ANDREW NEIL: I fear Boris Johnson can't 'wing it' much longer

ANDREW NEIL: These are serious times that require serious people and I fear Boris Johnson can’t ‘wing it’ much longer

Any Tory MPs still left clinging to the notion that Boris Johnson can change — that he can preside over a 10 Downing Street operation run by grown-ups and a government with seriousness of purpose, direction and focus — must finally have been disabused of that fallacy by events this week.

His decision to double-down on the sort of reckless behaviour that got him into so much hot water in the first place means even long-standing, close supporters are now deserting him and the Tory party is fast approaching the end of its tether. 

For the Prime Minister the game is pretty much up. The blunt reality is that Johnson will never change. He doesn’t have it in him to do so, even if he wanted to.

It is his default position to stumble from unforced, self-inflicted crisis to unforced, self-inflicted crisis.

As Prime Minister your behaviour affects your party, parliament, government and the nation’s global reputation. Johnson has sullied all of the above with his shenanigans. Tory MPs increasingly just want the agony to end

He appears convinced that he can always bluff his way out of a tight spot, kick the ball into the long grass, blame others, wait for people’s attention to fade — always secure in the knowledge that, for reasons I’ve never quite fathomed, they’ll cut him a lot more slack than any other politician.

And until now it’s worked. In his personal, professional and political lives he has sailed through scandals that would have consigned mere mortals to the wilderness. No longer.

As Prime Minister your behaviour affects your party, parliament, government and the nation’s global reputation. Johnson has sullied all of the above with his shenanigans.

Tory MPs increasingly just want the agony to end. It won’t as long as Johnson is in 10 Downing Street. It’s easy to forget that only a few months ago he and his party were still riding high in the polls.

Then came the self-indulgent and colossal misjudgment to try to save former minister Owen Paterson from parliamentary discipline over an ‘egregious’ breach of lobbying rules. 

It’s easy to forget that only a few months ago he and his party were still riding high in the polls. The PM is pictured in the Downing Street Garden with Carrie in May 2020

The absurd Peppa Pig speech to the Confederation of British Industry. The endless rumbling row over Wallpapergate. And, above all, the leaks which revealed that at the height of lockdown Downing Street had become Party Central. 

All scandals prolonged and worsened by Johnson’s hallmark resort to obfuscation and dissembling.

I’ve learned from these mistakes, Johnson assured Tory MPs mulling over mounting a no-confidence vote against him. It won’t happen again. Except it did, this week, when he accused Labour leader Keir Starmer of being too busy prosecuting journalists when he was head of the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute the infamous paedophile, Jimmy Savile. 

It was an incendiary claim which appalled not just Labour but many of his own backbenchers. 

One of his brightest and most loyal confidantes, someone he had worked with for 14 years, Munira Mirza, resigned as head of the Downing Street policy unit in disgust.

When challenged on his controversial claim’s veracity he said he thought it was ‘fairly accurate’, which most folks will think is not quite a high enough bar for the Prime Minister of our nation.

For Johnson, however, it’s the acme of truth — ‘fairly accurate’ is as good as it gets.

As if on cue, the old Boris rose from his shallow grave to dispatch the short-lived new Boris. His spinners claimed that Mirza’s departure was all part of a broader plan to bring fresh blood into Downing Street.

There is no question that the lurch from scandal to scandal, none of them necessary, is undermining Government policy, writes Andrew Neil (pictured)

That’s why three other senior aides had resigned or been removed on the same day as Mirza. It was stuff and nonsense.

Far from a coherent plan to revive Downing Street there was only chaos and confusion. Nobody had a clue who would replace the departers.

Senior Tories wondered aloud who of stature and experience would be mad enough to join the Johnson operation. He’d told Tory MPs that Lynton Crosby, the Australian election guru known as the Wizard of Oz, was back on team Johnson. They lapped it up.

Turns out he’s only on the end of a phone, a phone that is at the other end of the world in Sydney.

Last Sunday they learned that all the indications he’d trailed before them that he was thinking of abandoning this April’s rise in National Insurance contributions were just teasing — he co-authored a newspaper article with Chancellor Rishi Sunak to confirm they’re going ahead with it.

Hints that he might pull back from the more ludicrous and expensive elements of his net zero green strategy were quickly replaced by promises not to deviate from it (no doubt his eco-warrior wife had a word with him).

So where are we this weekend? From my soundings I believe the following is becoming the consensus Tory view: Scandals are baked into the Boris Brand and they will always be a feature of any government he leads.

The damage they cause could become irreparable the longer it is allowed to fester. And nothing will change as long as he’s in charge.

As one senior Tory, until now a fan of Mr Johnson, put it to me: ‘You just don’t know what’s coming next. We cannot go on like this.’

There is no question that the lurch from scandal to scandal, none of them necessary, is undermining Government policy. This week the Chancellor announced £9 billion to support those struggling with rising fuel bills. It was overshadowed by the meltdown in support for Johnson.

Earlier in the week Michael Gove unveiled the Government’s flagship policy — levelling up the poorer North with the richer South. It was relegated to a B-division story as scandals continued to swish around the PM.

Even Boris’s growing band of enemies do not wish to detract from his achievements.

They recognise he was pivotal to winning the Brexit referendum in 2016 and essential to the destruction of the Corbyn Labour party in the 2019 general election, seeing off the most serious hard-Left threat the country ever faced and winning the biggest Tory majority for 30 years. These two victories alone will guarantee his place in the history books, they aver.

They also recognise a man of great intelligence and wit — a Heineken politician who can reach the sort of voters other Tories cannot. To that extent, getting rid of him is not without its risks. But his undoubted attributes are marred by fatal character flaws.

An inability to focus for long on the problem at hand. An over-confidence in his own intellectual prowess which means he doesn’t do essential homework or master vital detail, placing too much faith in his ability to ‘wing it’.

An unattractive solipsism, which means the uppermost thought in his mind is too often: ‘What’s in this for me?’ Above all, a predilection for being economical with the truth if it gets him out of a tight spot (albeit often temporarily).

Says one former Tory minister: ‘The hallmark of this government is Johnson’s repeated denials that he lied to or misled his party or parliament or the nation — or more likely all three. They suck the oxygen out of everything else. It’s no way to run a country.’

Inflation is now at 5.4 per cent and is set to reach an eye-watering 7.25 per cent in April. Living standards are being squeezed as never before in modern times.

Soaring energy prices mean poorer households will need to make a painful trade-off between heating and eating. The drum beat of war grows ever louder on Europe’s eastern borders.

These are serious times requiring serious people and serious responses. Even Johnson’s greatest admirers would not claim he’s cut out to be what the French call an homme serieux.

There are the makings of a modern tragedy in all this. How different it could have been if Johnson had been able to rise to the challenges of Prime Minister and devoted his abilities to the job.

But it has not happened. Tories are concluding it will not happen, rightly in my view. We are where we are — the dying days of the Johnson era.

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