Nick Pearce is Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at the University of Bath.
The spectacle of institutional collapse is rare in high politics. Prime Ministers may be removed from office by their MPs, resign in failure or lose elections, but rarely does the institution of No10 itself visibly fall apart. For an entire top team of No10 advisers and senior civil servants to depart in disarray is unprecedented in modern politics. That there is no national crisis, no Suez, nor even a significant policy disagreement to have precipitated the collapse, makes it all the more difficult to comprehend.
No10 has always functioned, as the political scientist Jim Bulpitt put it, like a Court. In Britain’s centralised, winner-takes-all political system, No10 is a site of concentrated power. Cliques and factions form, jostling for influence and authority. Sometimes the institution is infected with paranoia and personal antipathy, as it was under Harold Wilson. For the most part, however, the politics of the Court does not inhibit competent government – rather, establishing governing competence is one of the basic objectives of the Prime Minister and the core executive.
Boris Johnson’s tenure in No10 is different. He may yet survive the coming weeks and No10 will doubtless be restructured, with a new Permanent Secretary and political team. But his entire term of office has been marked by rancorous division, chaotic decision-making and institutional turmoil. Advisers have resigned or been sacked in a steady stream. Norms of truth-telling and probity have been repeatedly abrogated. Institutional safeguards have been weakened. His former advisers conspire to remove him, while those that remain are subject to a police investigation. And for what? What is the national mission or policy programme on whose altar the sacrifice of office has been made?
It is tempting to see Johnson’s febrile premiership as an aftershock of Brexit. To force the UK’s departure from the European Union, he purged the government and backbenches of numerous Remain-supporters, narrowing his base of support in the Conservative party. The political capital accrued at the 2019 General Election to ‘Get Brexit Done’ also came with a price: how to align the interests of older, post-industrial constituencies in the Midlands and the North, with those of Southern England, exposing rifts over tax and spending that now echo through the party.
The Covid pandemic diminished the salience of the Brexit cleavage in British politics, and its utility to the Prime Minister, but it also fractured the Eurosceptic Right of the party and weakened its loyalty to their leader, leaving his position even more exposed. Meanwhile, the pandemic demanded a Prime Minister willing and able to abide by the codes of behaviour he was prepared to impose on others, and when that was not forthcoming, Leave voters began to withdraw the license they had extended him.
Electoral anxieties on the Conservative backbenches are now intensified by an impending cost-of-living crisis, piling further pressure on the Prime Minister. Institutional reorganisation at No10, the appointment of new political staff, or more time spent in the Commons Tea Room will not change any of this. Rising inflation and impending local elections may give him limited reprieve, as his rivals for the leadership will prefer to takeover once the deluge has abated. But it is not obvious how his authority can now be reclaimed. He has no substantive policy programme to carry him forward. His campaigning skills are formidable, but his oratory, like his writing, is poor. He is best at the photo op and slogan. He has never scaled the Periclean heights to which he aspires. In his decline and fall, he plays Roman to the Greek.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.