When Theresa May solemnly made her resignation speech at Downing Street, I couldn’t help be reminded of Malcolm Tucker’s description of the hapless Nicola Murray’s resignation as party leader in The Thick of It: the ending of a chapter that nobody enjoyed reading. It’s a cruel insult to a lady who worked tirelessly in pursuit of what she thought were her country’s best interests. But it also rings true. May’s short and turbulent premiership has left Britain bitterly divided and politically dysfunctional. She hands her successor the most poisonous political chalice in recent history, mostly of her own making. However, in spite her faults and failures, many would consider that successor to be even worse.
Boris Johnson needs no introduction. For committed critics, Johnson’s sins are legion: he is a reactionary, philandering, incompetent oaf. By contrast, ardent supporters portray him as a second Winston Churchill: a bullish Tory providentially arriving at his nation’s darkest hour. Either way, Johnson enters office with unprecedented challenges on multiple fronts. In the last few days, we’ve seen an insight into how Johnson might cope with such issues, in the position he has coveted for so long.
For many, whatever Johnson does won’t be enough to tackle their natural apathy. Through his long and eventful political career editing The Spectator, leading the Leave campaign and proving himself to be an undiplomatic Foreign Secretary, he has accumulated an endless list of enemies and detractors. I have had many doubts about Johnson; with a distaste for some of his foolish behaviour, his appointment caused me some severe trepidation. Yet, I’m cautiously optimistic. To the dismay of many, it cannot be denied that his first week has seen him get off to a flying start. He’s marked a decisive and welcome change from the incompetent technocracy of Theresa May. His cabinet appointments, policy announcements and rhetoric herald a government ready and willing to tackle some of our major national problems. Most importantly, he has outlined a hopeful, confident and outward-looking future for a Britain that has so often seemed narrow-minded and demoralised under his predecessor.
However, it’s still the case that Boris has become PM in what even an optimist might call less than ideal circumstances. Politically, he finds his position under attack from every side. His parliamentary majority is paper thin, and dangerously reliant on hostile MPs. Outside the Commons, Johnson competes in a new world of four-party politics, with Jeremy Corbyn, Nigel Farage and now even Jo Swinson breathing down his neck. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, Brexit tensions are being used to advance nationalist arguments, pushing the Union to breaking point. Paradoxically, Boris’ accession is both the beneficiary and victim of a UK steeped in unprecedented political turbulence. No wonder bookies are taking bets on whether he’ll beat George Canning’s 112 days as our shortest-serving Prime Minister.
Coupled with its outstandingly weak political position, his government faces daunting challenges both home and abroad. His domestic in-tray is stuffed. Crises abound over knife crime, affordable housing and, of a particular focus to Johnson, how to successfully approach the so-called Northern Powerhouse. Overseas, issues such as the Gulf tanker incident simply cannot wait, whilst the forces of China and Russia simultaneously push the post-Cold War international order to breaking point.
Yet, these aren’t even the Prime Minister’s biggest tasks. His victory came primarily as the Tory party trusted him more than his rivals to do in 90 days what May didn’t manage over three years: to successfully take our country out of the European Union. The auspices don’t seem favourable. May’s withdrawal agreement failed to pass through the Commons three times. Brussels has rebuffed any renegotiation, and views Boris with distrust and disdain. A large number of MPs have publicly condemned Boris’ willingness to leave without a deal, and there’s speculation that this distrust could shatter the current government. The man who led the Leave campaign to victory, against all odds, faces an even harder task in leaving itself.
Few predict success. It’s easy to see why the Queen reportedly wondered aloud why anyone would want the job, as Boris kissed her hand and took up his burden.
Prime Minister Johnson has thus entered Number 10 having been dealt a very bad hand indeed. Those who so often dismiss him as a scruffy charlatan must relish their expectation that he’s finally bitten off more than he can chew. The commentariat’s perceived wisdom is that his premiership will fizzle out before it can even leave the launch pad.
But as ever, I’m thriving on being a contrarian. Yes, Boris has been dealt a very bad hand – but in the last few days he has shown himself adept at playing it well. His government has hit the ground running with a confidence and brio that has been sorely lacking for the last three years. Boris has seized the moment and sought to transform the political situation, with greater vivacity than any alternative leader possibly could. Churchill said of becoming PM that he felt “as if I were walking with destiny…that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial… I was sure I should not fail.” Something tells me that this quotation wasn’t far from Johnson’s mind as he crossed the threshold into Number 10. If he can conquer this moment, not only will he go down as our most successful PM since his hero, but as the transformative author of a new age and a dynamic future for Britain.
But where does this transformation come from, and how much is down to Bojo himself? After all, many fundamentals are out of his control, from a hung parliament to an antipathetic EU. But he’s approached the areas under his control with verve, and its paying off. His Cabinet appointments featured the largest political reorganization outside a change of party since the war. Stern-faced and uninventive May loyalists, such as Greg Clarke and Karen Bradley, and implacable opponents of No Deal, like Philip Hammond, were summarily removed. Your opinion of figures like Priti Patel, Sajid Javid or even Jacob Rees-Mogg may vary, but they represent a dynamic and purposeful shift after three years of tepid managerialism.
