What we are witnessing is the consequence of having two different PMs in office—and no mandate for either of themby Rafael Behr / October 25, 2019 / Leave a comment
Boris Johnson ran as two candidates to win the Tory leadership, adjusting his persona to suit different audiences. For wary Conservative MPs who doubted his professionalism, he played the moderate conciliator and Brexit pragmatist. To the activist base he preached Eurosceptic fire and brimstone, unafraid to wreak havoc in the cause of emancipation from Brussels bondage.
True to that model, Johnson now serves as twin prime ministers. One promises ecumenical government and speaks of “healing a divided nation.” The other sought illegally to prorogue parliament when it would not yield to his will, and colludes in the sinister stigmatisation of pro-European MPs as collaborators with a foreign power.
Practical Johnson made significant compromises in Brussels to secure a Brexit deal and hints at further concessions to opposition MPs if they will help secure its passage through the Commons. But after that prime minister lost a vote on the legislative timetable, his petulant doppelganger re-appeared, threatening to boycott parliament if it will not rubber stamp his deal and then immediately dissolve itself for a general election.
In Westminster, these mood swings are attributed to rival factions within Downing Street. The bellicosity is said to come from Dominic Cummings, director of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign, now Johnson’s most powerful consigliere. Counsels of diplomacy are thought to be provided by veteran staffers carried over from Johnson’s time as Mayor of London, such as Eddie Lister, his former chief of staff in City Hall. Political commentators find it hard to resist that kind of Kremlinology, but often division and dysfunction in an administration are better understood as the expression of competing traits in the character of the leader, or consequences of a nasty political dilemma.
There is an irreducible tension between the need to govern and the need to campaign. Johnson has wanted to be prime minister since childhood, and he likes winning, but he now finds that he cannot get gratification from those two things at the same time. He cannot enjoy wielding the powers of his office without a majority in parliament, but to acquire one he has to risk losing the office. He has been drawn towards an election since arriving in Downing Street but, thanks to the fixed-term parliaments act, it isn’t in his gift to arrange the poll on the terms of his…