This morning the Prime Minister is, apparently, asking his aides how they could have put him in the terrible position in which he finds himself. Having twisted dozens of arms in order to spare Owen Paterson the consequences of his actions – and castrate the body that sets and enforces parliamentary standards – Johnson has now forced Paterson’s resignation and abandoned the plans he whipped his party to vote for. He is furious about the mess and is in search of someone to blame. Being Boris Johnson, one doubts that he will fix upon the real culprit. Because the person responsible is him.
The Prime Minister instinctively dislikes infrastructures and institutions of constraint. His biggest complaint about the EU was that it restricted Britain’s freedom of choice and ability to set new courses for itself. His relationship to marriage, one might observe, develops this political instinct into the personal. Boris Johnson objects, at a deep and essential level, to rules. And one thing that Boris Johnson is not, really, is a hypocrite. He does as he says, as he thinks. And so he does not seek to enforce rules or constraints for which he has no regard on the people around him. As a result, many of those people accept and act on his licence to behave appallingly. ‘Getting away with it’ is its own kind of virtue in the court of the clown king. And so, even if the Prime Minister did not directly order the precise course of action that has been so disastrously pursued, this is all, still, on him. Because he has set the incentives and he has shown those around him what he values and what he does not. He is the medieval monarch who cries ‘who will rid me of this turbulent priest’ and then acts all surprised when a couple of his ambitious acolytes knife the Archbishop.
Which leads us to reflect on a busy fortnight which contained both the Budget and first week of COP. Boris Johnson is not a strategist. He does not plan, really or effectively, far into the future. He is a creature of instinct and appetites – the sort of man who spends the day grazing on whatever snacks are to hand rather than preparing set meals. And he has allowed his own government to set traps for him that he may well come to regret in time.
Rishi Sunak keeps promising fiscal restraint and tax cuts to come – while appeasing his master with as little investment as he can get away with providing. This game of tic-tac-toe between the boosterism of Boris and his shiny-but-strict Chancellor is storing up problems. COVID has papered over the cavernous cracks between the two men’s ideological fall-backs. But at some point Rishi will want constraints. And Boris will find those constraints – as he always does – galling in the extreme.
Likewise, climate change. It is fairly clear that Johnson has dropped the jovial denialism that was a feature of his career as a columnist. Perhaps it was his dad, perhaps it was his wife, perhaps he just changed his mind. But Boris does believe that climate change is man-made and that, on balance, it would be better if we tried to stop it killing billions of people. But is Boris prepared to constrain himself, his government and his country in order to most effectively play our role in tackling it? The answer – on the basis of actual policy rather than commitments for the future – is ‘not sure’. And when decisions come that play these dilemmas out in real life, such as the debate over a new coal mine in Cumbria, Johnson opts out of making the choice at all.
The Paterson saga may have real consequences for the Government. Its own MPs are furious, as are a considerable number of voters. But it also tells us something about our Prime Minister that matters to issues of policy too. He remains a man who bristles under constraint and instinctively perceives rules as obstacles to be removed rather than guardrails for life. He will not allow his instincts or his desires to be managed or controlled and he experiences no shame about breaking with convention or his own commitments. And so we cannot take seriously, in a meaningful way, the promises of his government – on our finances, on our climate, on anything. That’s not to say he doesn’t mean it when he says it, just that he is a man who regards his vows as anything but sacred.