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Mr. Johnson and Mr. Toad

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame was published in 1908 and set in the rural Edwardian England of that time. It tells the tales of four anthropomorphised animals. Ratty and Mole are broadly content pottering about together along the riverbank, messing about in boats. Badger is the senior authority figure as befits his size, appearing in daylight and emerging from the cover of the wild wood only if the restoration of social order strictly requires it. Toad is the lord of a substantial manor, possessed of more money than sense which releases him to pursue a continuous quest for the “next big thing” with which to divert himself from the boredom of everyday routine.

The book’s general currency has dulled with age but its relevance to reflection on British politics remains bright.

Toad’s latest and most intense obsession is motor cars which he abuses rather than uses to the point where Badger eventually enlists Ratty and Mole to join him in taking Toad in hand to which end all three march off to Toad Hall where Badger confronts the miscreant.

“You knew it must come to this, sooner or later, Toad,”, explains Badger severely.

You’ve disregarded all the warnings we’ve given you, you’ve gone on squandering the money your father left you, and you’re getting us animals a bad name in the district by your furious driving and your smashes and your rows with the police. Independence is all very well, but we animals never allow our friends to make fools of themselves beyond a certain limit; and that limit you’ve reached. Now, you’re a good fellow in many respects, and I don’t want to be too hard on you. I’ll make one more effort to bring you to reason. You will come with me into the smoking-room, and there you will hear some facts about yourself; and we’ll see whether you come out of that room the same Toad that you went in.”

The other two wait outside listening at the closed door to Badger’s long continuous drone rising and falling punctuated at intervals by long-drawn sobs from Toad until Badger and Toad emerge 45 minutes later and Badger announces the good news.

“I am pleased to inform you that Toad has at last seen the error of his ways. He is truly sorry for his misguided conduct in the past, and he has undertaken to give up motor-cars entirely and forever. I have his solemn promise to that effect.”

Badger invites Toad to repeat to the wider audience that he is indeed sorry for what he’s done and sees the folly of it all. After a long pause, Toad speaks.

“No!” he said, a little sullenly, but stoutly; “I’m not sorry. And it wasn’t folly at all! It was simply glorious!”

“What?” cried the Badger, greatly scandalised. “You backsliding animal, didn’t you tell me just now, in there — — ”

“Oh, yes, yes, in there,” said Toad impatiently. “I’d have said anything in there.

We previously took the temperature on Boris Johnson’s prospects in the wake of the attempt to protect the undeserving Own Patterson from parliamentary suspension but before the emergence of the succession of stories and photographs about “parties”, each new one of which peeled away the credibility of the Prime Minister’s attempt to “explain” its predecessor as offering nothing to see here.

So, we moved from Mr. Johnson’s opening gambit that Number 10 operated always within the guidelines and there were no parties through an acceptance that there were parties of which he was previously totally unaware through the admission that he had attended what he believed to be work events but so briefly as to be barely worth mentioning and on to the Metropolitan Police investigating for criminal behaviour as many as 12 events of which the Prime Minister attended several, these standing alongside four other events that were within the scope of Ms. Gray’s investigation but not that of the police.

So, what are the prospects now of the proverbial greased albino piglet Prime Minister escaping decommissioning from his high office?

Of one thing we can be certain. Short of losing a confidence vote among his party’s MPs or the numbers otherwise being reliably demonstrated as weighted against him, Mr. Johnson will not resign from office voluntarily. There is no threshold of embarrassment, shame or volume of condemnation that will cause him to vacate the premises.

That in itself is an important layer of the Prime Minister’s defence strategy. If MPs want him gone, they are going to have to push him. And Mr. Johnson knows that MPs are a pusillanimous lot, as relieved to have an excuse to dither as to have an impulse to act. So, absent significant adverse events, the number of letters trickling in calling for a confidence vote in the leader will always lag behind the level of MPs’ unease, perhaps long enough for the latter to abate.

However, Mr. Johnson may even be hopeful that the flow of letters will edge past the threshold of 54 needed to trigger a vote, fall rather than burst over the line, so to speak. This is because he would be more likely to win a vote that comes about by accident rather than orchestration and buy himself a year’s grace before another vote can be called.

A second layer of defence is the hope that he will be able to inch his way around the potential landmines of the police investigation and the full Gray report on one hand and the May local elections on the other. Unless either of these delivers a clean shot, enough to trigger an avalanche of letters seeking a confidence vote, he will dismiss them with large professions of penitence, reasons for (literally) fulsome apology and abject reform but not for resignation.

A third strand to the defence is straightforward generalised hope. For now, he has bought time within which he might catch or engineer a break for himself — that might at least remind MPs of the brio and swagger with which he wooed his way to election as leader in the summer of 2019. If he survives that long, perhaps England might bring the world cup home from Qatar in time for Christmas.

And finally, even if nothing “turns up” to help him, he has a multi-faceted case to make to be left in office.

First, while aspirant potential successors are legion, none is obviously more of an electoral asset than he remains. Tossing him from the frying pan may throw the party’s fortunes into the fire rather than on to the table. He will point out that the prospect of an overall majority at the next election depends on a strong performance in England from which region alone he delivered an overall parliamentary majority in 2019. Nobody else resonates with heartland English voters as he does, or so he will claim. Ian Paisley Jr. got it right in his comments last week. The red wall in England matters a great deal more to the Tory party than a border across the Irish Sea.

Second, he will claim that, by fair means or foul, he can still outshine and outrun his Labour opposite number. Mr. Starmer may be worthy, but he is dull and uninspiring. That he might be the last person in the world to participate in an illegal party speaks as much against him as for him.

