The Borisiad

For there is not any vertue that disposeth a man, either to the service of God, or to the service of his Country, to Civill Society, or private Friendship, that did not manifestly appear in his conversation, not as acquired by necessity, or affected upon occasion, but inhaerent, and shining in a generous constitution of his nature. Therefore in honour and gratitude to him, and with devotion to your selfe, I humbly Dedicate unto you this my discourse of Common-wealth. I know not how the world will receive it, nor how it may reflect on those that shall seem to favour it. For in a way beset with those that contend on one side for too great Liberty, and on the other side for too much Authority, ’tis hard to passe between the points of both unwounded.

This then a tribute to Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

Rarely has any man been so beguiling in public life that so much has been written, whether in anticipation of his attaining office, or in examining the minutiae of his action when in such office. He has become a character in his own drama, or his own comedy, known by his single praenomen, ‘Boris’, as a trademark  as much as a name; the persona behind which presumably a real man lives. Who that man is, we many never know: just that all men and women in politics these last years have lived in his shadow. And some resented it with a deadly passion.

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.

It was not with aforethought intent that so much was written about Boris, but as so much was, it makes a volume in itself, written in fits and starts, with no plan, no structure, no determined journey to Ithaka – nor even to 7 Eccles Street – but written as inspiration struck, on the topics or musings of the day.  It is a measure of the fascination or loathing he has inspired that so much has been written with Boris at the centre of it, even without the commentator’s meaning to, and this just on direct references, not the events set in motion by him and carried forth by others.

The man himself is still here and still as brimful with energy, perhaps more so with responsibilities lifted from him. (Responsibilities he always wore lightly, which was most of the trouble.)  It may be he shall reach the Happy Isles, or will stroll to the farm of Cincinnatus or to Colombey.  We cannot tell.

Of what was written on this blog, random and unplanned,  is recorded here as our own Borisiad.

Books

Borisdämmerung

I like Boris. I have never met him but I have seen the unbridled enthusiasm he used to inspire in those who did. I think he has been brilliant. He inspired, uplifted the nation and challenged dull assumptions the way no one else would do, When he was accused by establishment figures of breaking the rules, it was generally their rules and they needed tearing down in order to enable the Government and the Commons to do what they were elected to do.

I was frustrated more when he allowed himself to be bullied and bowed down by bureaucracy and ‘polite opinion’.

Now though it is just getting embarrassing. He cannot sit at the Cabinet Table alone, however tempting it is for that aspect of his deepest character that is not well known – “O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space.”

I would far prefer it if he could stay, and recover that ebullience which made us love him, and drive out all those underlings whose antics have caused embarrassment and scandal, which he was too ready to overlook as a forgiving, hands-off paternal figure.

It was going so well until COVID.  I gasped when he called a lockdown, assured only that it was to be brief, to “squash that sombrero”, but once the lockdown hawks had their teeth into his Cabinet Office, they did not let go.  The overcaution left us shut down in some way or another for nearly two years, and that wrecked the economy structurally.  The opposition parties wanted the lockdown to be harder and longer, which would have made for a deeper recession that ever before since Attlee’s or Wilson’s, but that will not be remembered – just that Boris had his hand on the tiller.

Even if he had not shut the economy down, the rest of the world was shutting themselves down and shutting off the customers which trade needs.  He could not help the war either. which has put the knife in further (well, he could have treated it like a civil war between Russian states and traded with all sides as if nothing had happened but the press cycle doesn’t work like that these days).  His is the face seen in the reflection of the petrol prices.

The scandals were petty, local, nit-picking and nothing all the others were not doing. With the outraged, ousted establishment out to get him though, it was bound to be relentless. What always shocked me though was where the stories came from: Conservatives affected by a gropey MP or a creepy whip, or tales of boozy misconduct – why speak out when they knew it would damage the party and put the levers of power into dangerous hands?  There is something sick about the thought processes and emotions of the political bubble.

He has deep faults, that would have sunk any politician long since in a previous generation.  Some of his faults I can forgive (if it were up to me, which it is not) because they allowed him to think  outside constraints and to achieve what accepted opinion would not believe could be done. The remoaners were right that Brexit could not work if their narrow ideas of possibility were to remain:  Boris broke those preconceptions; he ripped out their Overton window and put in an open-plan window on the world. You have to love him for that.

