Set Boris free

GUEST POST: Peter Bingle is Director at The Terrapin Group. Connect on LinkedIn

In these strange virtual times, this year’s online party conference has a special importance, not just for the Tory Party but also for the Prime Minister. His speech will help to define the rest of his tenure at Number 10.

I have supported Boris Johnson since his first campaign to become Mayor of London. In a world full of dullness and a body politic stuffed full with the second rate and dull, he was a real breath of fresh air. He discarded political correctness, but crucially exuded optimism and fun. 

I predicted that he would beat Ken on both occasions. It wasn’t hard to do so! Londoners loved this political maverick who made us all smile, chuckle and even laugh out loud. His record at City Hall was superb, thanks to his two great chiefs of staff – Sir Simon Milton and Sir Edward Lister. 

There was no greater supporter of Boris when he announced he was a candidate to succeed the hapless Theresa May. Here was a Tory who could inject zest and optimism into a political party which resembled a corpse. 

My only fear was some of the people advising him. I dismissed those worries, but time has shown that I was quite right to be concerned. 

In the December election, I predicted a majority of eighty and was delighted by the result. Boris could now literally change the political landscape for a generation. A politician who appealed to people from every walk of life. Once again, the Tory Party was a national political force. Our PM was a populist who understood what made normal voters tick. 

However, the problems started long before the pandemic. He chose a weak Cabinet and the Number 10 team, with a few exceptions, makes his predecessors’ team look competent. That is some achievement! The political ramifications are now all too clear. 

Firstly, Boris no longer exudes optimism and confidence. Folk are now starting to laugh at him rather than with him. His attempt to position himself as a modern day Churchill is just plain silly. 

Secondly, Boris no longer seems in control of events. He is a reactive PM who is now defined by an increasing number of U-turns. Boris doesn’t appear to have a grip on what is happening. 

Thirdly, Boris is being let down by a Number 10 team which doesn’t seem to understand the concepts of strategic communications and messaging. The Cabinet is also weak. 

Lastly, I no longer have any idea if the government has a policy agenda. The one exception concerns the increasing role of the state. There has never been such a ‘Big State’ government. This isn’t why people vote Tory …

For all of this, I still have faith in Boris. He needs to show us that he is not only in control but actually still wants to be PM. Then he can start the crucial task of rebuilding and re-energising his special rapport with the British people. 

The first stage is a ministerial cull of epic proportions. There is great talent on the back-benches, which needs to be tapped into. Not just youngsters but also former ministers and people who should have been made ministers in previous governments. 

The second stage is to have a very clear policy agenda which embraces and motivates traditional and new Tory voters. Economic competence must underpin all the government’s future actions but so too must a belief in the primacy of the individual rather than of the state. 

The final and arguably most important stage is to set Boris free. On form, this is a politician like no other. Never have people needed to be cheered up more than now. Boris is the political antidote to the gloom created by the pandemic. His advisers need to play to his strengths. 

The next six months will determine the success or otherwise of the government. We need both inspiration and optimism in equal measure. Boris remains the man to deliver both. Britain needs him. 

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This piece was written for our website.

Has BoJo lost his mojo? No, and he’s shovel-ready

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director of Conservatives in Communications

It’s been almost a year since members elected Boris Johnson as Leader of the Conservative Party and British Prime Minister, and six months since he won a personal mandate from the country – and a stonking majority at that! How is he performing? This piece looks at some of the highs and lows, as well as the future ahead.

The highs

I deal in facts not fiction, so let’s start with the polls. Last December, the UK returned a Tory-led government for the fourth time in a decade: a 44% share of the vote (14m ballots) won him 365 seats* – a Conservative MP for each day of the Gregorian calendar. Today, according to Politico’s Poll of Polls, public support for the ‘People’s Government’ is holding firm.

What’s he achieved vs what did he guarantee? A week after that seismic result in 2019, the Government published its Queen’s Speech, outlining the ‘People’s Priorities.’ Chief among them was Mr Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done in January” [2020], which he quickly did. Michael Gove recently confirmed that the UK will “neither accept nor seek any extension to the Transition Period.”

