Defending Boris Johnson

Johnson might be disorganised, but he is not dim

Extract From Telegraph. Daniel Hannan 22 January 2022 • 5:00pm

I can think of several reasons why you might want Boris Johnson gone. Perhaps you are still sore about Brexit. Perhaps you feel he was too strict during the lockdowns, or perhaps that he was too lax. Perhaps you think he is spending too much. Perhaps you are a Labour supporter, and you want an early general election. Perhaps you are a big fan of one of the potential Tory leadership contenders.

These are understandable grounds on which to wish to be rid of him. But stepping into his garden to thank officials? Seriously?

Overseas observers find the row utterly mystifying. Britain is coming out of the epidemic before any other country. It is sending hardware to Ukraine in anticipation of what might turn into an all-out war. Yet its politicians and journalists remain obsessed with staffers drinking wine in a garden two years ago.

Ah, you say, but it’s not about the wine. It’s about the fact that the Prime Minister broke the rules and then lied about it to MPs. Well, if he is found to have done these things, he will have to resign – even if Vladimir Putin’s columns have by then punched their way across Europe and occupied Paris. Under our system, lying to Parliament is the unpardonable sin, the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost that shall not be forgiven unto men.

For what it’s worth, though, I’m pretty sure that Boris has not committed that particular offence. He might be chaotic, impatient with the rules, a disruptor – characteristics of which we were well aware when we voted for him, and which arguably helped deliver both Brexit and the vaccine procurement programme – but I don’t believe he can have lied to Parliament, and I’ll tell you why.

The story of the gathering in the garden on May 20 2020 was first made public, as many recent accusations have been, by Dominic Cummings. It came in a blog on January 7, and was presumably intended, at least in part, to deflect criticism from Cummings himself, who had been pictured alongside drinks in the Downing Street garden on a different May evening.

The blog contained a paragraph that is worth quoting in full (emphasis in the original):

Because No10’s political and communication operation has imploded, it has failed to explain something very obvious to anybody working there at the time: No 10 staff were ENCOURAGED to have meetings in the garden April-August for the obvious reason that we were in a pandemic with an airborne disease and being outside was safer! All day every day in this period there were many work meetings in the No 10 garden.

That is the context in which the PM was asked to step outside and thank the civil servants who had remained at their posts through the lockdown. Every day, by Cummings’s own account, the garden was full of officials.

Should Johnson have seen red flashing lights when he saw glasses and bottles? In retrospect, perhaps he should.

But I can well imagine, in his position, thinking, “No doubt this has all been signed off by whoever is in charge.” And if your response is, “But he was in charge, he was Prime Minister”, then you misunderstand his role. The PM is not supposed to act as a No 10 HR manager. He has a nuclear-armed G7 country to run.

Johnson might be disorganised, but he is not dim. He must have realised that Cummings might use whatever kompromat he had. Had he been conscious of breaking the rules, he would have known that his former employee might expose it.

In other words, if he was lying when he denied that there had been any parties, it was the stupidest lie imaginable, for he would have known that the facts would come out.

No, the only explanation that makes sense is that the PM believed he was acting within the rules when he addressed staff at their place of work.

No one wants to hear this, of course. We are angry – understandably angry – about all the privations and prohibitions we have just lived through. I still feel the choler rise in my gorge when I think of the taped-off playgrounds, the sunbathers being moved on, the police drones. In our frustration, we want someone to blame.

Epidemics have often been followed by bursts of violence. Sometimes, as Tom Holland showed in his spectacular history Dominion, plagues prompted a bout of statue-smashing. More often, our ancestors directed their ire at witches or at religious minorities. We direct ours at politicians.

It was Johnson’s misfortune to shamble into view just at the moment when the epidemic was ending, just as anxiety was giving way to indignation, just as we were looking for a target on which to vent our frustration.

Few things are as maddening as the idea that the people setting the rules are ignoring them. Many of us will cling to our grievance even if the PM is shown to have acted in good faith.

You might think that I’m being overly generous to an old Telegraph hack, but I don’t think No 10 likes to be defended in this way.

The party line, as you can’t have failed to notice, is to apologise and move on. Yes, yes, he’s terribly sorry, utterly contrite, quite miserable, but let’s not overlook the fact that we’re the fastest-growing major economy in the world.

Conservative strategists sense that, just as during the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009, no one is interested in clarifications, corrections or mitigations. Offer any excuse and you place yourself in the path of a lynch mob.

In any case, I don’t think the Prime Minister is blameless. Yes, he deserves far more credit than he has had for reopening the country. But that gain will be squandered if he carries on governing like a social democrat.

Boris’s fondness for grands projets was, like his impatience with rules, priced in before the 2019 general election. I voted for him knowing that he liked to spend public money, whether on bridges, social care schemes, hospitals or ships. But I reasoned that, provided we had a decent measure of post-EU free trade and deregulation, we could pay for these things out of higher growth. What we cannot do is to carry on douching cash all over the place as if we had not dropped that unforeseen half trillion on the epidemic.

The inflation that everyone except the Bank of England was warning about is now upon us. By the end of the year, most of us will be palpably poorer. We will either have to work longer hours to sustain our standard of living, or we will find that we can no longer afford as many things.

Reduced living standards will be the central fact of our politics for the rest of this Parliament, and the next election will be won by the party that is better trusted on the economy.

As the country gets back to the office, ministers need to go all-out for growth. That will mean facing down vested interests and immobilist officials to deliver meaningful deregulation, of the kind set out by Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers and George Freeman in their report.

It will mean removing trade barriers, including in agriculture. It will mean lower, flatter and simpler taxes. Many Conservative MPs ask each other whether these things can happen as their party is currently led and configured. They hope the PM will replace the civil servants who have let him down with a Lord Frost-like figure – with someone, in other words, who wants to grasp the opportunities for freer commerce and competition afforded by Brexit.

For most Tory backbenchers, the question is not whether Johnson knew he was breaking the rules. It is whether he is an electoral asset or a drag on the ticket.

They can read the polls, of course. But they also remember how, within months of becoming leader, Johnson took his party from its worst ever result – 8.8 per cent at the 2019 European election – to a stonking 42.4 per cent, its greatest victory in more than 30 years.

MPs know that his fate, like theirs, is tied to our economic recovery. They are watching to see whether he recovers his former laissez-faire instincts and, with them, his former popularity. He has managed it before.

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