One of Boris Johnson’s secret weapons is his ability to ‘sit it out’. There’s not a lot to this, of course. But it is difficult to pull off nonetheless.
Crises have their own magnetic power – they inspire in most people the need to act, the desire for resolution, a kind of certainty about the importance of the event. Faced with a disaster – particularly one brought about by our own error or behaviour – most of us feel that we have to do something significant. Boris Johnson knows that oftentimes, doing nothing is more rewarding.
On ‘partygate’ sitting it out has served Johnson well so far. The strategy for dealing with the issue – once blanket denial ceased to be an option – has been to create mechanisms to slow everything down, to do little to practically respond and to hope that something turns up.
Now, those around the Prime Minister ooze confidence that he will survive. The Met did not fine him in the first wave – meaning that attention will have waned by the time he is fined (if, in fact, he is). And a genocidal, brutal war in Europe has – understandably – reduced the Conservative Party’s appetite for regicide. Boris sat it out. Something turned up.
Two months ago his premiership was a certain bust, today it looks likely to survive.
Of course, in politics it helps to be lucky in your enemies. Internally and externally, Johnson has been very lucky. Rishi Sunak’s relentless prioritisation of the views of a certain type of Tory backbencher over either the opinion or the needs of the public, has trashed his brand. Sound money may be a perfectly respectable principle of governance but Sunak’s popularity was rooted in the Government’s recognition – at the onset of the pandemic – that sometimes circumstances call for more than book balancing. His failure to see the cost of living crisis as such a challenge has left him looking small, unimaginative and ungenerous. The shine has come off him and the backbenchers he was so desperate to impress resent the attempt to spin them into accepting that he is a ‘tax cutting Chancellor’ when he is not – except, perhaps, for his wife.
Labour, meanwhile, has been busy tying itself in knots about identity issues, particularly around trans issues and who they believe can be considered to be a ‘woman’. Labour frontbenchers will continue to be asked questions on this issue for as long as they are divided or feel they cannot answer. That eats into their time in front of the public and – fairly or unfairly – makes them look out of touch.
So, Boris clings on. The polling gap narrows, his rivals implode, he ‘squats’ (in the words of one eminent political journalist) atop of British politics like a ‘giant toad’. And like a toad, that survival is as much a product of patient camouflaged inaction as it is of anything positive.
But inaction has its costs, too. The long awaited Energy Security Strategy that doesn’t actually answer the questions it set out to and which sets aside a measly £120 million to build eight nuclear power stations. The dithering over a resolution in Northern Ireland. The U-turns and the legislation that is promised but never materialises. The emptiness of this government is part of Johnson’s pattern of survival but it is also a problem. Because there is nothing on offer about which the Conservative Party can coalesce, the Conservative Party will remain fractious and rebellious and unpredictable. Boris is King, still. But he is Canut. The waves will lap and the tide will flow and there is nothing that Johnson can – or will – do about it.