Voices: Swerving like a shopping trolley is the secret of Boris Johnson’s survival

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Dominic Cummings has done the prime minister a favour by adopting ‘The Trolley’ as his nickname for the prime minister  (PA)
Dominic Cummings has done the prime minister a favour by adopting ‘The Trolley’ as his nickname for the prime minister (PA)

There is method in Boris Johnson’s madness. Remember that it was he himself who first said: “I’m veering all over the place like a shopping trolley.” He was explaining how he was making up his mind about whether to support Leave or Remain in February 2016.

Dominic Cummings has done the prime minister a favour by adopting “The Trolley” as his nickname for his former boss. Trying to get his revenge, Cummings has only added to the mythology of Johnson as the inconsistent lord of chaos – a myth that is helpful to the prime minister’s improbable survival.

Veering all over the place can be a strength as well as a weakness. In 2016, it advertised to David Cameron that Johnson could be persuaded, if he were offered something big enough. Cameron didn’t take the bait; but it also meant that Johnson avoided appearing to be a wide-eyed dogmatist in the Brexit cause. It did something else valuable: by writing two articles, the case for Remain and the case for Leave, Johnson understood the strengths and weaknesses of both sides in the way a partisan could never do.

The shopping trolley and the writer of both sides was in evidence this week in the prime minister’s speech in Blackpool. In it, he veered from protecting the vulnerable by massive public spending, to the case for tax cuts. It was as if he had written two speeches making opposite arguments, and delivered them both with equal conviction, alternating paragraphs from each.

Politicians are often accused of saying different things to different audiences, but it is unusual to listen to one do so in consecutive sentences. “Of course this government will continue to invest in the bedrock on which businesses build their foundations: in infrastructure, skills and technology,” he said at one point. “But sometimes the best way that government can help is simply to get out of the way.”

I had as much fun as the next commentator in dissecting the contradictions in the speech and in pointing out the incoherence of Johnson’s political position. But most normal people don’t pay attention to whole speeches. They might hear a clip on the news. They might hear the prime minister warning of the dangers of inflation, and agree with that. Or they might hear him promise a “package of help” that will go “overwhelmingly to the most vulnerable households” in the aftershocks of Covid, and agree with that too.

What is surprising is that Rishi Sunak, the calm analytical mind at the Treasury, has been sucked into the Johnson business of claiming to be cutting taxes while putting them up, and claiming to be prudent about public spending while announcing another £21bn of help with people’s energy bills.

This is widely held to be part of Johnson’s problem as he fights for his survival after the confidence vote on Monday. On the contrary, it is how he will survive. If he gave the tax-cutting punk Thatcherites everything they wanted, he would lose the One Nation compassionate Conservatives.

If he gave the Brexit Spartans everything they wanted by tearing up the Northern Ireland protocol, he would lose the Tory respecters of international law. He is alleged to be doing all sorts of extreme things, of course, and he sometimes seems to claim to be, but when it comes to it, he claims to be doing the opposite as well, and ends up somewhere in between.

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That is how politics works: put off difficult choices until tomorrow and in the meantime pretend they don’t have to be made. Then something else might happen and new difficult choices will distract from the old ones that haven’t been made. Johnson’s trolleying is like politics, only more so.

The plotters against him triggered the confidence vote too early, as Jeremy Hunt in effect admitted, saying he hadn’t written a letter asking for a vote, but when it happened he had to take a position, and it was his “duty” to oppose the prime minister. Now there probably won’t be another confidence vote for a year, as Sir Graham Brady, chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, made it clear he didn’t think it would be right to change the rules while the game is in progress.

The plotters will try other devices, such as an extraordinary meeting of the National Conservative Convention, which represents local party associations, using an obscure rule unearthed by Jacob Rees-Mogg when he was trying to get rid of Theresa May, or MPs “going on strike” when asked to vote for the government in the Commons. But none of it will work.

Johnson will continue to veer from side to side, offering something to one bit of the party and then something contradictory to another bit, and they won’t get rid of him until it is clearer (a) that he is going to lose them the next election, and (b) that someone else could take over who could save their seats.

By this time next year, something may have turned up. The chances are that it will be something that finishes Johnson off. But we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that what looks like an out-of-control shopping trolley is actually dodging mortal threats to his premiership, and we should not forget that, if he sees an opportunity that will help him, not believing in anything is a huge strength in a politician.

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