Context is everything. Six months ago at the height of his vaccine popularity, Boris Johnson’s frivolous and turbulent speech after a business conference would be dismissed as just an extreme example of the British Prime Minister’s unconventional yet winning style. Instead, after a series of missteps, it is a metaphor for his leadership; A Wizard of Oz moment, the day Tories saw through magic.
The mistakes flowed quickly and each tested the goodwill of his MPs. There was his misjudged defense of Owen Paterson, the Tory MP caught in a lobbying scandal, and then the falsified rail strategy launch, which overshadowed £ 96 billion in investment by canceling long-promised high speed rail projects for the north of England. This week, an uprising took place over social care funding plans, offering the poorest homeowners the least financial protection. It all comes as the vaccine poll bump has faded. Voters are facing higher living costs and tax increases just as Johnson is struggling with the Covid hangover of desperately strained public services and devastated public finances.
Against this backdrop, Monday’s speech, strangely enough sprinkled with talk of a trip to Peppa Pig World, seemed like a leader had lost his focus and touch. Hence the panicked calls for new advisers.
In fact, the only surprise is that anyone was surprised. This is who Johnson is. He sees chaos as the core of his appeal; no change of staff will make him less volatile. What is new, however, is the absence of a strategic mission to cover its flaws and shortcomings.
So far, he has had at least one major project that has defined, driven and largely united his party. The first was Brexit; the second was the approach of Covid. There were missteps and rebellions on the way, but both issues served a clear purpose. MPs largely clung to him because they were a team with a shared goal.
Suddenly there is no joint project. One MP remarked: “Conservatives used to be for low taxes and good management of the economy. Then we were for Brexit. Now we are not really sure what we are for. ”
The closest they have, the supposedly core task of “leveling” the economy, is seen as something between a slogan and an instinct, a potpourri of policies from bus upgrades, to free ports and funds for town centers, constrained by what the state finance permit.
The battles with the EU over the Brexit settlement for Northern Ireland bring some allies together, but also remind voters that Brexit may not be as “finished” as previously suggested. To curb it all, Nigel Farage is raging right-wingly by emphasizing the government’s powerlessness over illegal migrants crossing the canal. It all plays into the criticism that Johnson over-promises and delivers.
Despite all the talk of better advisers, what Johnson really needs is the momentum and sense of leadership that comes from a major political and economic project. In the absence of an alternative, it must be equality.
Michael Gove, the most strategic of Johnson’s ministers, will publish the long-awaited white paper on flattening in the next few weeks. It is meant to be the detailed map that turns a slogan into a strategy. A serious document with coherent plans to revive regions – and criteria against which the policy can be judged – will give the government renewed purpose. Money for transport links and high streets is good, but it does not amount to a growth strategy and Tory MPs are painfully aware that rising national incomes are what they need if they want to cut taxes and keep spending.
There are those who argue that it is a wiser political tactic to keep equality vague, but what the Tories need now is something more convincing than a pursuit. To level the playing field must provide a path to higher growth, as well as reasons to believe that neglected towns can rebuild prosperity and communities. That means putting meat on the bones.
And yet the sounds that have surfaced so far are not encouraging. Johnson is reportedly uneasy about clear criteria, which could set him up for failure. Those who speak to Gove fear a weakening commitment to meaningful decentralization. More mayors are expected – especially at the district level – but there seems to be less appetite to give the existing metro mayors significant extra powers to formulate policies for their region.
It is a core of those who argue that regional leaders are best placed to assess the economic and social needs of their territories. The debates continue, but a brave and far-reaching strategy could prompt Johnson’s unhappy MPs to once again believe that there is a valuable transformation project at the heart of this government.
Upgrading, and the associated investment in infrastructure and innovation, is the closest the Tories have to that project. But it is a long-term process rather than a solution to an election cycle and must be pursued with conviction and rigor. Johnson’s own MPs have to believe it’s real, which means more than cash letters to a few target seats.
Johnson is in no immediate danger. But unless they find that meaningful economic mission, the Tories will face tough times with a leader chatting about Peppa Pig and increasingly defined by his misjudgment; An amusement park premiere that both they and the voters can deduce is no longer so entertaining.