Mark my words, Boris Johnson will be gone by Christmas

The Johnson style of government isn’t working – all the various scandals and botches are linked by a pattern of behaviour

Sean O'Grady
Monday 22 November 2021 12:20
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth brands health and care bill 'care con'

Every year I write a column saying that Boris Johnson will be gone by Christmas. In 2019, I thought he’d have been forced out of Downing Street because of his mishandling of Brexit. Wrong. In 2020, I thought it would be because of his mishandling of Covid. Wrong. In 2021? I wonder if the coming social care debacle might not prove a bit of a tipping point.

The launch of the social care plan was sort of a marketing miracle. What we now know to be a barely practical plan that will make little difference was sold as a revolution. What we now understand will be deeply regressive was painted as a fairer system, a fine example of “levelling up”. It is the opposite.

Broadly speaking, people with a £1m inheritance coming their way from a property in the South will keep about £900,000 of it. Someone in line for a windfall of £86,000 from the sale of a home up North will see the lot go in care costs. That will simply add to the grotesque and arbitrary inequalities in wealth cascading down the generations – nothing to do with talent or hard work, but whether your parents’ semi detached happens to be in Woking or Wigan.

The Johnson promise that no one would have to sell their home to pay for their care was airbrushed from history. They will – especially poorer people who fall victim to dementia rather than meet a swift end from cardiac arrest. The lottery of death remains virtually intact.

The fact (ie insult) that the low paid would need to pay extra national insurance for this reform but landlords wouldn’t was waved aside because everyone would now have a “fair” cap. The irony of course is that the prosperous landlords of tomorrow are those who will inherit their parents’ properties after this bizarre regressive reform goes through.

Tory MPs have been out there to assure us that the assets of the upper middle classes are protected, but the ones north of Watford and the ones with a vestige of shame are having their doubts. For those with long memories, it has the same feel as the original poll tax back in 1989 – distressingly unfair, random and divisive.

Like most things, this year’s prophecy is late, but may have more chance of coming true. Boris Johnson might well be gone, because of social care – which will grind on through the winter – and much else. He might be gone because he is still mishandling Brexit (still not sorted out and “done”). He might be gone also because of Covid (another spike, another lockdown and another cancelled Christmas). He should be gone because of sleaze, because of rail, and because of social care. He can’t even deliver a speech now.

Boris Johnson loses his place during speech to business leaders

The conditions are more propitious, too. This year it looks like Johnson’s own party is beginning to tire of him – MPs more than activists, but still broad disquiet – and the voters too may be thinking that the joke’s not funny any more, to borrow one of Labour’s more resonant soundbites (which does have the ring of something out of a focus group, which proves the point, I suppose).

Johnson now has more formidable rivals than in the recent past. Instead of Michael Gove, Dominic Raab and Sajid Javid, he’s up against Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and Jeremy “clean hands” Hunt.

The Johnson style of government isn’t working. What links all the various scandals and botches is a pattern of behaviour. First he is indecisive, and hopes crises sort themselves out anyway if they’re left to run. Then he’s wilful to the point of boorishness, propelled by the instincts of a contrarian newspaper columnist with a populist line. Then, usually, faced with any sort of effective resistance because his policies are arrived at by a curious combination of laziness and forcefulness, he caves and U-turns, and adopts the policy he ignored in the first place. Even hanging on to Dominic Cummings, on which Johnson defied his critics, went wrong in the end.

All the big stuff – applying Covid lockdowns and Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol – ended up in a mess because of this “process”; but so has the smaller stuff – the free school meals debacle with Marcus Rashford, rescuing Owen Paterson, hiring Paul Dacre, scrapping the HS2 line to Leeds, and now solving the social care crisis.

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Trying to justify these sorts of car crashes (his phrase) means Johnson can’t make sense to anyone. In the end, on sleaze, he just stopped trying and told the party he’d driven it into a ditch. Such honesty is, ironically, all he has left to give, but it doesn’t really help. That is how Johnson has acquired such a terrible reputation for being a liar, because he has to maintain so many shifting contradictory notions in his head that it becomes impossible to distinguish between fact and prejudice. Today’s alibi becomes tomorrow’s albatross if you have the directional stability of a broken shopping trolley (as Johnson once described his attitude to Brexit, and a phrase popularised by Cummings).

The public gave him the benefit of the doubt for longer than they should, because of the extraordinary times we’ve been going through, and there was no special reason anyone else could have done better (and especially not Jeremy Corbyn). Now minds are turning to alternatives, inside and outside the party. Johnson feels much more like a loser these days. That’s why he’ll be gone by Christmas Day.

I write this on the 31st anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s ousting by her own party. On 22 November 1990 she announced that she would be standing down from the premiership, having lost the necessary support of the party in the Commons. She too had not long since thrashed Labour in a general election and won a thumping majority, but she was losing her grip, and 11 remarkable years of achievement counted for nowt.

History suggests Tory MPs tend to focus on the immediate, and panic when they think they might lose their seats or the chance of a job in government. Johnson worked well for them in the past, but they are a ruthless, unsentimental lot and he doesn’t inspire love or loyalty. His supposed gift for connecting with the public seems to be terminal decline. Like a riddle in a Christmas cracker, the Tories might ask themselves: “what’s the point of Boris Johnson?

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