His irredeemable fault though is that his inner shyness makes him afraid of conflict with those close to him, and they ran rings about him.  The liberty that was necessary to achieve the previously unthinkable became licence to behave badly.  He could not keep a cap on this, and from this followed all the petty scandals – the parties, the groping, and whatever else we have forgotten about.

I will miss him. I hope that whomever Her Majesty selects to fill his place in due time will have that same dash and refusal to be constrained by convention, but all the same, a control over those who would abuse that freedom. Otherwise it will be a long recession, an ignominious election defeat, and the ruin of what was becoming again the greatest nation of the Earth.

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Boris Enigma

Well, I don’t know. After Teflon Tony, is this Bulletproof Boris? In the old days, political journalism was a simple scalp-hunt: a single word that would be twisted to be portrayed as a gaffe, and a public figure would resign, and a party leader who faced the same anger from his own MPs and the public as Boris has would have gone ages since. Boris stares them out, and it used to work for him. Maybe he thinks it will, and maybe he is right.

It does not look like it at the moment. Once he was loved, but as Congreve reminds us “Heaven hath no rage like love to hatred turned”. The magic spell once broken may not be conjurable again.

All the old socialist conspiracy theories are doing the rounds again in the old Red Wall. As the inestimable ConHome observed recently, no Conservative leader since the egregious Heath has been defeated by a leadership challenge or party vote of no confidence, but after a challenge, none has survived the year.

The problems are well recited and all because of the lockdown: the creeping recession, the debt burden, the sweat-inducing taxes, inflation, and the petty party scandal. He was warned by the backbenches, but he looked strong and popular pushing the waters back, until the tide rushed in again, as it had to.

What now though?  After Labour-level spending we have a senior Cabinet member speaking:

when a country faces an inflationary problem, you can’t just pay more or spend more”, and condemning “the same mindset that we had during COVID: that the answer to every problem is more state spending.

Who is this paragon of Conservatism, who condemns excessive spending and goes on to demand a quick lifting of the excessive tax burden?  It is Boris himself, speaking this afternoon in Blackpool.

As the sage himself is now saying: “The answer is economic growth. You can’t spend your way out of inflation, and you can’t tax your way into growth.

Is this the same Boris who has has spent and taxed his way into an avoidable national slump?

Speak well, but we expect action. I dislike Biblical parables for politics, but this grand exposition of fiscal probity and devout Conservative faith recalls what James warned “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” In government, salvation is by works.

When the wild spending began, it was uncomfortable but was in a period when the economy was booming; immediately after Brexit and with investment flooding in and confidence restored, the economy becoming one of the fastest growing in the developed world. That stopped when China’s latest gift to the world appeared and the world’s governments panicked. Good times can come again, but not with this tax burden.

An election is approaching, quickly. That is not much time for Boris, or whoever is in his seat this time tomorrow, to perform a miracle. Strangely, Boris is the only man who has ever performed such a miracle before.

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Measures, four Measures

The chaos of unruled juvenility in the heart of government has been known about for many years, and it took this lockdown car-crash to expose what should have been a scandal long before.

Whether events took place during the lockdown or not is irrelevant – that is just a hook to hang confected moral outrage on – what matters is that the behaviour described should be scandalous whenever it happened, and that it went by with impunity. That culture of impunity must be dealt with, with zealous severity.

Boris is not the one to do it. He has allowed himself to become the root of the problem, because he is the smiling, hands-off boss who avoids confrontation and can never be cross with anyone for long.  He is though aware of a literary precedent for sending in a strict regent to do the job which must be done.

The appearance, from Sue Grey’s frank, excoriating report, is of staff out of control.  The private sector could not work like that – if I were to get drunk in the office or assault a co-worker and swear at support staff, I would be out on my ear with little prospect of a replacement job on the horizon – in Number 10 it appears that SPADs and junior civil servants have been enjoying the liberty of impunity, which confusion of responsibility brings.

It would be bad enough in a normal office where it all happens only on a personal level. In an office which wields the powers of peace and war, which reshapes vital structures of government and controls 40% of the nation’s GDP, this behaviour goes beyond internal discipline and becomes a vital public interest.

How it happens we can guess. The Downing Street machine contains ministers, civil servants and special advisers, and who controls whom is where the issues begin. Each group has its own chains of command, and if those chains are not pulled tight, they will run out of control. The staff whoever they may be are people, after all. The civil servants cannot command the SPADs and the SPADs cannot command the civil servants outside their specific responsibilities – they have separate priorities, separate duties and codes of conduct, and no way for misconduct to be pulled up tight if the relevant chief is out of the room.  This should have been foreseen when Tony Blair introduced the concept of political special advisers.