“Extra funding for the NHS” has been enshrined in law and the number of new nurses has increased compared to last year.

Over 3,000 of his “20,000 more police” have been recruited and Robert Buckland has brought about “tougher sentences for criminals”, including the most serious terrorist offenders. “An Australian-style points-based system to control immigration”, as part of a much broader Bill, is due to have its report stage and third reading.

It’s true that millions more have been “invested…in science, schools, apprenticeships and infrastructure,” and that good progress – new consultations and plans to increase investment – has been made towards “Reaching Net Zero by 2050.” All this while not raising “the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance.”

The lows

Britain has been transformed by the coronavirus crisis. The number of GP surgery appointments per annum is likely to be down, not up. 310,000 people, including the Prime Minister and Matt Hancock, have tested positive for the disease. Of those, sadly, 43,500 have died – one of the highest figures in the world. It’s inevitable that there will be, and it’s right that – in time – there is, an inquiry. Lessons must be learned.

Because of Covid-19 – and the measures this government has introduced to combat it – UK public debt has “exceeded 100% of GDP for the first time since 1963.”

The death of George Floyd sparked many protests abroad and at home. A minority of people, on both ends of the spectrum, including Antifa, exploited Black Lives Matter, to behave quite irresponsibly. Our politicians have a vital role to play in healing divisions and addressing issues, which is why I – and others – were surprised it took Mr Johnson – the author of a book about his hero – time to speak out.

Number 10’s handling of these events has created a perception – among backbenchers and commentators – that the Prime Minister has misplaced his mojo.

An analysis

So, some clear wins (promises made, promises kept) and some evident challenges, but challenges that can be overcome with a bold and ambitious plan. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.

And yet, if you spend your time talking to Londoners, following the mainstream media and scrolling through Twitter, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Government was about to collapse at any given moment – that Sir Keir Starmer, by asking a couple of questions each Wednesday and by sacking Rebecca Wrong-Daily, is about to gain 120 seats for Labour. The mountain’s too high to climb.

These are the same people who: predicted Remain would win the Brexit referendum by a landslide, never imagined Donald J. Trump would become US President and thought Jeremy Corbyn might actually win in 2017 (and two years later). The same people who were confident Priti Patel would resign and Dominic Cummings would be fired, and tweet #WhereisBoris on a nearly daily basis.

That said, 44% can be improved upon and regardless of whether there’s any truth in it – perceptions are hard to shake-off. And so, the Government must listen. In particular, No10 must listen to its backbenchers. They are ideally placed to feedback on any disillusionment across the country, before decisions are made. A new liaison between No10 and the Parliamentary Party should be hired.

In my opinion, the appointment would help the Government make sound policy decisions from the get-go and reduce the number of U-turns in the long-run. However, U-turns aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Like subpoenas (writs “commanding a person designated in it to appear in court under a penalty for failure”), they needn’t be seen as negative – rather a means of making right.

This government should also listen to experienced conservatives in communications. We recently polled our supporters and they rated its coronavirus communications strategy 3.18 out of 5. While positive, it’s clear improvements can be made. First-up, was phasing out daily press briefings, which I’m glad it has done. I’d also like to see more women MPs around the Cabinet table at the next reshuffle.

What we need to hear from Mr Johnson tomorrow, in Dudley, is how he’s going to help Britain rebuild itself and win again after the lockdown. I hope he makes us feel proud about our identity and culture and that his vision is aspirational and opportunistic. The British people have put their faith in him before – a few for the first time – and I’m sure they’ll continue to keep it, if he listens and acts accordingly.

*Election data

 2010201520172019
Votes (000s)10,70411,30013,63713,966
% of UK vote36.136.842.343.6
Seats won 306 330 317 365
% of seats won47.150.848.856.2

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by Politicalite (June 29, 2020).