In 2005 Boris Johnson came to Great Yarmouth where I was the parliamentary candidate. I went to pick him up and take him to the event we had planned. He was accompanied by a journalist who was following him around collecting material for a profile they were writing. Sitting in the front passenger seat Boris was answering their questions, reviewing proofs of the Spectator which he was editing by telephone, and talking to me – all at the same time. He was already famous as a journalist and as a politician. I asked why, when he was already so successful and could be a great editor of The Daily Telegraph, was he bothering with politics? His answer was simple “because you can get things done.”
He spoke at the event I had arranged and then insisted on doing a walk through the town and talking to as many people as he could. As he met more people so his energy and enthusiasm grew. He stayed much much longer than he needed to. I have always remembered that day with appreciation. Boris is deadly serious about his politics – about winning, governing and delivering. His opponents have spent far too long on personal attacks and not focussed on his political skills.
Boris is no blowhard. He is not our Donald Trump. Thinking it, let alone saying it, is to completely miss the chasm that divides the two personally as well as politically. There are few politicians in modern times who have been subjected to such sustained personal abuse as Boris Johnson, and yet it is hard to find any speech, column, or tweet where he has dished out anything akin to what he has received.
He is highly intelligent and literate, widely read and with a skill for using words – spoken and written – that is unmatched by any other politician or columnist. He radiates an enthusiasm and interest in others that drives his opponents and competitors almost to the point of distraction.
Boris allies these attributes to three vital instincts necessary for political success – winning, discipline and building a good team around him to deliver his objectives. The first instinct is a deeply Conservative one – how best to help and support people, how to encourage a vibrant economy, how to focus government on doing what is necessary and stop it becoming an instrument of interference and meddling, and nurturing the sense of community and nation that pulls the country together.
The second instinct, discipline, is reflected in something he has done three times already – as London Mayor, in No 10, and with his general election winning team. Now he will set about refreshing both his Number 10 team and his government. Nobody should go on mistaking Boris for anything other than a disciplined and focused leader. He was after all the London Mayor that deemed it necessary to fire a Metropolitan Police Commissioner. His seriousness of purpose should be understood.
The Queen’s Speech this week will reveal much about what his immediate ambitions are. Brexit, of course, will be first on the list. Also Whitehall reform – moving and changing departments to signal new priorities and give the Whitehall machine an overhaul, using government procurement to support British business, deliver new investment in northern infrastructure and services. We can expect constitutional reform too, overhauling the House of Lords, tackling head on the issue of Scottish independence, giving more significant devolution of power to the regions. A big programme to go with the big majority.
Two other things are worth immediate thought: the swift repeal of the Fixed Term Parliament Act (FTPA) and moving government, at least part of the time, out of London. The FTPA has been pernicious and corrosive. No single piece of constitutional innovation has done as much harm to our democracy and to the reputation of Parliament as this ill thought through Cameron/Clegg initiative. A government, any government, should not be sustained in office when it has lost its natural House of Commons majority by its political opponents trying to do it damage. A Prime Minister should be free to call a general election when they want to. A swift repeal of the FTPA is in everyone’s interests, should be uncomplicated, and every MP should support it.
For too long too much political power has been concentrated in Whitehall. The introduction of mayors has proven the system works well, but the sense of "London" being too remote and different is potent. Government should spend more time in places other than London. It is a suggestion that always attracts ridicule when it is made but there is no good reason why Parliament should not sit in Edinburgh, Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff. There is no reason why Cabinet ministers, and even the Prime Minister, should not be based for some of the time in one of the great northern cities.
Symbolism matters as much as money and promises in politics. There would be no greater symbol of the new government’s new priorities than parliament meeting on a regular basis in the northern half of the country, with all those who ministers and officials meet with travelling outside of London – you’d soon see roads, railways, wifi and all the rest of it improving swiftly.
This Boris victory demonstrates that Britain, in a very British way, is accommodating the political revolution sweeping across North America and Western Europe inside its systems and processes. We are not seeing civil unrest, riots and strikes in this country as we do sometimes in many of our European neighbours when political change happens. Generally, we prefer to exercise our views through the ballot box.
Nonetheless, it is a revolution and it shows every sign of continuing and needing a response in the years ahead that will deliver real, meaningful and permanent change in the conduct and delivery of national policy. This Boris has understood. He has changed his party now he will change the country.