Put not your trust in princes

Solomon we know as the wise king, his very name indicating ‘peace’, but the opening of his reign was drenched in blood; a warning to those who hope to rise by deposing a ruler and seeking favour with his successor.

It was the same with King David. He became king when Saul was defeated in battle on Mount Gilboa and threw himself on his own sword. The Book of Samuel (2 Samuel 1) tells us that an Amalekite youth ran to Ziklag and told David that he had slain Saul out of mercy:  David did not reward the young man for removing of this last step to make him King, but had the youth killed at once for his regicide.

David’s position was secured when Rechab and Banaah slew Saul’s son, Ishbosheth. David had them executed for it, though he must have been relieved also.

Solomon, according to 1 Kings 2, ascended his father’s throne in peace, only to unleash bloodshed to secure his authority.  On his first days as King, in revenging wrongs done to his father and potential threats to his position:

  • Joab the son of Zeruiah, the mighty general, was dragged from the Altar  and slain: David condemned him in his last breaths for the murders of Abner and Amasa in peacetime, and Joab lost any chance of forgiveness from Solomon when he was accused of adhering to Abijah’s claim to the throne.
  • Shimei the son of Gera received mercy for a while: David wanted him dead for having cursed David when he fled into temporary exile after Absalom’s treason, but Solomon left him under house-arrest, killing him when three years later he fled Jerusalem.
  • Abijah, the king’s own elder half-brother was executed as  threat, if proximately for requesting Abishag the Shunammite as his bride
  • Abiathar the priest was driven into exile with the threat of death were he to return.

A new ruler is in a difficult position: all the expectation and all the jealousy; a wish to be loved in order to secure the throne now, against the need to assert  authority to secure it for the future; the desire to reward ones followers but the knowledge that rewarding past betrayal will encourage new betrayal.

David took the throne from the House of Saul but would not promote those who put him there. His descendants inherited, but only with effort and ruthlessness, exercising wisdom or foolishness in their methods.

It is not just princes but political demarchs who swirl in dangerous intrigue, though their risings and deposings, in our society at least, are generally less sanguineous.

The plotter is in a poor position. Buckingham (in the play at least) helped Richard of Gloucester to depose his nephews and seize the throne, but once  Richard III was crowned, he had no need of Buckingham, who could demand no favours: he rebelled and was executed. In politics an intriguer is in the same position:  he works to place a friend in Number 10 and that favoured candidate will be a close companion of mutual dependence, until the moment that black door closes. Why would a new PM trust a man proven to be a scoundrel and a betrayer? As candidate he must encourage supporters to turn against their masters, but when he or she is in place, then they must crack down hard on betrayers.

It has been the same since the first tribal chief took his place. The contradictions of political power, responsibility and intrigue have not changed and cannot be reconciled.

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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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Spies, lies and mince pies

I will not weep for all the junior staffers who this time next week will be serving tables at Spadulike: they are the least casualties of a weird few weeks. Chinese spies subverting the state? Barely a column inch. A mince pie after work? Page upon page.

The public anger at the drinks-after-work is genuine and raging. Logically it makes no sense:  it involved each time people who had been packed together in offices working hard (for the public good, let’s not forget), then being allowed to relax informally. How that constitutes a virus risk when being crushed together in an office was not, defies reason. Using the word ‘party’ too makes it sound like a raucous riot, which is far from what has been described. Public anger is not amenable to logical though, and voting in a few years’ time will not be logical either.

Then we discovered that someone named a few years ago as a Chinese agent of influence had implanted an agent in the office of a senior Shadow Cabinet member. That member had spoken in support of the regime in Peking. That should have been an earth-shattering outrage., but it barely registered. It is just normal business it seems to have a hostile and genocidal foreign power in control of the offices of members of Parliament.

Now, if the spy had stepped into a garden after work, that would have been a major scandal, apparently.

However we got here, we are here. Let us not forget though that the decline in Boris’s fortunes started before someone snitched on sipping a glass after work. The Chesham and Amersham By-Election was in June, and Boris’s magic touch has been teetering every since. We have wearied of endless lockdown, petty restrictions and the way local bullies use them to batter their neighbours, and when the grocery bill comes in, prices have risen when pay has not, and taxes are at Labour levels, which makes us all wonder whom we have elected.

