Duncan Brack and I have published three books of counterfactual essays over the last 15 years or so. Prime Minister Portillo And Other Things That Never Happened was the first, published in 2003. Prime Minister Boris And Other Things That Never Happened followed in 2016, with Prime Minister Corbyn & Other Things That Never Happened published in 2016.
Give the events of this week, and given the fact that none of these books quite hit the bestseller charts, I thought I'd publish the title essay from the Boris book here. It was written by political journalist Sam MacCrory, who at the time of writing was with the House Magazine. He now works for the Institute for Government. Bear in mind this was written in 2012. Enjoy.
Sweat dripping from his brow, the middle-aged man with the unconvincingly covered bald spot jogged slowly up the driveway towards his front door. Gasping for breath, he stopped to glance at his watch – and winced. He seemed to be getting slower by the week. Then again, the regular jogs through the Oxfordshire countryside kept him feeling healthy, and relatively happy. Kicking off his well-worn running shoes, he padded through his tastefully furnished home towards the kitchen. No messages on the answer phone from anyone important – as usual. Turning to the mock art deco fridge, he dug out a carton of ginseng-infused water, poured a glass and then lit up a cigarette – a soothing habit which he no longer worried about hiding. Switching on the television, he impatiently flicked through the channels until he reached UK Fox, the twenty-four-hour rolling news channel which had dominated the airwaves since its controversial launch eighteen months before. He strained his eyes in an effort to make out the images in front of him.
A crowd had gathered on what looked like an unpromising pile of earth, with cameramen desperately clambering over each other for the best possible angle to film whatever it was they were watching. Their attention was focused on a rotund figure in a fluorescent safety jacket who was recklessly waving a garden spade around his head, apparently to the delight of his audience. As the cameras zoomed closer, a familiar shock of blond hair could be spied escaping from beneath the hard hat on top of his head. Back in the Oxfordshire kitchen, the man’s hand gripped his glass tensely. He didn’t need the caption on the bottom of the screen to tell him what was happening: ‘Prime Minister celebrates as work commences on “Boris Island” Airport’.
The cameras zoomed closer, revealing the grinning face of Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for the last four years. Struggling to make his excitable gabbling heard over the cheering crowd, the Prime Minister bellowed: ‘This is an historic day. Pat your neighbour on the back. Shake their hand! Plan your holidays! This will be a new airport for a new Britain. The Thames Estuary will never be the same again, and neither will Britain! New jobs! New transport! A chance for all of us to pull together for our … great British society.’ Staring into the Fox camera, the Prime Minister seemed to be locking eyes with the man in the Oxfordshire kitchen. The glass narrowly missed the TV screen as it smashed against the wall. Collapsing into the nearest chair, David Cameron asked himself, as he did every hour of every day: ‘How on earth have things come to this?’
Eight years earlier As 2011 drew to a close, David Cameron stood in the same Oxfordshire kitchen and waited for his guests – Elisabeth and Matthew, Andy and Eloise, and Bono and Ali – to arrive. The Christmas holidays could not have come quickly enough he thought, as he stared out across the snowcovered lawn. The feud over NHS reform – and it was bloody annoying the way Nick claimed to have saved it! – had drained him, Ken Clarke’s radio interviews had frayed his nerves, and, as every admiral and general kept telling anyone who would listen, British involvement in Libya was proving to be uncomfortably expensive.
Then there was that rather awkward thing with Andy and the phones – no invitation for Rebekah this year. The backbenchers were hounding him, the Lib Dems were harassing him, and the next three years of this wretched coalition seemed to stretch out interminably. Still, he thought to himself, he was the Prime Minister! And only 45 years old! This was the mere adolescence of his premiership! The ungrateful bastards would soon remember what he’d achieved: overthrowing the Labour government, gaining huge local election victories, bringing in tougher sentencing powers, and, of course, dealing with any plans for electoral reform for a generation.
The alternative vote was dead, the constituencies were being redrawn, and the Conservative Party, with Prime Minister Cameron at the helm, should be looking forward to a long stretch in power. His mood considerably lifted, Cameron smiled – 2012 was going to be a good year.
The bomb went off at 8:57am on Wednesday 9 May, a few hundred yards from Stratford tube station. Striking the heart of the Olympic village, the message was clear: whoever planted the bomb could do it again, at any time – perhaps when the Olympic Stadium was packed, as it would be in just three months’ time. With incredible good fortune, however, it appeared that the timing and location of the bomb had been botched. David Cameron was in Germany, invited by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel to make the second speech of his ‘multiculturalism’ series, so Nick Clegg – the day started with a series of ‘Don’t Forget!’ tabloid headlines – was in charge.
