There is feverish speculation that Boris Johnson’s days may be numbered. That the spell is broken. The magic is gone. The jokes are no longer funny because we sense he is laughing at us. All Prime Ministers get into scrapes. They face scandals, resignations, hostile newspaper front pages. But the incumbent, to put it gently, is not felt to have responded to such challenges adeptly.
Perhaps an inquiry will find that, due to some technicality, rules were not broken at the Downing Street party. That a business meeting where catering is provided is not officially a party. Even if wine and mince pies were served rather than mineral water and sandwiches. Even if, after the official deliberations were concluded, presents were exchanged and one or two jokes were told. But the public still smell the stench of hypocrisy. During the MPs expenses scandal in 2009, the justification often used that “rules were not broken” was insufficient to assuage public anger. The basic point was that our leaders were working the system to provide themselves with preferential treatment.
Two years on from the Conservative euphoria at a landslide General Election victory, the Conservative Party has ceased to be the Boris Johnson fan club. Those who came into politics to fight for individual liberty and a smaller state wonder what they are doing trudging through the division lobbies to vote for the opposite. Brexit has been “done”, but why haven’t more of the regulations we inherited been scrapped? Patience is wearing thin.
It may be premature to predict an imminent departure for Boris Johnson, but there is one prediction I am confident about making: the next Prime Minister of our country will be a bore.
The public mood alternates between wanting a bold adventurer then someone quiet
I don’t know who it will be. Or from which Party. Or when they will take office. But I know it will be a bore — because their turn has come. Safety first, will be the pitch. A serious man (or woman) for serious times. No risk-taking or revolutionary zeal — at least, in rhetoric. Just steady competent leadership. Only modest improvements will be offered. But the very modesty of the promise will give credibility that practical solid improvements will be delivered.
History shows a rhythm in the type of person who occupies 10 Downing Street. The public mood alternates between wanting a bold adventurer then someone quiet and dependable. Then after a few years, there is certain restlessness for someone more exciting. On it goes.
In 1945 there was a General Election which returned a Labour landslide. Winston Churchill — a national hero, an inspiring orator, the greatest Englishman of our time — was kicked out. Churchill may have been exciting. But then punters felt they had quite enough excitement, thanks very much. So the new Prime Minister was Clement Attlee. Tony Benn later reflected, “Attlee had about as much charisma as a mouse. He was short and bald as a coot and had a little moustache.” His opponents were even less kind: “An empty taxi pulled up in front of Number Ten Downing Street and Mr Attlee got out” was a fashionable contemporary sneer.
Benn used this example as evidence for his case that “it’s not about personalities, it’s the policies that matter”. But what if Atlee did not triumph despite his dullness but because of his dullness?
In later years we saw the rejection of Alec Douglas-Home — very old fashioned, decent and proper with a head like a skull. In came Harold Wilson — that cunning and duplicity chancer, quick-witted cheeky chappy, keen to be modern with whizz bangs and white heat.
Then it was the bores’ turn so in comes Ted Heath. In later years he ceased to be boring as his sulking reached such epic proportions and his self-importance became impossible to parody. But I’m assured by those who remember that as Prime Minister he was excruciatingly tedious to listen to — however much unintentional entertainment value he might have provided subsequently.
Then we had Wilson again. Then calm, complacent avuncular Jim Callaghan. Then followed, of course, Margaret Thatcher’s rendezvous with destiny. Strident, conviction politics that could scarcely have been more of a contrast with the comfortable tone of Sunny Jim.
After Thatcher, we needed a good rest. Michael Heseltine wanted the job but he was too exciting. So in comes John Major, the grey man. Then we got bored with him so in comes bright shiny Tony Blair keen for everything to be new and modern. When his flashy smiling showmanship began to pall, we switched to grumpy, serious Gordon Brown. After his leadership seemed a bit miserable we “let sunshine in” with optimistic compassionate David Cameron. Of course, after Cameron it was the bores’ turn again so Theresa May’s hour had come — authentic, dependable down to earth. Once we could cope with the tedium no longer, the sharpest possible contrast was needed with Boris Johnson. A couple of years on and the grumbles are becoming more audible about him not being a serious person and how his jokes are wearing a bit thin. Eventually, those complaints will grow into a clamour and it will be time for a successor. By the time that choice is made the country will be crying out for dullness.
The opinion polls have only just started showing a clear Labour lead
In some ways just allowing nature to take its course and dispensing with premiers according to switches in the public mood makes more sense than warning an incumbent PM to change. Boris Johnson can’t change. He couldn’t be dull if he tried and would be miserable trying. By contrast, with Theresa May it was a form of cruelty trying to make the 2017 General Election into a presidential campaign, seeking to establish a cult of personality around someone who frankly was rather short of that commodity.
There is a caveat that often the switch of PM is not made by the electorate but by the Party.
They sense the public are turning away from and so engage in a preemptive cringe — casting their leader aside in the hope that the sacrificial offering will be enough to placate the disgruntled electorate. The opinion polls have only just started showing a clear Labour lead — which may not last. Conservative MPs may feel it would be perverse to mount a coup against Boris without a clear and sustained Labour poll lead.
We can never know for sure what would have happened if loyalty had prevailed under such circumstances previously. For instance, would Neil Kinnock have beaten Magaret Thatcher in the 1992 General Election?
I’m not so sure. I remember hearing a speech Thatcher gave a few months after she was ousted as Prime Minister. She quoted Churchill’s call: “In Victory, Magnanimity.” But then she broke off from her text to add: “But not beforehand, mind. That’s what we did with Saddam Hussein over Kuwait!”
Operation Desert Storm had recently concluded after the invasion of Kuwait. Not only had Saddam’s forces been removed from Kuwait but the Coalition forces — including UK and US troops — advanced into Iraq at a rapid rate. The Iraqis rejoiced at this liberation. But it proved illusory, as the Coalition forces then withdrew. Suppose Thatcher had still been PM and had persuaded George H. W. Bush to press on with the removal of Saddam Hussein? Would that not have been popular? Or might the British electorate have decided they had had quite enough excitement from one premier?
Either way, the desire for a change of temperament was bound to come eventually. It is futile to demand that anyone change their fundamental characteristics. That leaves the only option of ditching them, when sooner or later we have had enough. It may not always be a just or heroic aspect to our island story. But muddling along with this British compromise has been compatible with our national survival thus far.
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