Context is everything. Six months ago at the height of his vaccine popularity, Boris Johnson’s frivolous and rambling speech to a business conference would have been dismissed as just an extreme example of the UK prime minister’s unconventional yet winning style. Instead, after a run of missteps, it is a metaphor for his leadership; a Wizard of Oz moment, the day Tories saw through the magic.
Those errors have been flowing fast and each is testing the goodwill of his MPs. There was his misjudged defence of Owen Paterson, the Tory MP caught up in a lobbying scandal, and then the botched rail strategy launch, which saw £96bn of investment overshadowed by the cancellation of long-promised high-speed rail projects for the north of England. This week saw a revolt over social care funding plans, which offered the poorest homeowners the least financial protection. It all comes as the vaccine poll bump has faded. Voters face higher living costs and tax rises just as Johnson is struggling with the Covid hangover of desperately strained public services and wrecked public finances.
Against this background, Monday’s speech, bizarrely sprinkled with talk of a trip to Peppa Pig World, seemed proof of a leader losing his focus and touch. Hence the panicked calls for new advisers.
In reality, the only surprise is that anyone was surprised. This is who Johnson is. He sees the chaos as core to his appeal; no change of personnel will make him less erratic. What is new, however, is the absence of a strategic mission to shroud his errors and shortcomings.
Until now he has had at least one major project that defined, drove and largely unified his party. The first was Brexit; the second was tackling Covid. There were missteps and rebellions on the way but both issues offered a clarity of purpose. MPs largely stuck with him because they were a team with a shared objective.
Suddenly there is no common project. One MP observes: “Conservatives used to be for low taxes and good management of the economy. Then we were for Brexit. Now we are not really sure what we are for.”
The closest they have, the supposedly core task of “levelling up” the economy, is seen as something between a slogan and an instinct, a potpourri of policies from bus upgrades, to freeports and funds for town centres, constrained by what the public finances permit.
The battles with the EU over the Brexit settlement for Northern Ireland rally some allies but also remind voters that Brexit might not be as “done” as was previously suggested. To cap it all Nigel Farage is rattling rightwingers by highlighting the government’s impotence over illegal migrants crossing the channel. This all plays into the criticism that Johnson overpromises and under delivers.
For all the chatter about better advisers, what Johnson really needs is the momentum and sense of leadership that come from a major political and economic project. In the absence of an alternative, that has to be levelling-up.
Michael Gove, the most strategic of Johnson’s ministers, is due to publish the long-awaited white paper on levelling up in the next few weeks. This is meant to be the detailed map that turns a slogan into a strategy. A serious document with coherent plans to regenerate regions — and metrics against which the policies can be judged — will give renewed purpose to the government. Money for transport links and high streets is fine but they do not amount to a growth strategy and Tory MPs are painfully aware that rising national income is what they need if they want to cut taxes and keep spending.
There are those who argue that keeping levelling-up vague is a wiser political tactic, but what the Tories need now is something more convincing than an aspiration. Levelling up needs to offer a pathway to higher growth as well as reasons to believe neglected towns can rebuild prosperity and communities. That means putting flesh on the bones.
And yet the noises emerging so far are not encouraging. Johnson is understood to be uneasy about clear metrics, which might set him up for failure. Those talking to Gove fear a weakening commitment to meaningful decentralisation. More mayors are expected — especially at county level — but there seems to be less appetite for giving the existing metro-mayors significant extra powers to shape policy for their region.
This is a core demand of those who argue that regional leaders are best placed to judge the economic and social needs of their areas. The debates continue but a brave and far-reaching strategy might galvanise Johnson’s unhappy MPs into believing again that there is a worthwhile transformational project at the heart of this government.
Levelling up, and the accompanying investment in infrastructure and innovation, is the closest the Tories have to that project. But it is a long-term process rather than a fix for an electoral cycle and needs to be pursued with conviction and rigour. Johnson’s own MPs must believe it is real, which means more than cash bungs to a few target seats.
Johnson is in no immediate danger. But unless they find that meaningful economic mission, the Tories are facing straitened times with a leader blathering on about Peppa Pig and increasingly defined by his misjudgments; an amusement park prime minister who both they and the voters may conclude is no longer all that entertaining.