After digesting the news, the Deputy Prime Minister sensed the chance to flex some muscle. Boris Johnson, the recently re-elected mayor of London, had been dominating the airwaves, redirecting his early morning run to make his way across to East London and condemn the attacks. In response, Clegg quickly summoned a meeting of COBRA – one for the rolling news cameras, he thought – and began to prepare for what he hoped would be an easy opportunity to dominate that afternoon’s Prime Minister’s questions. Initial briefings were encouraging: no loss of life had been reported.
This was a near miss rather than a catastrophe. Then the call from MI6 was put through. Clegg’s facial features fell back to their familiar setting of tired and grey. ‘You’re absolutely certain? I see. Thank you.’ The phone went down.
Norman Lamb, his political adviser, and James McGrory, Clegg’s press secretary, looked concerned. ‘Not good. Not good at all,’ Clegg told the anxious-looking pair. ‘Well, obviously. But nobody was killed’, Lamb replied with an optimistic lilt. ‘That’s not the problem,’ Clegg replied, wearily. ‘Until yesterday, the suspected bomber was being held – without charge – on suspicion of involvement in a terrorist plot.’ A puzzled McGrory asked why the bomber was on the streets. ‘Yesterday was his fourteenth day. By law, the police couldn’t hold him any longer. He was released, and then met up immediately with the cell that had plotted the attack’, Clegg replied, planting his head in his hands. ‘We changed that law. That was our law.’ No one said anything in return. The implications were clear. Life was about to get very difficult for the Liberal Democrats.
PMQs were a nightmare for Clegg, as Tory and Labour MPs alike accused him of putting British people at risk with his soft approach to terror. That afternoon David Cameron, who had flown back from Germany, announced emergency plans to increase to ninety the number of days that a suspect could be held without charge. Given the public mood and the frenzied response of the right-wing press, the protests of Liberal Democrat MPs – and a rather half-hearted David Davis – were easily drowned out. That evening, in a ferocious behind-closed-doors exchange, Clegg tried to convince his MPs that he had been wrong: they should now back the new anti-terror legislation and demonstrate that they could be taken seriously as a party of power. His MPs stared back incredulously – the Rubicon of coalition compromise seemed to grow wider still. Warning of the irreversible effects of the ‘poison of power’, Charles Kennedy was the first MP to walk out of Committee Room 11, while Sir Menzies Campbell, after a short speech on the sad death of Liberal principles, followed suit. Vince Cable just looked glummer than ever. Clegg was confident however – if he could steer his party through the tuition fees row, then surely they would come round on an issue of national security?
He was badly wrong. Just three Liberal Democrat MPs supported the measures: Clegg himself, Danny Alexander, and David Laws. By voting no, every other Liberal Democrat minister had effectively left the government. Later that evening, Sarah Teather, the young MP who had once been so decisive in the downfall of Charles Kennedy, was sitting in the Newsnight studio, telling Jeremy Paxman why Clegg had lost the support of his party. From the safety of the 10 Downing Street kitchen, the Deputy Prime Minister watched with a concerned David Cameron. ‘That’s that. It’s over’, Clegg declared, staring vacantly at the TV. ‘Come on – there must be a way through this? We could speed up the timetable for Lords reform. I know, why don’t we get David Laws into the cabinet? Nick, if you walk away, then you leave me horribly exposed,’ Cameron pleaded. ‘I’m sorry Dave. We did our best. “Events, dear boy”, isn’t that what your hero Harold said?’ Clegg replied, as he stood up to leave. ‘Let’s talk this through in the morning – it isn’t over’, Cameron shouted after him, but Clegg had already shut the door. Sam had prepared a spare room so that he could avoid the media throng on his journey home to Putney, but Clegg knew he wouldn’t sleep. He was already running through the wording of a resignation statement in his head.
Twelve months later
After Clegg stepped down, David Cameron initially embraced the opportunity to head up a minority government. His backbenchers were thrilled by the new arrangement, with the 1922 Committee holding a ‘Not for Turning Again’ reception on the Commons terrace, and a string of promotions to fill the Liberal Democrat vacancies triggering a second honeymoon for Cameron as he wooed the disaffected in his party.
Andrew Tyrie succeeded Alexander as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Bernard Jenkin took over the constitutional affairs brief, and Grant Shapps replaced Chris Huhne as Energy Secretary. All spoke a rather different language to that of their coalition predecessors, and so now did Cameron, with his talk of the ‘Big Conservative Society’, warnings of the growing ‘European menace’, and speeches on the need to be ‘tough on crime – but tougher on criminals’. Cabinet government, ministers declared, worked far more successfully without the need to kowtow to the demands of a minor party, and after a summer of back-slapping, that October’s party conference, hastily rearranged to be symbolically held in the nostalgia-packed Blackpool Winter Gardens, took place against a back drop of Union Jack-waving triumphalism. ‘At last – it’s our party … back again’, a cheering Norman Tebbit was overheard mumbling, while a misty-eyed Tim Montgomerie, whose ConservativeHome website did its best to claim credit for reshaping the government’s new direction, dominated the airwaves.
