Voices: Thanks to Boris Johnson, the next prime minister will inherit low levels of public trust in politicians

·4-min read

The closer you get to No 10, the more you realise that being prime minister can be a horrible job. The decisions that land on your desk are by definition those that are too difficult or fraught with risk (whether financial, security or political) to have been sorted out at a lower level.

Periodically, a crisis, and not necessarily one you caused, interrupts to blow your plans out of the water. The workload, pressure and stress are relentless. Set side by side, the photos of any prime minister on their first and last days in the job illustrate how the office ages everyone who holds it.

Boris Johnson has had more than his fair share of crises. While I’ve never been a member of the Boris fan club, I am proud of how he led this country’s response to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and his resolute support for Ukraine’s right to decide its own future. I hope and believe that his successor will continue that approach.

With Covid, which for two years knocked aside the government’s planned priorities, the verdict has to be mixed. The calculated gamble on ploughing money into vaccines, without any certainty they’d work, paid off, and Johnson’s pick of Kate Bingham to implement the vaccine programme was inspired.

But mistakes were also made. More than some, I’m willing to cut the government some slack for its response at the start. Then, expert scientific opinion was uncertain about the nature of the virus, how it was transmitted and the most effective way to respond to the epidemic. But it’s harder to excuse the delay in imposing restrictions in the winter of 2020-21, the complex and constantly changing regulations, or the sidelining of parliament.

Nor is there any escaping the harm done by Partygate. It’s not about the definition of a party or whether cake was eaten, but about double standards: people at the heart of government not sticking to the rules they told everyone else to obey.

Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people remembered having to cancel birthday and anniversary parties, postpone weddings, decide (as in my own case) who would have to be excluded from a family funeral, or weep online as a husband, wife or parent died alone in hospital. And they contrasted that experience with the conduct of their rulers.

Even then, I think that openness, an admission of error and an apology when the story first broke would have assuaged much of the public anger. As it was, the drip, drip of revelations did enormous damage, not just to the outgoing prime minister, but to the store of public trust that any government needs to be able to rely on, especially in a crisis, to persuade voters to accept personal sacrifice for the sake of the national interest.

The next prime minister will inherit a situation in which public trust in politicians and political parties, never terribly strong, has been weakened further. I hope that they will make it their practice to tell it straight when the news is unwelcome, to be frank about difficult choices and trade-offs and open about mistakes.

Both know that their response to the energy price crisis is critical to their political fortunes. As parliament returns, MPs’ inboxes and surgeries will fill with constituents, some enraged, others in tears, saying that they cannot afford to stay warm or feed their family or that their business faces closure.

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Unless the new government comes up within its first couple of weeks with a package of support that the public feels is broadly fair and which Conservative MPs feel confident about defending, they will be in very rough waters indeed.

But the new PM will need to do more. By 2024, voters will be asking which party will give them the best deal for the next five years. Boris Johnson’s ambitions for levelling up and for net zero were both right and popular, but he never set up the machinery of government to turn them from grand vision to detailed operational plans. That is a task for the new PM, to which they’ll also need to add a strategic plan for energy security.

In my view, it will need clarity about which minister is accountable for which bits of the plan, with a designated minister (with the title of deputy prime minister) who has delegated authority to bang heads together, broker compromises and clear bottlenecks to implementation.

By 2024, the Conservative Party will have been in office for 14 years. Voters will ponder whether it’s time for a change. To win, the new PM will need to have steered the country through its current crisis and devised a credible strategy for the prosperity and security of the UK and the ability to deliver it. I wish him or her well.

David Lidington was a Conservative MP from 1992 to 2019, and served as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and minister for the Cabinet Office under Theresa May