? It is all very well voters demanding a sense of fun in British politics, but when they are actually offered comedies of errors, they usually reject them in the secrecy of the ballot box.

Mr Howard walks a fine line between political opportunism and decisive, instinctive leadership. But in the area of party management, his ruthless streak has been essential in keeping a difficult show on the road. Sometimes this has led to rough justice. John Bercow obviously feels aggrieved at his recent sacking as shadow international development minister, but some suspect he is on a journey that may one day lead him beyond the confines of the Tory party - in which case Mr Howard's judgement will have been vindicated.

Mr Howard set out his stall at the recent party conference, where he made it clear that if any of his ministers, should he win the election, fail to deliver on their promises, they would be fired. Party leadership requires fast decisions, and rough justice is part and parcel of the task of showing Parliament, party and voters who is in charge.

An opposition leader has few enough opportunities to set or control the political agenda. It is normally only in the area of party management that the rest of us can judge the extent to which he could cope with managing the nation in a crisis. Of course, an instant decision which turns out to be wrong may suggest that, in a national crisis, the leader would simply panic. Whatever criticisms may be made about Mr Howard, he is certainly not one to panic. His years of experience as a lawyer and a cabinet minister have trained him to keep a cool head.

Perhaps, because he has been persuaded to "get with it", he has over-promoted some of the younger MPs who lack his own considerable experience. If Boris had been around during the Thatcher generation of young MPs in the 1980s, there would have been no way he would have been let loose, even on the first rung of the promotion ladder as an unpaid parliamentary bag carrier. Similarly, if Theresa May had been elected in 1979, she would probably be just beginning a junior ministerial career at the Department of Work and Pensions. Instead, she has already held about four shadow cabinet jobs - including the party chairmanship.

Maybe the moral of the Boris story is that too many opposition MPs with insufficient experience and not enough of the rough edges knocked off them have been given too much responsibility too early. But in fairness to Mr Howard - and to his two immediate predecessors - he has only been able to fish in a pool of 165 MPs. The pressure to "modernise" has inevitably led to the bright sparks, Young Turks and Notting Hill sets gaining early promotion when, during the eighth year of the Thatcher government, they would all have been in nappies, still serving on the backbenches.

It struck me during the comical exchanges at last week's Spectator parliamentary awards lunch that it was the old soldier, Sir Peter Tapsell, who stole the show by winning the big prize of parliamentarian of the year. Sir Peter is 74 years old, but looks 54, and has served in Parliament since 1959. He cut his teeth as personal assistant to Sir Anthony Eden. He knows his foreign affairs - making sound judgements on the Iraq war - as well as his economics. His two senior colleagues, Sir Patrick Cormack and Sir Nicholas Winterton, have nearly as much experience.

Regrettably, none has ever yet served in government. Sir Patrick would have been (and still remains) an obvious arts minister, if he had not blotted his copybook by opposing the poll tax before it was fashionable to do so. Sir Nicholas made himself unpopular with Tory ministers for speaking out against Robert Mugabe when they feted him in 1980. Cormack and Winterton were punished for being right before their time, yet these knights can still steady the Tory ship.

It is time to capitalise on this rich experience - along with Tapsell, they would, after all, still be fresh faces on the front bench. How old was Reagan when he got to the White House?

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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