I’ve been of voting age for 42 years. I’m used to having prime ministers who are in office for a long time. For 35 of those 42 years we had prime ministers who served for at least six years. Latterly we’ve had three PMs who’ve only managed only three each. Historically, this is not unprecedented, but it is unusual. It’s also not particularly healthy. Are there any PMs in living memory who’ve served for three years or fewer who are in any way memorable for brilliant achievements? I’d say you have to go all the way back to Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who I regard (rather than Lloyd George) as the true father of the modern welfare state.
As Boris Johnson enters his last 48 hours in office he can take solace that he's served for longer than Theresa May, James Callaghan and Gordon Brown. But of our 55 PMs, he is only the 32nd longest serving.
Historians may regard him as a more significant PM than May and Callaghan, but it is difficult to compare him to Gordon Brown. Boris Johnson thought he would go down as the PM who ‘got Brexit done’. Perhaps dealing with Covid will be a more significant part of his historical legacy, for good or ill, but in the short term all of his political obituaries will probably concentrate on the reasons he defenestrated himself – parties and telling lies. I use the phrase ‘defenestrated himself’ deliberately, because it was completely self-inflicted. He wasn’t stabbed in the back by colleagues. It wasn’t a media plot. He did it all by himself. On a personal level I feel a bit sorry for him. The next few days are going to be very difficult. No prime minister copes well with being the centre of our national life one day and enjoying all the trappings of power, and then the next day wondering when the phone is going to ring or trying to locate the keys to the Toyota Previa that you haven’t drive for more than three years.
Having made the decision to dispense with the services of Boris Johnson, you might have thought the Conservative Party, with its lust for power, might have wanted to elect a fresh face as its new leader, someone unsullied by the negativity of recent events. But oh no, the so-called ‘Stupid Party’s’ MPs decided to go back to the future and give their members a sort of Hobson’s choice contest between the architect of the government’s economic policy of the last two and a half years and the longest serving cabinet minister whose record of achievement has been – well, let’s be kind – patchy. Both candidates then proceeded to slag off the other and indeed their own government’s record in power.
We reach the end of the contest with the party riven with splits, unenthusiastic about either of the potential future prime ministers and fearful of what’s about to hit us and whether the winner will have what it takes to hit the ground. Sorry, I mean hit the ground running.
I am a great believer that any prime minister deserves a fair wind. I have been quite critical of Liz Truss over the course of the last two months. To be fair, she has shown a few qualities I didn’t think she possessed, but her ability to make unnecessary gaffes continues to astonish me. Some of the appointments she will reportedly make to her cabinet leave me almost speechless. Others leave me appalled. Unless of course the Westminster lobby have been played and they’ve got all their tips completely wrong.
As I wrote in my Telegraph column this week, Liz Truss’s government, it needs to look demonstrably different to Boris Johnson’s, otherwise people will rightly wonder what the point of getting rid of him was. Continuity after regime change may be desirable in some ways, but not in the current circumstances. But axe too many ministers and Truss will immediately create a phalanx of potential enemies on the backbenches, with little better to do than cause trouble for the nascent government. It’s an almost impossible circle to square.
In some ways the papers today make for depressing reading if you’re a bright young junior minister, waiting for the call from Truss next Tuesday. If resurrecting John Redwood and Iain Duncan Smith is the answer, they may ask, what was the question?
These two Tory stalwarts possess many qualities, but appealing to the public is not one of them. And given the various crises Truss will have to contend with between now and Christmas and with an election approaching within two years, that is surely a quality each and every one of her cabinet ministers will need.
Some may think it superficial to argue that communication skills are one of the main qualities a modern day cabinet minister needs, but it is nevertheless true. If government ministers are either incapable of unwilling to go out and both explain and market their policies, who do they think is going to do it for them?
Liz Truss acknowledges that communicating is not one of the most notable parts of her skillset, so she needs a posse of ministers who are able to do it for her. They can’t all be the political equivalents of Geoffrey Boycott who delight in playing a straight bat on a hostile wicket. Brandon Lewis has played that role to perfection for both Theresa May and Boris Johnson, willing to go on TV when no other minister would and explain the inexplicable or indefensible. This is why Penny Mordaunt, Tom Tugendhat and Kemi Badenoch need to be given high profile, public facing jobs, not stuck away as deputy minister for this, that or the other. It’s why some of the brightest younger ministers like Gillian Keegan should be not just promoted, but put in jobs that will require a high degree of media engagement. Having supported Rishi Sunak should not be an automatic bar to preferment.
There also needs a sea-change in attitude within the Downing Street Communications team. They need to move from being an obstacle to a minister appearing on TV to a radio, to actively seeking out opportunities for ministers to appear on programmes, even apparently hostile ones.
Each department should also have a roster of half a dozen or so young thrusting backbenchers who are familiar with the Secretary of State’s priorities and can put a human face on them. When a minister isn’t available, these backbenchers should get the chance to prove themselves on the frontline of the political battlefield.
It is encouraging that Liz Truss has already made clear that Downing Street will take a less rigid approach to the daily grid and allow departments much more flexibility. This must extend to allowing departmental Comms teams to coordinate ministerial media appearances. For the last few years that decision has been left to 23 year old posh boys in Downing Street with little clue about modern media management. It’s time for an end to all that.
I always tried to be fair in my commentary of the events of the Boris Johnson premiership. When he did something I agreed with I said so, but equally, when he did something I thought was wrong, I also said so. That's how I think I should do my job. And it won't be any different with Liz Truss. I start as a sceptic, but I hope for the country's sake, she proves me completely and utterly wrong. I absolutely want her to succeed, and wish her luck, because all my instincts tell me she's going to need a hell of a lot more than luck if she is to get through the next twelve months unscathed.