Don’t write Boris Johnson off yet – resilience is one of the prime minister’s strengths

The prime minister is misunderstood as a jocular optimist. It might be more accurate to describe him as a jocular pessimist

John Rentoul
Saturday 10 October 2020 14:52
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Boris Johnson leaving 10 Downing Street to deliver his speech to the online Conservative Party conference 
Boris Johnson leaving 10 Downing Street to deliver his speech to the online Conservative Party conference 

The most striking line in Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party conference speech – it was on Tuesday, but it seems much longer ago – was this: “It’s clear from Covid that we need the economic robustness to deal with whatever the next cosmic spanner may be, hurtling towards us in the dark.”

What a thing for a prime minister to say. It seemed deeply pessimistic, yet making light of the cruelty of fate. It struck me as something that Douglas Adams might have written in one of his bitter authorial asides in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Superficially, Johnson was talking about economic resilience, making the case that we need people in work, paying the taxes that allow the chancellor to borrow the unimaginable sums needed to pay for coronavirus – sums that were about to become slightly more unimaginable only three days later, when Rishi Sunak announced a limited extension of the furlough scheme. 

Below the surface, however, the prime minister seemed to be talking about emotional resilience. He seemed to be spelling out to himself the appalling truth of being a leader, which is that unexpected things happen, and they are mostly bad. That one sentence expressed what must be the experience of most prime ministers most of the time, which is that they come to office full of the excitement and optimism of being able to change things for the better, only to find themselves thrown into a ceaseless defensive struggle to stop them getting worse.

Much has been made of Johnson’s clownish optimism, and how unsuited it is to a national crisis of such seriousness. Even by his own side. Steve Baker, chair of the European Research Group of Tory MPs, which has transferred without a pause from Euroscepticism to anti-lockdownism, said this week: “We didn’t make him prime minister for his meticulous grasp of tedious administrative detail. We made him prime minister for his charisma and vision.”

Unfortunately, responding to a pandemic requires attention to “tedious administrative detail” and so far the people to whom Johnson has delegated it have failed to grasp it sufficiently strongly. Hence the prime minister’s heavily modified charisma, as he sticks closely to prepared texts because he can never remember the details of the regulations which his own government has put on the statute book. 

Hence, too, the emphasis in his conference speech on a vision of a green, carbon-free future that served as a way of changing the subject from coronavirus, because, as he said, “I have had more than enough of this disease.”

So say all of us, but what might be significant is that it hasn’t broken him yet. I know Labour MPs who were expecting Johnson to be gone by Christmas. They thought his handling of the crisis was so poor that Sir Graham Brady, chair of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, might be close to receiving the 55 letters from MPs needed to trigger a leadership contest by now. Or that Johnson, bored, restless, ill or just not enjoying the job, would give it up and let Sunak take over. 

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I don’t think he can be written off that easily. Resilience is the one quality that we know Johnson possesses. Just a year ago, there were many informed observers who thought he would be the shortest-serving prime minister ever, because they could not see how he could deliver his promise to get Britain out of the EU by 31 October. There was a cosmic spanner that he dodged. 

His whole life has been dodging cosmic spanners. He was sacked by The Times for making up quotations. Was his career as a journalist over? On the contrary, it was just beginning. Would he run for mayor of a Labour city? Yes he would, and he’d win. Would he get back into parliament in time to contest the leadership of his party when David Cameron lost the 2015 election? Well, yes and also no. Could he make up his mind about the EU referendum? Yes. Was his hope of the top job extinguished by Michael Gove’s betrayal? No. 

Johnson is misunderstood as a jocular optimist. It might be more accurate to describe him as a jocular pessimist. His melancholy fatalism in the face of unseen threats hurtling towards him in the dark has served him all right so far. I think he will be prime minister for a long time to come. 

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