In the voter’s house, there is less on the plate these days. At the same time, the government has allowed left-wing quangocrats to live on the high hog still, pushing us about on our own money. Forget the ‘parties’: Boris has been laughing at us for taking our votes and doing nothing he promised except the one big thing, Brexit.

Maybe the Downing Street culture has gone rotten.  It looks like it from outside  SpAds are still a novel thing: there were none until Tony Blair invented them: it was considered outrageous at the time, but in retrospect a sensible innovation if done properly. Even so, teams of loud youth pumped with hormones thinking themselves omnipotent and harassing elder civil servants is asking for disaster. In this, Boris has not commanded but appeared as just their benevolent uncle; a figurehead.

If there is a strong Number 10 machine, the PM needs to command it. If there is collegiate government devolved to ministries, which is more Boris’s style, then the Number 10 machine must shrink.

What can he do?  Firstly, throw out the spads who keep getting him into trouble. Hire better ones maybe, but they whisper memento mori in their ears. Then get back on course, convincingly this time. We are promised some meat there, but until that meat is on the table, filling up the depleted plates of the voters, the voters may remain cynical.

Also, deal with Chinese Government agents of influence; neutralise their spending power and expose their networks.  That is the real scandal, even if the press choose the salacious gossip about office arrangements instead of exposing a threat at the nation’s heart.

Then Boris has either of two roads to take. He might sit at the top of the table and work hard doing the job he is paid for, to implement the manifesto and get taxes down, giving his personal authority to ministers to defeat the inertia in their departments. Alternatively, he could step aside from the Cabinet Table, leave his day-to-day duties and salary behind him, and walk abroad in the land, reconnecting with it and with the ordinary people who once adored and trusted him, finding out what their doorstep concerns are, their worries, their aspirations, their petty jealousies, finding out what it was that once made him an icon of hope.

We all lost connections over the lockdown. We need to rebuild them.

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By Boris Johnson:

Enter Ross

There stands a new party leader: Douglas Ross, chosen swiftly without contest when lesser candidates withdrew in the sight of his coming. The new Leader of the Scottish Conservatives is barely known outside his own circle, or at least so the BBC would leave it, as they know no one but the main players. (The political newsmen also seem to have a mental block over anything north of the Tweed.)

I will admit that I had hardly heard of the man but to note his triumph over the SNP in Moray, which had been their fiefdom for years – it was the awful Margaret Ewing’s seat. He also glinted into publicity recently by resigning a ministerial post over Dominic Cummings, and I thought he would slip into obscurity, for Boris does not forget these things easily.

On the other hand, Douglas Ross is a man born in Aberdeen, which is Michael Gove’s home town and so he has a recommendation at the top. He is not a university man, studying instead to take over his father’s farm, and a man of the soil always has a common touch to recommend him. He is not a titled man (Fay tells me his title is “the Dashing”, but I’ll pass over that). He studied in Forres, as in ‘How far is’t call’d to Forres?’ and is rooted in the soil of Morayshire. He has been politically sacked and politically resigned, suggesting more independence of mind than is healthy in a dedicated party politician, but which is an advantage to one who would make an impact on his own.

He has a heavy task ahead of him. The BBC do not entirely block Scotland from their coverage – it is just devolved, which means it is forgotten for most of the country. The corps of journalists o’ the North, so they say, would sell their souls to win an interview with ‘Nicola’, and Snoopy (sorry, the SNP) control access, forbidding it to any who are unfriendly – it ensures positive coverage of the Snoopy government at all times.

As Holyrood is looking to muzzle speech more effectively now under cover of hate-speech legislation, breaking through is to be harder still.

Ross might well lament like his namesake who also came to Forres:

Alas, poor country!
Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot
Be call’d our mother, but our grave; where nothing,
But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;
Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air
Are made, not mark’d; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy; the dead man’s knell
Is there scarce ask’d for who; and good men’s lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.

Courage though. Ruth Davidson made a breakthrough, somehow, by making an impact, and Douglas Ross has more conventional charm to turn upon the voters.

Actually, I feel more admiration for Jackson Carlaw, his immediate predecessor. Carlaw resigned without warning, without a great uprising in the ranks. He did so for the best and most rare reason – he felt he was not up to the task. What other politician has ever admitted this without facing actual defeat? The cause of Conservatism is more than one man.

For that I saw the tyrant’s power a-foot:
Now is the time of help; your eye in Scotland
Would create soldiers, make our women fight,
To doff their dire distresses.

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