It seems that more has been said about the Boris Johnson premiership in 24 hours than was said about his predecessor, Theresa May, during her whole three years in Number 10. Certainly, the new prime minister is intent on being a more decisive, “can-do” figure than May, following Herbert Asquith’s famous belief that the position of prime minister is “what the holder chooses and is able to make of it”.
But while his style and policy contrast with his predecessor’s, his circumstances remain the same as those of the last two prime ministers – and it didn’t end well for them. So what can Johnson’s first 24 hours in office tell us about his prospects?
First, Johnson has clear control of much of the grassroots Conservative party, though he certainly has his critics, particularly in parliament. His supporters point to the “double mandate” he secured during the Tory leadership election, winning decisive support among MPs and party members, and securing 66% of the vote to Jeremy Hunt’s 34% in the final ballot.
Though he has his Conservative critics, they are swimming against the changing tide of Toryism. It is one of the relatively unremarked changes of the last five years that the party which took the UK into the EEC, which established the single market, joined the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) and even contemplated using the Euro, is now comprehensively in favour of leaving the EU and sanguinely views ending all formal ties with the bloc. That leaves the relatively small band of pro-European Conservatives, such as Lord Heseltine, with little option but to vote with other parties on the issue, either in parliament or at national elections.
Second, Johnson has already formed a government largely in his own image. His cabinet is packed with full-blooded Brexiteers willing to disregard convention. Priti Patel, who was sacked by May as international development secretary, now has the home office job, while Dominic Cummings, the Vote Leave head who was subsequently found to be in contempt of parliament, is now to be one of Johnson’s closest advisors. Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, the rival so generously praised by the new prime minister only this week, has meanwhile been cast out of his post.
The few former Remainers on his team, such as new culture secretary Nicky Morgan, were reminded by Johnson during the leadership campaign of his determination to restore strict collective cabinet responsibility. And with under 100 days until his October 31 “do or die” Brexit deadline, Johnson has conducted the kind of purge of backsliders that even Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair waited a couple of years to execute.
This will strengthen Johnson’s hand when dealing with the European Union as there will be fewer conflicting messages coming from cabinet colleagues, a problem May clearly suffered.
Nevertheless, Johnson has yet to clarify his approach to the EU and the limited time available and the non-negotiability on both sides of the issues of the status of Northern Ireland and the single market make a new deal by the current October 31 deadline almost inconceivable. Leaving without a deal will look increasingly like the default position of the Johnson government as summer proceeds.
And beyond the castle keep of his party and ministers, King Boris must hear the massed ranks of his enemies hammering on their shields. In the House of Commons, Johnson has a vanishingly tiny majority even with the potentially costly support of the DUP. And sitting on his own benches are 17 Conservatives who have already voted to block a prorogation of parliament, a group now joined by embittered former ministers.
Labour, though unprecedentedly weak as a potential government, is united if only in withdrawing all support for the government over Brexit, while the Liberal Democrats are emboldened by new leadership under Jo Swinson and the hope of a by-election gain in Brecon next week, supported by the Greens and Plaid Cymru. Increasingly, it looks as though the only way Johnson can achieve a no-deal Brexit is by extraordinarily bypassing parliament.
Last but not least, the opinion of the British public – the absent but ultimate arbiter of his premiership – on Johnson is largely unknown. They, after all, played no role in electing him to the highest office.
Johnson won two mayoral elections in London against the trend, but was booed by the public in the Remainer capital, which was won by the Liberal Democrats at the recent European parliament elections, after the 2016 referendum. Anecdotal evidence suggests that he is widely liked as a personality, but some polls showed that Hunt would have been the public’s preferred prime minister. And let’s not forget that large parts of the UK population – Merseyside and Muslims, for instance – have been the subjects of Johnson’s “colourful” (according to Jacob Rees-Mogg – many others might say “offensive”) views and language.
Eight years ago, a counterfactual history book was published called Prime Minister Boris … and other things that never happened. Sam Macrory, who wrote the title piece, treated the prospect as amusing rather than wholly impossible. And this sums up the enigma of the Johnson premiership: it is the “What if?” that came true.
Johnson himself has written about Winston Churchill, with whom comparisons are sometimes made by his supporters. It is true that Churchill was an eccentric, right-wing, public school-educated political outsider who assumed office without an election at a time of national crisis. He even faced early challenges to his government in the Commons.
But Churchill also became prime minister with the support of the opposition and because he was a strategic leader of sublime insight, courage and persuasive powers, whose talents exactly met the challenge at hand.
With the hindsight of history, we shall now see how useful that parallel is.