Boris needs to appoint a Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party – Evening Standard


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magine Covid was a freak wave that passed over the ocean bed and upturned everything, Isaac Levido said. The Tories’ election supremo was briefing the Cabinet last week on where the opinion polls are. He believes that wave has passed now. The vaccine bounce is over and the public are focusing on bread and butter issues again, like jobs, the cost of living and healthcare. And voters are getting nervous.
It’s that discomfort, the softly-spoken Australian argued, rather than two weeks of MPs’ sleaze that has seen the Tories’ poll lead disappear. In other words, it’s back to government as normal, and for the first time in Johnson’s premiership, as Brexit then Covid have consumed most of it so far.
The realisation is dawning that, left to his own devices, Johnson is not very competent at government as normal. Ministers know it, Tory MPs know it, and now it would appear the public is beginning to sense it.
Two things have remained constant about Boris Johnson through out his political career. One, he has always done things differently, and two, he has always been a loner. The twin attributes have brought him immense political success. They have also brought down disaster on his head, as the past few weeks have proved.
When Johnson is self-knowing, he contracts in help. Simon Milton ran City Hall for him, followed by Eddie Lister, who also went into Downing Street, alongside Dominic Cummings.
All have now gone and No 10 resembles, as one Tory grandee told me, “the court of King Henry VIII”. Britain is now governed by autocracy.
In fairness to Johnson’s No 10, it has been the autumn from hell, and they have survived some big hurdles. Insiders point to the booster jabs roll out, the Spending Review and COP26 as three of them. Yet lined up against those are the inability to get Brexit done in Northern Ireland, the migrant mess in the Channel, the potty stand for Owen Paterson, the rushed social care reforms, the impending winter health crisis, and this week Johnson’s own inability to deliver a coherent speech. The autocracy is not working. So what’s to be done about it?
“He needs structure and a system that helps him delegate,” one frustrated Cabinet minister says. “Officials are just as much the problem as he is. They simply cannot move at the pace required in a modern country.”
Ministers and Johnson allies I’ve spoken to see the need for two major changes — in process and in personnel.
Under the first, an orderly process of decision making at the top should be re-established. Cabinet committees should be allowed genuine power, and the Cabinet itself should return to being an executive authority rather than the rambling talking shop those who attend say it has become.
The second is for Johnson to hire someone with excellent political acumen to oversee the new system for him, and tell him — sometimes abruptly — what he can’t do as well as what he can. Someone who can see round corners and spot tank traps.
In short, he needs a good second in command. No successful PM has ever done the job without a powerful lieutenant to lean on and delegate to.
Wilson had Marcia Williams, Blair had Jonathan Powell, Cameron had George Osborne, and Thatcher had Willie Whitelaw. To bend the joke, Boris Johnson has no Willie.
The job title of his second in command matters less. Chief of Staff and Deputy PM are both occupied by two who don’t come close, so Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party would work, which was Whitelaw’s title and has been dormant since 2005.
Senior Tories are beginning to coalesce around the idea of an MP doing the job. Someone who understands Parliament and is liked there, and who knows Johnson well and can get the best out of him.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and police minister Kit Malthouse — both politically smart and long-standing Johnson allies — are two names doing the rounds.
Yet a third characteristic about the PM is holding him back from effecting the changes, allies say. It’s one that might explain both his loner status and his individualism. It’s his fundamental inability to trust people. “He doesn’t trust any of us,” one loyal Cabinet minister moans. “Which is why he never really lets anyone else be in charge.” Can a political leopard change his spots? Yes, if it means saving his skin.
Sunak invites MPs for drinks … just in case
All is not well again between the two houses of Downing Street. Team Rishi’s Commons helpers have been busy telling angry Tory MPs that the penny-pinching that sparked the latest social care row was not the Chancellor’s doing.
Meanwhile, senior No 10 figures are rampaging over the poison briefing given to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg. There is “a lot of concern inside the building about the PM… it’s just not working”, said the source. The PM’s team point the finger of blame at No 11.
I also hear Sunak invited the 50 or so Tory backbenchers who have volunteered to be helpful in for drinks last week to thank them.
Collecting MPs was also part of George Osborne’s playbook when he pitted himself against Boris Johnson for who would succeed David Cameron.
Clearly this would never enter the current Chancellor’s thoughts, but that’s quite a handy bedrock for a leadership campaign, on the off chance a vacancy emerges.
Stanley’s 6am proposition for TV journalist
The Prime Minister’s father Stanley Johnson is in hot water after two women last week accused him of inappropriately touching them — one of them the Tory MP Caroline Nokes.
I’m also told the married 81-year-old former Tory MEP propositioned a prominent national TV anchorwoman after she interviewed him.
Emailing the anchor to tell her how much he enjoyed their on-air encounter, Stanley proposed lunch or dinner, revealing he would be free “until 6am” the following morning.
His overnight offer was politely but firmly declined.
Tom Newton Dunn is a presenter and Chief Political Commentator on Times Radio
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