The traditional vision of Conservatism mapped out in Cameron’s conference closing speech met with loud cheers, but the Prime Minister left Blackpool feeling hollow. The party was pushing itself in a direction which was, he believed, ultimately unsustainable, and on the train home to London his mood plummeted. He hadn’t spoken to Nick in weeks, while his strategy adviser Steve Hilton was spending ever more time ‘working from home’. Ken Clarke, who appeared to have slept his way through Cameron’s speech, seemed utterly detached, while Nick Boles, a one-time Notting Hill set associate, was stirring up disquiet among disgruntled modernisers.
Cameron’s mood was not misjudged. By December, the government had suffered humiliating back-to-back Commons defeats, as hastily published bills to make fox-hunting legal and set in motion a programme for nuclear weapons renewal – red meat for the Tory right – failed to make progress. Tim Farron, the new leader of the Liberal Democrats following his defeat of Chris Huhne and Simon Hughes, had little difficulty persuading his MPs to vote against the Conservative Party, with former Lib Dem ministers jeered by Tory MPs as they filed through the no lobby. The impossible mathematics of minority government began to bite, slowly gnawing away at the electorate’s faith in the Prime Minister. When a crisp and snow-free winter provided no excuse for the appalling economic figures of the last quarter, a harsh truth was made unavoidable at the start of 2013: Britain was sliding towards a double-dip recession.
The increasingly ragged Chancellor George Osborne refused to bow to demands to switch to a ‘Plan B’ to fix the economy, however, and once Andy Murray fell in the second round of Wimbledon the newspapers turned their attention on the under-pressure occupant of 10 Downing Street. ‘For God’s sake. I gave him his sodding TV deal – this is ridiculous’, shouted Cameron on sighting a particularly uncompromising Sun. On the front page was pictured a mallard, with a top hat and full Bullingdon Club tails photo-shopped on its feathered frame. ‘Quack off! Lame-duck Prime Minister must go’, ran the headline.
A string of poorly attended Cameron Direct events failed to mask the obvious: it was now clear that Cameron’s government was effectively unable to legislate. The modernisers were disaffected and the right – Defence Secretary Liam Fox to the fore – were grumbling. The reputation of Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, was steadily rising as the economy refused to pick up, and even Farron’s Liberal Democrats had seen some of their core support return. As Parliament returned that September, and with the fixed-term parliaments unexpectedly bogged down in legal complications, Cameron was left with no choice but to call a general election. Standing on a ticket of ‘no more compromise,’ the Tory leader embraced the campaign with gusto.
The early public backing of Tony Blair – now envoy to Tripolitania, the western part of the former Libya, ruled by Saif Gaddafi – was mildly awkward, but he was pleased that Nick Clegg, not contesting his Sheffield Hallam seat, was helping out behind the scenes. The television debates were confusing. Tim Farron agreed with Labour leader Ed Miliband, and Ed agreed with Tim too, but Tim also wanted to claim credit for much of what Dave was bragging about, none of which Ed wanted to praise at all. Dave just looked horribly isolated. Away from the TV studios, the rush for selection had witnessed some of the most unsavoury sights in recent years. The worryingly rapid reordering of Parliamentary constituencies had seen 650 seats reduced to 600, an ugly equation which saw sitting MPs given little time to reapply for seats and fight for the right to keep their jobs.
In South London three seats turned to two, with Chuka Umunna forced to intervene as Harriet Harman’s and Tessa Jowell’s verbal spat threatened to turn physical, while up in Stoke a teary-eyed Tristram Hunt found his political career prematurely ended as his seat vanished from the Parliamentary map. The result shocked politicians and pundits alike. Labour secured 293 seats, the Tories 261, and the Lib Dems 37. Chris Huhne’s Eastleigh seat fell to the Tories, two UKIP MPs, from Essex and Kent, entered Parliament, while the Greens gained two more MPs, in Norwich and Oxford, to join Caroline Lucas at Westminster.
Incredibly, there was no clear winner, so despite Liberal Democrat losses a second hung Parliament once again saw their leader play the part of kingmaker. The thought of another round of coalition talks left Cameron feeling exhausted. ‘I’m not doing this again. I can’t. I mean, do they really want another referendum?’ he wondered. However, after Tim Farron and his negotiating team of Steve Webb, Norman Lamb, and Duncan Hames had spent three days scuttling between their Labour and Tory equivalents, a referendum on the alternative vote is exactly what Cameron offered. However, the stakes were now higher. With that promise in his pocket, Farron forced Miliband and his deal-making unit of Ed Balls, Sadiq Khan, and Chuka Umunna to raise Labour’s bid.
