Boris Johnson returned today to politics today after a life-and-death battle with the coronavirus and a convalescence lasting three weeks at Chequers. He did so amid a great many media mutterings that the government has not been functioning properly in his absence since no one was in charge. Constitutionally speaking, those complaints were ridiculous since the U.K. government is not an imitation of America’s presidential system revolving around one person but a Cabinet government in which the PM is primus inter pares or first among equals. If a prime minister is ill or otherwise incapacitated (e.g., held hostage by terrorists), all that happens is that another Cabinet minister chairs the Cabinet and life goes on. The interim chairman may or may not be a likely contender for the job if it becomes really vacant — Dominic Raab who took over from Boris is, David Lidington who was Theresa May’s stand-in was not. It’s not a constitutionally important job. And the government functioned perfectly well during Boris’s absence in a practical sense, too. All that didn’t happen is that there was treading water on one or two decisions about the lockdown, but the same thing happened repeatedly under the May regime even when the PM was hard at work in Downing Street.
That said, Boris’s return is important because he has established a mastery of the political scene unequaled since Margaret Thatcher after her victory in the Falklands War. He is regarded by his party — to quote Churchill on Joseph Chamberlain — as “the man who makes the weather.” His success has been dramatic in transforming the Tories from a party that got eight per cent of the popular vote in the European elections less than a year ago into one that has a large secure majority in today’s Commons resting now on 53 percent in the opinion polls. I describe that success in the Weekend Australian here.
In conventional party–political Left–Right terms, his 20-point lead over Labour looks insurmountable even though the opposition party has a new and more effective leader in the successful lawyer, Sir Keir Starmer. For Starmer to succeed, he would have to unify all the forces of the broad left, now divided between four political parties (Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the Scottish Nationalists), into a single political force. That’s essentially what Boris achieved between May 23rd, 2019 and December the 4th. Equaling that would be a hard task for Starmer if he led a united party to start with. In fact, however, Labour itself is engaged in a slow-motion civil war that doesn’t look like it’s ending any time soon even though the new leader has appointed fervent and obstructive Corbynites to his Shadow Cabinet.
But Starmer will have one powerful set of allies anxious to advance his interests from behind the curtain. As I explain in the Australian, (but read the whole thing while it’s still on the right side of the paywall):
The main obstacle to Johnson is the political environment itself. This is divided between a democratic political system in which the Tory party is dominant and an interlocking system of cultural institutions (the media, universities, the quangos and so on) in which a left-liberal progressivism is dominant and increasingly aggressive. Unless the Tories respond with their own more aggressive steps to reduce the cultural power of left-liberal progressives, then they will use that power to weaken and obstruct government policy . . . This struggle between a revived democratic conservatism and an angry cultural progressivism may well be the defining fight of the Johnson years — akin to the miners’ battle against Thatcherism.
That may explain why another lament from the media since Johnson was rushed to hospital is that the unprecedented crisis caused by the coronavirus requires a national government drawn from all parties. Now that Boris has returned, I think the media will find that’s not in the British constitution either.
What these media mutterings also signify is that the U.K.’s political correspondents spend too much time watching the West Wing, They would be far better informed if they were to watch Yes, Prime Minister even though this great series ended thirty years ago. (See it on the Internet.)