Is young Rishi about to shunt an ageing Boris into the role of wicked queen?
B loodcurdling shrieks from Downing Street, where Boris Johnson recently beheld a most enraging sight in his magic mirror (bespoke handcrafted rattan, Soane, price on application). Instead of responding to his daily question “Who is the most popular of all?” by reflecting Johnson’s own smirking visage back at him, the looking-glass has been displaying the image of young Rishi Sunak riding his Peloton bike right up in the prime ministerial grill.
Shortly after Johnson appointed Sunak, his relations with the new chancellor were described as “hand in glove”. Unfortunately, Rishi now seems to have tired of the cavity search. The recent leak of his letter challenging Johnson on Covid travel restrictions has enraged the boss whose entire career has been characterised by exactly this type of posturing disloyalty. Amusingly, it seems the prime minister never even saw the supposedly private letter from his chancellor before it was leaked, with Johnson’s defenders saying it should obviously have been put in his red box. Yet even that feels debatable. Hard to say where the best place to put a document you really need the PM to read is. Tinder? Certainly he is said to swipe left on most work-related things placed in front of him.
There is something almost poignant about reports of the meeting in which Johnson ill-advisedly joked about demoting Sunak. “I’ve been thinking about it,” the prime minister is reported to have said. “Maybe it’s time we looked at Rishi as the next secretary of state for health. He could potentially do a very good job there.” Riiiiiight. It’s difficult to imagine the 20 or so other people in the room doing anything other than staring down at their laps in embarrassment, thinking, “Oooooh, big talk.”
For the Conservative party, Boris Johnson without his popularity is a hard sell. Without that … what precisely is this thing for? You sense the pitch meeting would run into problems fairly early on. “OK, Bruce Wayne, but he’s 57, cuts his hair with the bacon scissors and can’t be arsed fighting crime.” “Superman, but he’s weak, can’t fly and tells people he’s going to save them then doesn’t turn up.”
Either way Johnson approaches his August holiday in the position of being wildly less popular than a chancellor who’s on record as describing Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker as “a great night out”. That should really put things into perspective. It must be totally staggering to Johnson to see the great British public falling for an apparently genial politician known to them mainly by his first name, whose true motives they will turn out to have completely misunderstood. Still, that’s showbiz.Overconfident and rebellious – Johnson will rue the day he made a Tory party in his own image | Martin Kettle Read more
There comes a point in every former starlet’s life where they get shunted into the role of wicked queen, and unless he plays this perilous autumn with the statesmanlike acumen of Abraham Lincoln, this could be transition time for Johnson. Or to put it another way: the one bridge he really needs to build is back to his party’s heart.
We know he likes classical texts, so let’s assume he’s familiar with the 1995 cinematic epic Showgirls. Readers of this column certainly should be. Undoubtedly, the prime minister should take comfort in the scene in which understudy stripper Elizabeth Berkley pushes leading stripper Gina Gershon down the stairs, causing her to break her hip and exit the stage. Yet despite Gina being an old trouper who spent years thriving on the limelight, it all turns out to be quite a relief for her. As she remarks philosophically: “There’s always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you.”
Perhaps the same thought could be crossing Boris Johnson’s mind. There may well come a point, sooner rather than later, where he honestly can’t be bothered getting his tits out again every day, and can see the charm of limping off to earn millions on the lucrative boardroom/North American lecture circuit. Alternatively, we could accept the obvious: that what a man of his age would really like is more time at home with the nappies. The point is, Boris Johnson has options.
Then again, options are not his happy place. For Johnson, to govern is to not choose. Making hard choices is such anathema to the prime minister’s brand of leadership that he defers them continually, serially, and – in the case of Covid strategy – fatally. And so it is that Gavin Williamson remains secretary of state for education for a second abysmal summer running, because removing him in the wake of any of his earlier foul-ups might have necessitated a reshuffle. As any number of Westminster experts like to point out archly, that only creates enemies.
To which the only decent reply is: so what? It says everything about Johnson that he would prefer to keep a proven incompetent in such a crucial role and further let down an entire generation of children than demote him and make a personal enemy or enemies.
It also says pretty much all you need to know about Johnson that his supposed big priority – the Cop26 UN climate conference later this year – is seemingly being chucked together at the last minute and without any effective or joined-up strategy, even as the planet burns. Honestly, what are the chances that a man who lacks the leadership qualities to demote even Gavin Williamson is going to struggle with the somewhat tougher decisions required to combat the climate emergency? You cannot move at the moment for ministers briefing that the choices required to achieve net zero are so hard that only Johnson can make them. In which case, the one thing the form book shows us is that they won’t be made until it’s too late. The only scenario in which it is plausible to imagine Johnson making tough choices on climate breakdown in timely fashion is if he, personally, was living on an ice shelf that was literally, right now, dropping into the sea. Do Soane do ice shelves? Asking for future generations.
There will never be any meaningful vision or strategy or “levelling up” achieved with Johnson at the helm, because he can’t make decisions that he senses might make him unpopular even momentarily, to say nothing of being able to make the truly tough ones that involve a real sacrifice of vanity, and a real adherence to painstaking strategy. In the end, everything is subsumed by carelessness and self-interest. That, ultimately, is the reason we can be sure Johnson would never demote Sunak in the reshuffle of inadequates that he is rumoured to be getting around to at some point, maybe, in the nearish future. He simply wouldn’t have the strength of character.
Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist