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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Boris Johnson makes more band changes than Spinal Tap — let’s see how this plays

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uess who’s back, back again? Meet the old friends-of-Boris with updated nameplates on the office door. The Prime Minister has the kind of default mode that some chaps have in calling up old girlfriends and he deploys the same chat-up line, invariably starting the conversation with, “It’s time to get the band back together again.” Some, like his campaign strategist Sir Lynton Crosby, made clear they had moved on to other relationships (while being around for emotional crises and guest roles come the next election perhaps).

But however tainted the stardust, the Johnson jukebox has enough fans to regroup, even after the latest slew of resignations. “Mad but irresistible” was, I gather, the response of Guto Harri — his new (aka old City Hall) communications guru — to the offer to take over the fast-turnover role of communications chief.
 

Because extroverts attract one another, Harri — after getting banned from GB News for gesture politics which made both the network and the knee-taker look absurd — has himself arrived trailing fresh excitements: a chirpy chat with a Welsh-language website, which reported him discussing the jovial tone of his appointment.

There are some awkward trailing wires from a PR role lobbying for Huawei, a company once attractive to the Government as the cutting edge of China business relations — and then suddenly out on the cold in the great freeze on dangerous China tech. 

I doubt that will much matter to Johnson because Harri, like the other new arrivals in Number 10, has made a roulette gamble on his new-old boss on reasonable odds. Indeed, the reason Johnson is still in post at all is that he is so used to living at the edge of chaos that it is not as new or scary to him as his enemies assume. One old school contemporary and political ally in the Lords tells me, “Boris has been failing-up ever since I’ve known him. He’s always on the verge of disaster — and then somehow in the job a lot of other people thought they should have.”

This, in a nutshell, is why people — whether Harri or Steve Barclay, a level-headed Brexiteer and Cabinet Office minister now in an extra job running the Office of the PM, or Andrew Griffith, a tough ex-Sky TV exec — flock to the scene of the omni-chaos. One point in Barclay’s favour is also that if your problem is relationships with MPs, it is not a terrible idea to put a loyal MP who is respected in the Commons into the heart of Downing Street. Does it matter if someone else runs the diary? Not so much. 

Org-chart purists and past holders of this office have rushed to tell us that this is simply more chaos. You might as well try to instruct Catherine the Great as to how her administration in 18th century St Petersburg should work: it does so because the balance of power lies with the ruling political monarch, warts and all, until they start to give up the fight or someone defeats them.

In truth, if you want the textbook version of how an administration should work, Team Johnson is never going to be the example that will spring to mind. If it stabilises the PM in office and rebuilds his working majority in Parliament, his party will give the reboot time to prove itself before changing the ultimate nameplate. Put up or shut up will be the new message, whatever the Met report on lockdown parties or the stories of Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor “on manoeuvres”.

His new handlers will warn a wayward boss against opening up new fronts, like the Jimmy Savile jibe against Sir Keir Starmer — an unforced error which showed Johnson’s fighting instinct is accompanied by recklessness. The anti-vax mob attack on the Opposition leader was arguably a direct consequence and Johnson’s condemnation of that was a sign of a desire belatedly to end something which should not have been started in the first place.

The main political fray is, however, not yet concluded. Boris’s band of brothers has had more changes of line-up than the fictitious Spinal Tap had drummers. And yet he inspires belief as much as anger and dislike and, in politics, that is a powerful currency. A leader who, after the battering of the past few weeks, declares “they’ll have to send a Panzer division to get me out of here” means that metaphorically they will. Deep down, his enemies know that too. And until the division rolls, he’s still there.

Anne McElvoy is Senior Editor at The Economist

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