Behind the scenes, Boris has assembled a formidable team. His backroom staff have mainly come from his time as London Mayor or at Vote Leave. From the former, he has selected policy adviser Munira Mirza and Chief of Staff Sir Edward Lister: experienced operators proven to be more than capable to take on such tasks. Most importantly, however, was the shock appointment of Dominic Cummings as his chief adviser. This more than anything else showed me this government was going to be far from business as usual. Cummings is a Marmite maverick, and anyone who saw Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of him for Channel 4 can attest that he combines a unique mind with an approach that takes no prisoners. Yet, he successfully drove reform through an intractable education department, and pulled off one of the greatest upsets in British political history when heading up Vote Leave. He’s the perfect man to shake things up in Whitehall after Theresa May’s years of sterile stagnation.
Moreover, in the last week Boris has used his unique talent for cutting through to the wider public to bolster his apparently precarious position. He’s announced popular policies for areas within the public’s priorities, whether that’s 20,000 more police on the streets, more frontline funding for hospitals or long overdue investment in the North. You may loathe the man, but it can’t be said his agenda isn’t one that much of the public is crying out for. Whether these promises can be realised remains to be seen, but the immediate public response seems favourable. The Tories have rocketed back to their largest polling lead in months, including in Wales for only the third time in living memory. The Bojo bounce is real; it simply remains to be seen how quickly the ball comes back down to Earth.
For the time being, however, Boris can be satisfied with the reaction. Johnson’s initial public support is essential for addressing the two places that will decide his fate in the next few weeks: Brussels and the House of Commons. By bolstering his support nationally, the Prime Minister hopes to pressure both the EU and his backbenchers to come to terms. The current opinion in Brussels is that Boris won’t be able to pull off a No Deal Brexit, with the government either being brought down before October 31st, or the British outcry against the situation forcing the government back to the negotiating table almost immediately. By convincing them he’d win a general election on his platform, Boris can push MPs into supporting his government, demonstrating to Brussels that he is serious about No Deal. By appointing Cummings and preconditioning the recommencement of negotiations on the removal of the Irish backstop, the Prime Minister is showing a newfound stubbornness, which May’s government lacked. Whether Johnson’s gamble pays off is yet to be seen, but it certainly makes a change from May’s series of capitulations.
But perhaps the biggest change of the Boris era has not been of personnel or policies, but of tone. Soon after entering Downing Street, Theresa May was the most popular post-war Prime Minister according to polling. This was primarily because of her message: not only was she seen as tough and patriotic, but her claim to want a country that works for everyone and to tackle various burning injustices struck a deep chord with a public so desperate for change that they would vote to Leave the European Union. Via a terrible general election campaign, she became a demoralised Prime Minister, who was pigeonholed by the civil service into a style of bland technocratic managerialism with a tone of hollow platitudes. This has led to a deeply disappointing legacy.
May failed to understand that the Brexit result was a vote of confidence in the United Kingdom and its future. Her Home Office tunnel vision transformed it from a push for national renewal into an attempt to simply clamp down on immigration. As such, we had her appalling tone deafness with the Windrush Scandal or that appalling policy of getting employers to register the number of foreign nationals they employed. By the time that Prime Ministerial Jaguar left Downing Street, the optimism of the transformative agenda she initially outlined was entered long gone, and she left the country in a state of disillusion and despair.
Boris has struck an instant and positive contrast, with his opening speech outside Number 10 affirming his confidence in Britain’s future and its potential. But it was at the Despatch Box where he proved revelatory. Boris has had less Parliamentary experience than any other Prime Minister since the war. Traditionally, his strengths lie in speeches to public crowds, or newspaper columns, or meet and greets in packed shopping centres, not in the pompous verbal jousting of the Commons. Expectations were thus low for his House debut as Prime Minister. He entered to jeers from the Labour bench and a muted silence from his fellow Tories. His speech was received with some support, but it was in his response to Corbyn that he really found his voice. In less than seven minutes, he had the Tory benches clamouring for more and the Opposition looking shell-shocked as he hammered into the Opposition leader. Many Conservative MPs with serious doubts about whether Boris was up to the job would have left with those fears well assuaged.
So what does all this enthusiasm add up to? I’d argue it gives good grounds for optimism. Of course, a new face (and haircut) in Downing Street, some high flights of rhetoric and a few good announcements don’t instantly overcome the many obstacles that Boris, his government and our country face. But they can help. Theresa May promised change but delivered precious little. But if Boris can pull of all he promises, history may well consider her premiership an embarrassing interlude, an accidental aberration before the installation of the Vote Leave government needed since June 24th 2016. Boris’ government could prove just as hollow as May’s ultimately did, but at least he’s already backing his rhetoric with action.
So I’m optimistic for future under Prime Minister Bojo. I got into politics because I care about tackling the social injustices like poverty and prejudice than blight our society. My vision of Britain is a fundamentally optimistic one. Opportunities should be open to anyone and everyone, no matter their class, race or sexuality. With the most diverse Cabinet in history, a liberal Prime Minister and an agenda in place to tackle the country’s inequalities and deliver Brexit, I believe Britain’s best years can lie ahead. I’m sure I’ll have to eat humble pie sooner rather than later. But hopeless optimism isn’t always too bad a quality; after all, it got Boris Johnson all the way to Number 10.