This week we have, again, had ringside seats at the West End political spectacular that is Boris Johnson’s membership of the government . The Borisification of government is a remarkable attempt to twist the team orientated collaborative nature of Cabinet government into a one person show. Usually when this happens – Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair spring to mind as modern examples – it is the Prime Minister who tries to do it. In this case, it is the Foreign Secretary.
Boris, of course, is a supremely talented journalist. He can craft a line and turn a phrase quicker and more effectively than anyone else in either Fleet Street or Westminster. He understands better than most that you need a good headline and a strong central character. “Politics,” he is reported as saying, “is simply an extension of journalism by other means.”
Twice now he has been supremely successful – twice elected Mayor of London and the most famous leader of the Brexit campaign. He is a winner, a game changer, a political superstar. Ken Livingstone and David Cameron are but two of the biggest beasts he has swept aside in his progress to his ultimate goal of becoming Prime Minister. It is all about Boris, his personality, his approach, his charisma, his mistakes and cock-ups – and his recoveries. This week, however, he has again been delivered a lesson in Cabinet level national politics.
The pattern is by now familiar. Like a great offensive on the Western Front in 1915 we begin with heavy shelling. Friendly journalists are briefed – the great man is going to Cabinet this week to lay down the law, make his point, hold his colleagues feet to the fire, and put the Prime Minister straight on a thing or two. Feverish news coverage ensues. Our hero rushes hither and thither, on camera, saying nothing but looking purposeful. Friends brief. Enemies brief. Much coverage ensues and the initial purpose is achieved. It is Boris week – again – where all we talk about is Boris.
The day of Cabinet arrives and Westminster awaits the results of the billed epic encounter. Unfortunately this is where this whole approach fails. The Cabinet, as all Cabinets always are, is stuffed with egos almost as enormous as Boris. Every one of them thinks they are the bees-knee and some think they are obviously the next Prime Minister. They do not like this endless focus on Boris. In fact they are beginning to be just a bit weary of this constant attention seeking. His last outburst over-shadowed the beginning of the party conference last autumn.
So, the Prime Minister does what all Prime Ministers do when faced by a tiresome Cabinet colleague. They have the Cabinet Secretary arrange the order of speakers at the meeting in such a way that by the time it reaches the problem person they have been subjected to a sustained barrage of criticism by the majority of those around the table. This is what happened, unsurprisingly, to Boris this week.
Then we move into the third, and again predictable phase of all this. Briefings from near No 10 that Boris has been put back in his box and briefings from team Bozza that their man is bewildered, hurt and frustrated. He was only trying to help. He is doing his best. Why is everyone so beastly to the dear old thing. This is now a pattern familiar enough. This time however there was a bit more of sting to the briefings on both sides.
No 10’s post Cabinet briefings were particularly tart. The Chancellor himself went on camera to slap the Foreign Secretary down. Enough Cabinet Ministers spoke to enough journalists for us to be confident feelings were running high – for and against. This all too suits the Boris script. We are talking about him still.
But was No 10 entirely wise to be quite so sharp? Is Boris positioning himself for a resignation? If he resigns just how much damage would it do?
Boris has already swept one Conservative Prime Minister from office. His time is running out. Patience among many Conservative MPs is wearing much thinner than it did once for his japes and fits. There are many new, keen and talented MPs rising up. Borisification is a boom, bang, bash approach. He might do quite well if he reaches the final two of a Tory leadership contest, but to get there he has to win enough Tory MP support. This is where Michael Portillo stumbled – another much tipped and well hyped hot tip to be leader.
For No 10 losing Boris might not be the killer blow in itself, but a completely unfettered Boris, free to roam the country, with a column restored in a big newspaper, the damage could be immense.
If No 10 does not learn to handle this most mercurial of ministers better – wearying as that maybe – then it may well find it is ringing the changes sooner than it wishes.