Would Westminster take Mojo out of BoJo?
After a week that saw the London Mayor under the microscope, first in Eddie Mair’s interview mauling, and then Michael Cockerill’s Bullingdon-and-the-Beast documentary, Johnson has emerged with credit for being ‘human’, ‘interesting’ and ‘not towing the party line’.
The debate about whether the cuddly bear of British politics could make a successful move into national politics was resoundingly decided in Boris’ favour.
I’m not so sure.
The sacking/reshuffling/Maundy Thursday martyrdom of John Hayes from his position as Energy Secretary at DECC illustrates why Boris will struggle, and may in fact only succeed if the Tories go back into opposition, or we change our electoral system to something more presidential.
Hayes has neither the charm nor the signature, disarming features of Johnson, but as a Tory right winger with a tendency for verbal diarrhea, he sits on the same branch of the political tree.
For the member for South Holland and the Deepings, inflated self-confidence, tendency to damn with faint praise and desire to push the boundaries of linguistic hyperbole are, like Boris, his preferred modus operandi.
But as Hayes has just learnt, a (junior) Minister does not have nearly the same freedom to play to the gallery as the Mayor of London.
Hayes’ statements on wind power did damage to investments in vital energy infrastructure, his criticisms of the scientific community jeopardised government credibility and his general trouble-making within DECC slowed the vital progress of energy market reform. In all these activities, Hayes may have been at least partially acting as an agent for the Treasury, but his populist style and keenness to grab headlines to raise his own political capital made life very difficult for colleagues trying to deliver government policy.
Johnson had similar problems as a Shadow Minister. Comments and subsequent apologies to the people of Liverpool and Papua New Guinea are the most famous examples of Johnson overstepping the mark. In opposition, that kind of fire-fighting may be a welcome distraction for idle minds, but in government it would be hugely wasteful and counter-productive. The fire-starter inevitably gets fired.
If the Tories remain in power, and Johnson goes back into parliament, how long would it be before the Minister for Bed Head would be drawn into the same over-enthusiasm. The public may rejoice at the light relief, but Secretaries of State should have better things to do than contradicting junior ministers and reassuring the press and public of the government’s collective agenda. How many cabinet members would be lining up to put Johnson on their team?
The central problem for populist performers like Hayes and Johnson is that collective cabinet responsibility is still an important principle, not because it is some sort of honour code, but because it allows for efficient delivery of the government agenda. Even as a leader of the parliamentary party (and possibly Prime Minister), Johnson would have to rein in his style to ensure colleagues (and possibly partners) are supported in their work and government works effectively.
The presidential nature of the London Mayor’s job is very different. Johnson has limited responsibilities, but is perceived as governing a growing, successful mini-state that is fundamental to the UK’s future. It is the perfect recipe for press grandstanding.
The wise move would therefore be to stick with it and use his popularity to expand his powers and influence over Londoners.
My family focus group showed that a large part of Boris’ appeal is that he clearly enjoys his work. A politician who can go about his business with a smile on his face is a refreshing proposition.
However, the experience of the less prominent Hayes should show Boris that being a Tory in a coalition, or simply operating within Westminster’s formidable constraints, would be about as much fun as a game of wiff waff in the wind.
Frustration with the responsibilities of government might take the mojo out of BoJo. From there the only way is downhill.
At Westminster, the best politicians need to be effective operators, as well as communicators. They need to be committed to delivering policy efficiently, and to that end, work as a team. As Hayes has found, pure populism should be reserved for the stage, and the Cabinet Office.
For the sake of himself and the country, Boris should stick to London.