The two secrets of modern politics are that leaders have little power, and that the successful ones are those who are good at making it look as if they are in control. This may explain why Boris Johnson has had a particularly bad 10 days.
Not only do prime ministers have less power than everyone imagines, but they are bound to make mistakes in the decisions left to them. Barack Obama once said: “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly soluble. Otherwise someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 per cent chance that it isn’t going to work.”
Recently, Johnson has been stuck in that 30 to 40 per cent zone. Having made the original mistake six months ago of keeping Dominic Cummings who had flouted the lockdown rules, he failed to sort out the rivalries of a dysfunctional No 10 and lost Cummings anyway.
Now, having avoided acting on the report on Priti Patel bullying her staff, by the ingenious tactic of refusing to read it when it landed on his desk six months ago, he has had it catch up with him. He couldn’t put it off for ever, but when he did finally read it, he tried unsuccessfully to get it changed and discussed what to do about it, so inevitably it started to leak.
Johnson still had the power to decide that Patel should keep her job – although that feels like a provisional ruling – but he had lost control of the timing and went on to make two further mistakes.
First he published a summary of the report’s findings – thus ensuring that he will be forced to publish the whole thing, with its damning details, later, triggering another round of damaging coverage. But second, he contradicted the finding that Patel broke the ministerial code. Sir Alex Allan, the independent adviser on the code, said “her behaviour has been in breach of the ministerial code, even if unintentionally”, while the No 10 statement said: “The prime minister’s judgement is that the ministerial code was not breached.”
Those words presumably prompted Sir Alex’s resignation, turning a drama into a crisis. But Sir Alex had given Johnson a way out. If the prime minister had accepted his findings, but said that because Patel’s bullying was “unintentional” he had decided she could stay – having apologised and learned from her mistakes and so on – then Sir Alex could have stayed too, and the temperature would have been lowered by several degrees.
As it is, Johnson is left struggling to make it look as if the government is getting on with the job of making life better for the voters. The most important part of that at the moment is showing that coronavirus is under control, but while waiting for the scientific and medical advisers to tell him what he can do when the current lockdown ends in England, and while the world waits for vaccines, he has tried again to convince us that he has a plan beyond day-to-day survival.
On Wednesday, he published his Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. It was an environmentally friendly document, in that it recycled Rebecca Long-Bailey’s slogan from the last election. But it failed to provide much more substance than the glorious froth of Johnson’s party conference speech from last month, in which he turned out some purple prose in praise of windmills: “Far out in the deepest waters we will harvest the gusts.”
It was alarming that three of the 10 points featured technology that hasn’t been invented yet – or, at least, not in a form that can actually deliver a low carbon economy. Item two on Johnson’s list was hydrogen power, introduced with the biblical science-fiction flourish, “we will turn water into energy”. This is purest greenwash: the only way hydrogen can work is as a way of storing and transmitting energy generated as electricity by wind, solar or nuclear power.
Item six was zero carbon aircraft – enough said – and item eight was the old perpetual-motion machine of green dreamers, carbon capture and storage (burning things and burying the exhaust). This is the kind of thing that risks the credibility of the target of net zero carbon by 2050. Technologically, the target is realistic and affordable. But it would be expensive and it requires difficult decisions about nuclear energy rather than hoping for magical physics.
I am glad that Johnson takes green politics seriously enough to commit the government to such ambitious targets, but this week’s 10-point plan felt too much like a glossy brochure put out to sell a timeshare that hasn’t been built yet. It was at least better than the prime minister’s other attempt to distract from the government’s internal chaos: the announcement of a four-year plan to raise defence spending.
Both announcements raise big questions about how they will be paid for, and whether the British people are willing to pay the price. But one thing that even powerless politicians can do is promise to spend unimaginable sums of money that don’t exist.