OPINION - Tom Newton Dunn: Boris Johnson needs a Tony Blair-like focus to save his party from mission vacuum

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 (Matt Writtle)
(Matt Writtle)

Every Sunday afternoon when the newly knighted Tony Blair was in No 10, he would sit down and handwrite a letter to his key aides and Cabinet ministers.

In it, Blair would set out the government’s mission for that week, what he wanted it to achieve, and what he wanted his people to say.

Every single week he did that, a former aide once told me. I marvel at the terrifying message discipline the weekly missives reveal. But, oh, for a Sunday afternoon letter from our Prime Minister now.

As MPs return to work today after Parliament’s Christmas break, it’s hard not to start wondering what the point of this Government is, once it’s finally done with fighting Covid. And it will be soon enough.

Ironically, it is coronavirus itself — perhaps speeded on by No 10’s rolling morass of scandals — that is to blame for a growing mission vacuum, and in more ways than one.

First, and for a second year in a row, the latest variant of Covid has derailed any new year launch of fresh ideas. Johnson and Michael Gove’s long-awaited Levelling Up masterplan was slated for this week. But “it will get lost” in the daily debate over new restrictions, one frustrated special adviser moans.

Whether that’s true or not, it’s not the biggest scalp Covid has claimed. We haven’t seen significant new policies or fresh thinking from this government for some time, and that pre-dates Omicron.

Why not? It’s an unspoken but dawning reality that, as well as taking up a huge amount of government bandwidth, Covid has also dealt a lethal blow to a lot of Johnson’s election manifesto.

And it’s done that by stripping him of the thing he was relying on most: cash largesse. Look through his 2019 manifesto again, and you’ll see that a chunk of Boris’s promises were not great new ideological initiatives, but carefully-focus-grouped retail offers that depended on significant spending.

We may just about get the extra nurses, hospitals, police officers and prison places that Boris pledged, as they’ve already been paid for. But Rishi Sunak’s Treasury has made it clear that with borrowing and debt max’d out from keeping the economy afloat over the past two years, there are no billions left to be spent on anything else.

Levelling up — Johnson’s declared primary purpose — is the biggest casualty, with the Treasury saying there won’t be a big cheque attached to it after all.

Fixing social care is another. Sunak won a long argument with Johnson over the summer that if he wanted to cap care home costs forever more, he would have to put up taxes to do it.

We also haven’t seen much of another of the great election promises made in 2019, to use Brexit’s regulatory freedom from the EU to innovate, and make the whole five-year national nervous breakdown actually worth it.

Has Covid curdled Johnson’s zeal for an assault on regulations, now that he’s seen how dependent the public have become on the protective arm of the big state to save them from the pandemic’s worst ravages? It seems so too.

What should further alarm No 10 is that their mission vacuum is having a knock-on effect in the parliamentary Tory party. Without a strong prime ministerial lead, Conservative MPs are becoming less a homogenous political party and more a collection of competing special interest WhatsApp groups, championing causes as disparate as money for the North, civil liberties over Covid restrictions, anti-HS2, or stopping the small boats in the Channel.

One consequence of mission vacuum is that the Government is developing a philosophical vacuum too. All this needs to be tackled by Johnson, and fast.

It’s going to be a gruelling first half to the year with so much economic turbulence ahead, from spiralling inflation and sky-high energy prices to April’s tax rises.

To persuade his Tory MPs, as well as the rest of us, that the pain is going to be worth it, now more than ever we need a new rainbow at the end of the storm.

Johnson used to be good at this stuff. It’s what George H. W. Bush used to call “the vision thing”. Now that Covid has stripped Johnson of his old vision thing, he needs a new one.

Shudder at the thought: but it’s time for another big speech from the PM. This time, with more meat and less Peppa Pig.

I’m gripped by elections this year: There’s a lot at stake

A tidal wave of fascinating elections awaits us political obsessives this year. Emmanuel Macron will try to hold on to the French presidency, but faces his toughest challenge from the centre-right’s candidate, Valérie Pécresse. Is France ready for its first woman boss?

Brazil and Hungary have intriguing general elections that will pit their autocratic leaders against democratic challengers. And if the US midterms go badly for Joe Biden and he loses both houses of Congress, he’ll look very vulnerable to Donald Trump, who is now odds on to run in 2024.

Our own local elections in May will be a crucial test for the PM. As polling for this newspaper revealed yesterday, the Tory bastions of Westminster and Wandsworth look very shaky.

But the most important poll for the UK’s future is the vote to elect a new Northern Ireland Assembly, with Sinn Fein leading the race for the first time. If the IRA’s former political wing wins, the seed may be sown for an unavoidable referendum to reunify Ireland.

Truss’s card has a winning festive touch

It’s the twelfth day of Christmas tomorrow, and time to take down the decorations and cards.

When we’re not election-obsessing, at this time of year political journalists love to compare notes over how much politicians bother to write in their Christmas cards to us.

Sir Keir Starmer keeps it short, with a simple signature. Theresa May is less formal, signing off with “Theresa and Philip”, but Liz Truss wins my prize, with a “Dear Tom” thrown in too.

What did the PM write? I can’t tell you. Oddly my card got lost in the post — just as it did last year.

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