Third, he will suggest that outrage over personal venality and scandal is inevitably ephemeral and will subside as rapidly as it has risen, like a soufflé soon after leaving the oven, once Ms. Gray and the police depart the stage — and this government has two years or more to run. The parties are a much bigger issue among the chatterati inside the M25 than outside and outrage eventually burns itself out. Yes, the polls are now against Mr. Johnson and his party and, yes, this reflects voters’ disapproval of his actions. But this does not translate into a firm intention to transfer their votes elsewhere.

Fourth, he will point to the “restructuring” he has set in motion to the Downing Street machine, albeit at the third time of asking (depending on how you count) as evidence of his intent to manage affairs better and affirm his renewed intent to listen more attentively to “ordinary” MPs.

Fifth, as Prime Minister, he has a seam of patronage at his disposal; appointments, promotions, baubles, gewgaws and trumperies. Even the most hard-bitten backbench MP thinks twice before refusing a knighthood.

Finally, he has the power of the podium that goes with being a national leader, currently exercised in shaking the plucky British fist at the Russian bear to the delight of his fanzines. Even if the gesture is as bereft of influence as it is free of risk, Mr. Johnson will stoutly defend Ukraine to the death — of the last Ukrainian soldier, or, perhaps, the first migration of one of the many sleek but shady Tory funding Russian oligarchs swanning serenely around London.

However, Mr. Johnson faces considerable headwinds.

First, though time may deliver him a lucky break to ease his position, that vague possibility must be set against the certainty of baked-in bad news in the form of resurgent inflation, especially in domestic energy bills, already mandated tax rises, rising interest rates and growing NHS backlogs.

Second, in relation to parties, Mr. Johnson is at risk from a pincer movement. From one side, coming at him are the police and Ms. Gray. If they don’t do enough to bring him down, from the other is his spurned and scorned former advisor, Dominic Cummings, who has hinted strongly that he retains further damaging evidence of Mr. Johnson’s cavalier behaviour during lockdown to be deployed if the official enquiries seem to pull their punches.

Third, it is indeed possible that Mr. Johnson would comfortably survive a confidence vote among MPs in the near term and, in theory, that would give him a full year to mend his fortunes. But, it is not so simple. The resignation of some of the bigger beasts (or more accurately, the less small ones) from his cabinet would derail that timetable immediately. The challenge for such political assassins would be to negotiate the path from wielding the knife to wearing the crown, the former being a potential barrier to achieving the latter. Michael Heseltine’s challenge to Mrs. Thatcher’s leadership brought her down in 1990 but it was John Major who succeeded her.

The path to leadership is a more complex calculus now than then with the votes among MPs being a prelude to a contest between the final two candidates decided by the party’s ordinary members; older, whiter, maler and staler than Britain’s population as a whole.

Fourth, his colleagues may have a more jaundiced perception of his qualities as an electoral magician than he does himself. Against a deeply unpopular Labour leader in Jeremy Corbyn and with a Heath Robinson, oven-unready Brexit deal in his pocket, Mr. Johnson could hardly have lost the 2019 general election if he had tried. The election was “won” by an 8% swing against Labour. The swing to the Tories was a mere 1.2%. Mr. Johnson won only around 330,000 more votes (out of over 32 million) than did the hapless Mrs. May in the inconclusive election of 2017.

But I suspect that what will eventually cause confidence to ebb away from Mr. Johnson is not that he is shallow, venal or arrogant, but that he is just not competent to do the job. That is not a personal criticism, simply a statement of reality. I am not a bad person because I am not competent to perform open heart surgery. But it would be an intolerable situation if I were placed for any length of time in a context where I was permitted and expected to do exactly that.

Mr. Johnson’s talent is polemical journalism. That involves thinking up a column today to appear tomorrow and present its subject matter as being both of enduring relevance and significance as well as temporarily diverting, to strut and fret a day upon the stage and then to be read no more. Slogans and pithy throwaway lines are the stuff of columns. They have a role to play too in the promotion of policy, but they are not themselves policy. Policy requires diving into and mastering the sludge of detail, establishing pathways to the ostensible objectives, timetables to meet them, processes for monitoring progress along the way and securing and sustaining “buy-in”, patient and painstaking stuff. Devising and implementing policy is the antithesis of columnising.

Mr. Johnson has no sense of governmental direction beyond being, as he says himself, a Brexity Hezza (Michael Heseltine): keep Europe at arm’s length, deploy the resources of the state towards a combination of bread and circuses: a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland, free ports, a new royal yacht, Union Jacks everywhere and an Olympic games in a northern English city; boost and cheerlead for Boris, Britain and Saint George.

That approach was fine for the short, focused period between his election as Prime Minister in July 2019 through the general election and Getting Brexit Done. At a pinch, the case can be made that it muddled a way for England through the pandemic, the other “nations” doing much their own thing.

But now what?

That is what MPs will be scratching their heads and asking themselves as they contemplate the long, deep chasm of the next two years equipped with only a thin frayed rope to cross it. They will know in their hearts that Boris Johnson has no answer to that question either beyond another slogan, another fib, another “friend” to cast overboard, whatever it takes to get him through the next five minutes. Whether he is a good man or a bad man, he is just not capable of running the country of which he desperately wants to remain in charge. Like Mr. Toad, he needs to be taken in hand because he certainly won’t take himself in hand. And though many years in jail eventually made Mr. Toad contrite, contrite is something Mr. Johnson will never be.



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