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Number 10’s power-grab is sowing the seeds of its own failure

February 15th, 2020

Cummings cannot re-engineer government while ignoring the human aspect

Political power is notoriously nebulous. Like fairies, or the value of fiat money, if enough people belief in it, that in itself is enough to call it into being – just as the lack of belief is enough to destroy it.

What then gives Boris Johnson the ability to accrete to himself and his advisors in Number Ten powers that no other prime minister has enjoyed? It’s not the size of his majority, large though it is: there’ve been governments with much bigger ones. Is it his commanding personal authority? Well, it’s true that this isn’t a government of heavyweights and that having just won an election and delivered Brexit, the PM’s stock is high. But that can’t be all.

As much as anything, it’s because he dares to, and other dare not. Johnson’s life has been one of taking calculated and at times even reckless risks; usually he has come out the winner and when he hasn’t, he’s bounced back. He’s not going to change that style now.

A desire to centralise control within No 10 is hardly new; in fact, it goes right back to the start. When the title of Prime Minister was applied to Walpole, it was as a criticism that he was getting over-mighty. Many others since have innovated structures and processes to try to assert control throughout Whitehall and beyond. The centralised system of political advisors (which is in itself a contradiction), is simply the latest in this line.

For the moment, Johnson can do that because he can afford to lose those, like Javid, who object – and also because very few, like Javid, have objected. Perhaps ministers are genuinely willing to be treated in this way but much more likely is the knowledge that Johnson’s honeymoon protects him. He can win just about any argument because ultimately, his position is unassailable.

There’s a comparison with Trump here. We should be very careful equating the two men whose policies and political and personal characters are more different than many would have you believe. But on this point there is similarity: they are protected from bad decisions and behaviour by public support. Republican senators will not vote to convict a Republican president when that president’s net approval rating among Republicans is around +90: the Trump fan-base would have its revenge rapidly. Similarly, Tory MPs will have little enthusiasm to go against their leader when their party is polling 20 points ahead of Labour (as in yesterday’s YouGov poll).

There’s one other similarity we should note too: any attempt to exert excessive central control betrays a lack of trust in the leader’s colleagues and, implicitly, assumes that they have a lack of faith in the leader. Good leaders do not need to demand control or institutionalise it to the minutest degree: people will follow a leader naturally when they have confidence that they will be led where they want to go.

That, however, is more of a problem for Johnson than Trump. Johnson travels ideologically light. It is true that he said he would deliver Brexit and he has made good on that – though whether he can be similarly successful in the second round later this year remains to be seen. It’s one thing screwing over the DUP with their less than a dozen MPs; it’s another to finesse a second deal that ends transition without either crashing the economy or betraying those MPs and activists whose support you built your leadership campaign on.

Brexit aside, so many MPs and activists were willing to give their support to Johnson not because of his innate leadership skills or his ideological vision but because he was believed to be a winner. That judgement was vindicated in December. But it is also a very transactional, and hence conditional, support. When he ceases to be seen as a winner, that support will ebb away and with it, power – whatever organisational measures No 10 might have introduced.

And ebb away it will. Not just because Brexit still poses questions which would like defeat far more diligent and nuanced prime ministers (in truth, Johnson’s willingness to refuse to deal with detail may actually be an advantage here: if the rules of the game make it irresolvable, don’t abide by them), and not just because Johnson and Cummings cannot go on insulting and demeaning ministers, MPs and their assistants without creating a deep well of grievance and resentment that in time will find release, but because even now, at the point when he should be at the zenith of his popularity, he’s not all that well regarded.

The Mori leader ratings for January had him at a net +3. That’s historically low for any PM in Johnson’s position. Since 1983, on only three out of 13 occasions has a leader polled worse than Johnson in the month after either taking office or winning an election: Blair in 2005, May in 2017 and Johnson himself last July. Both Blair and May lost office two years later when their party had finally had enough of them.

The factor, beyond Brexit, reconciling that poor rating with the Tories’ 80 majority, 13.97m votes and 45% GB vote share at the election was the scale of the unpopularity of Labour and Corbyn. But Corbyn will be gone when Labour’s leadership election eventually concludes. Certainly, Labour’s new leader will face significant challenges him- or herself and may well fail them – the leadership election has proven Starmer, for one, more prone to (if adept at) tacking and more susceptible to be moved by the winds of the movement than I think the public will appreciate. All the same, the easy few years that the Tories have had from the Opposition is likely to end.

It is true of course that with an 80 majority, Labour cannot do now what it could in the autumn in terms of winning votes. That only matters on one level. On another, it’s not the numbers in the divisions that count but those in the opinion polls and by-elections. Margaret Thatcher wasn’t voted out in 1990 because she was losing in the Commons.

Which brings us back to the beginning. Johnson’s power exists only as long as people ask ‘how high?’ when he says ‘jump!’. As soon as there’s a critical mass that decides that’s not a game worth playing, it’s over. It may be that when that does happen, Johnson remains in office for months if not years ahead – but if he does, it will be on very different terms. My guess is that he’ll be replaced in 2022 or 2023.

David Herdson