Even loyalists are open-mouthed at the accumulation of Boris Johnson's errors
Even loyalists are open-mouthed at the accumulation of Boris Johnson's errors © Stefan Rousseau/Pool/Getty

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Perhaps the most heart-rending moment in recent days has been the squeals from Boris Johnson’s pals at the rightwing Spectator magazine, wondering what has happened to him. The UK prime minister, they wail, has lost his fizz, his vision, his sense of humour.

It was all meant to be such fun. There would be cocktails at Chequers, hilarious nose-tweaking of po-faced progressives and the bellowing of “Brussels sucks” as they roared down freedom highway like Mr Toad in his new car. Anyone who got in the way would be sacked, debagged or prorogued. Yes, there’s a crisis, but dammit where’s the good old Boris they used to know?

The answer is he’s right there in front of them. Mr Johnson’s weaknesses were never hidden. It cannot, surely, be a shock to discover his lack of focus, carelessness, excessive delegation and love of the bold play over the grinding detail. Furthermore, “good old Boris” is not going to change. He is not, aged 56, suddenly going to “get a grip”.

Their dismay would be laughable if it were not shared by his MPs, who are staggered by his mis-steps and outraged by the obvious contempt shown for them by his Downing Street team.

Even loyalists are open-mouthed at the accumulation of errors. How, they ask, could a conservative premier advocate breaking the law? How could he not foresee that the return of schools would lead to surging demand for Covid-19 tests? As they look ahead to mass unemployment and virus spikes, MPs can no longer see the rapids for the rocks.

Some anger is over lockdown restrictions which the public, by and large, support. But the continual errors, not least over test and trace, allow this unease to be linked to incompetence. This is prompting a revolt over renewal of the emergency Covid powers, led by the head of the backbench 1922 Committee. Graham Brady is a man Number 10 should be clutching close but instead has alienated: he has the backing of a number of ex-ministers. Even more than the assault on liberty, they hate the ineptitude and are demanding more scrutiny. “This is what happens when you give unfettered power to people who can campaign but can’t run anything,” says one.

Mr Johnson was always going to delegate the tasks of government, the only question was to whom. He chose to import the combative leaders of the Vote Leave campaign, specifically Dominic Cummings and his acolytes, a group with little regard for the institutions of Britain.

Mr Johnson now looks like a Labrador adopted by pit bulls. His impulse is to unify the country. But his aides are permanent campaigners addicted to wedge politics, and theirs is to divide. Instead of bending his team to his style, they are reshaping him to theirs. Where were the wise counsellors telling him that threatening to break international law may not play well? The answer is that, when it comes to aides and ministers, all but the most loyal are ignored or purged. Was there, for example, really no better choice for national security adviser than David Frost, Mr Johnson’s Brexit negotiator, a former ambassador to Denmark and chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association?

Mr Johnson feels reliant on those who won him the election but forgets that voters also responded to his sunnier personality and his implicit promise that by getting Brexit done, the country would start to heal. A more hands-on premier would, upon victory, have moved to a peacetime team.

Instead, government has been subcontracted to a group who despise MPs, scapegoat officials and care not for checks and balances. Their innate authoritarianism (which is not Mr Johnson’s) alienates liberal Tories. He seems torn between combative aides and his one-nation instincts.

It is unfair to place all the blame on Mr Cummings. But the combination of cock-ups with contempt is a toxic brew. He would argue he is building the necessary structures but this is about more than organigrams. If Downing Street is stuffed full of savants and super-forecasters, MPs wonder, how can it not see even a fortnight into the future?

So the answer to “where is Boris?” is that he is where he was always going to be once he outsourced government to wedge proponents like Mr Cummings. He is losing his MPs, many of whom remain outraged at Mr Cummings’ own breach of lockdown in April. Mr Johnson also looks like he is losing himself.

The prime minister relies on and admires his chief strategist. But sooner or later, Mr Cummings will be the price Mr Johnson has to pay to reset his leadership. The question is whether he pays it in time. 

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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