For the special advisers, if criticised by senior staff they can always thumb their noses and say their boss is the Prime Minister, and this particular the Prime Minister is a hands-off boss whose very manner encourages the taking of liberties.

Boris Johnson is reluctant and now unable to control the staff. Now let him turn to a play.  The Bard places Duke Vincentio of Vienna in the same position.  He saw himself as the problem, as under his liberal rule the laws had become laxly observed:

We have strict statutes and most biting laws.
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this nineteen years we have let slip;
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threatening twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock’d than fear’d; so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead;
And liberty plucks justice by the nose;
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.

Vincentio therefore left the city in the hands of Lord Angelo, “A man of stricture and firm abstinence”, with the command to restore respect for the laws of morality, which Angelo did with zeal until his own bodily temptations drew him. Boris is Vincentio who has let his people get away with excessive liberties. He needs an Angelo, preferably one less corruptible, to take command and apply excessive zeal to restoring the government machine. Like Angelo, he must receive absolute authority, and like Vincentio, Boris must withdraw to a distance so that his staff will not queue up to appeal to his mercy over the heads of grim Angelo.

The task then for Angelo is to take command and fundamentally, not to be Boris.  Measures he or she can take to bring order should start:

  • A command across all of government: no alcohol may be consumed nor provided for consumption in any government office even after hours in any context, even high-level receptions (those at the top must set an example);
  • Senior civil servants in each ministry and in Number 10 to be given specific authority to rebuke and discipline special advisers in their ministry for breaches of the advisers’ code or for illegal conduct, and vice versa.
  • Whistleblower protection, along the lines of that introduced by Stephen Harper in Canada – no civil servant or special adviser should be afraid to report wrongdoing to his or her supervisor and if necessary to a Public Sector Integrity Commissioner. This must apply just as much to devolved administrations and local authorities as to Whitehall and its quangos.
  • Omerta: Blabbing is damaging to the smooth working of government.  Misconduct should be stamped on but privately: both civil servants and SPADs work in a confidential atmosphere and must not leak. The current crop of chatty rats sap our confidence in the integrity of the process and make it look as if Whitehall cannot be trusted with the privacy of our  personal information, if they are blabbers. Anyone can be self-righteous about openness, but private discipline is the most effective, and effectiveness is what is needed. A minister can give a good kicking to a wayward underling in private that he would not do in public. Working with a good, statutory whistle-blower protection, it will clear out the system like nothing else.

The Thick of It is not meant to be a training film. That culture must be ended, without mercy.

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Go out amongst the land

Isolated for two years: it is not healthy, and you lose track of those usual social interactions that tell you what the neighbours’ are thinking; what their needs and worries are. Isolated in a Downing Street echo-chamber it is even worse. Boris needs to get out, to meet people.

He always used to be star value on the street – I have met people who had encountered him and who babbled enthusiastically about everything he did and said – he was a rockstar. That of course was before he had to take responsibility for things, and before we felt the lash of government in his name.

The Spads have been hurled out and replaced by doorstep politicians – good. The Number 10 machine is taking back control – good. There is red meat – aye but with some festering corners, and those taxes are still Labour-level crippling. Now the big reconnect is needed.

Others now in place can hammer at the priorities of efficiency and the opportunities of Brexit, of the Culture War in Whitehall, of combating Chinese state subversion, and of stopping the world blowing itself up on the steppe.  That is all within Whitehall.  The Prime Minister needs to eave it, and find out how the rest of us are getting on.

Open the gates at the end of Downing Street, step into the street, walk across Green Park and out into normal London, and then the rest of the work.  The nation does not live in that clustered officeworld behind, but in the terraced streets of Lancashire and the old mill towns of Nottinghamshire, and the back alleys of Glasgow and Belfast, and the lost-behind villages of the countryside. Here the mandarins do not make our priorities nor curb our dreams, or our worries.  Here we see what happens when politicians have bright ideas and try them out on us, and we have the scars and bankruptcies to prove it.

Reconnecting is vital to governing, and votes to be frank. As I wrote before, the ordinary people once adored and trusted Boris, and if they feel like a spurned lover, now is an opportunity for him to listen, to learn again what their doorstep concerns are, their worries, their aspirations, their petty jealousies and to remember from his far-back memory what once made him an icon of hope. There is hope, and we want to feel it again.

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