A switch to the additional member system (AMS) was offered without a referendum, and a deal between the Liberal Democrats and Labour was hastily drawn up. David Cameron, having failed twice to secure a majority for his party, was now officially the least successful Tory leader in history, in electoral terms, but as a man used to winning, he was not prepared to accept failure. The Saturday evening, with the dustsheets not yet removed, he summoned his closest allies to his old North Kensington home and began plotting for his survival.
At the BBC’s Millbank studios the following morning, Tom Bradby – who had succeed Andrew Marr earlier in the year – was preparing for his regular Sunday morning show. Post-election analysis would dominate the programme, but an upbeat interview with the Mayor of London should provide some light relief.
After all, it really had been an astonishing year for Boris Johnson. After successfully distancing himself from the more unpopular policies of the coalition government, Boris had comfortably beaten Ken Livingstone in the previous May’s mayoral election. The London Olympics followed, and after Boris’ defiant stand against terrorism an entirely glitch-free Games took place, with the British athletics team amassing a record medal haul. Spectators had made their way across London on Boris Bikes – number 50,000 was cycled hands-free into the stadium by Boris himself – and the new Routemaster bus was a hit with London commuters, all of whom travelled for free for the duration of the Games.
Ever the showman, Boris ensured his place on the front pages as he embraced the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on closing night at the Olympic Stadium, with photographs catching Cameron looking on awkwardly. With his poll ratings soaring, Boris had every reason to look forward to the next three years. So, he told Bradby, did London. But that wasn’t all Bradby wanted to discuss. ‘It has been a terrible few months for your party. What will you be doing to help?’ he asked. Without hesitation, Boris answered: ‘The answer, of course, Tom, is whatever I can. I’m a Conservative mayor and a member of the Conservative Party. I love my party, and I want it to be in government.’
Naturally, Bradby then asked the question which Boris had straight-batted away many times. ‘And could you be the man to lead it there?’ Apparently off the cuff, Boris replied: ‘As I said, Tom, I’ll do whatever I can. Whatever my party asks me to do, however my country needs me, I am merely a humble servant.’ Watching, Guto Harri, Boris’ press chief, mouthed one word: ‘Perfect.’
Just one week later, on the back of a series of pleas from Tory associations and MPs, Boris resigned as Mayor of London. ‘For the good of my country,’ he declared, ‘It is time to leave City Hall and return to Westminster.’ Conveniently enough, the general election count in Sheffield Hallam had been declared null after pro-PR campaigners had set fire to a pile of ballot boxes. The courts demanded a recount, and to add to Boris’ good fortune the Tory candidate stood aside to create a vacancy. ‘Don’t worry, Dad. This will work out well for both of us’, Boris told his father, Stanley, who had sacrificed his long-held dreams of becoming an MP.
As Cameron began to panic, his ever-loyal spinner Gabby Bertin busily spread tales of Boris’s colourful private life, but nothing seemed to stick. In homage to Alan Clark, Boris told hustings meetings that he had ‘whole cupboards of them’ when asked about the skeletons in his private life. ‘I’ve said this before: there will be the odd indiscretion, but then who can’t say that? We’ve all done things which we wished we probably hadn’t.’ The threat to Cameron was clear. Boris, a former schoolmate and Bullingdon Club drinking partner of the ex-Prime Minister, knew far too much. As for Boris’ colourful CV, the blue-rinsers in the party loved him for it. A bit of back-to-basics mischief was to be forgiven, and anyway, his long-suffering wife Marina was always by his side.
He narrowly edged out Chris Huhne – still denying newspaper reports of alleged speeding offences – to victory in Sheffield, and just twenty-four hours later the Boris bandwagon rolled into Westminster. He didn’t wait to catch his breath. ‘I’m often accused of not being serious. Well, I’ve never been more serious about anything’, he announced as he arrived on the steps to Parliament. ‘Some people write down their dreams on the back of envelopes. Well, I’d decided in the womb before I could, er, write. How we failed – twice – to beat a discredited Labour Party is beyond me. Do we want to win? If the answer is yes, and I jolly well hope it is, then it is time to think again about the journey we must take to get us to that green and pleasant land.’
The phone banks were firmly in place and the support had been primed: that evening fifteen Conservative MPs published a letter calling on Cameron to resign, including backbench rebel leader Mark Pritchard, Boris’ brother Jo, Theresa Villiers – still smarting at failing to make cabinet under Cameron – and Iain Duncan Smith, whose welfare reforms had been repeatedly undermined by former Chancellor George Osborne. Boris led the news bulletins and dominated the next day’s papers: ‘The Boris Factor!’ shouted The Sun. ‘Time to get serious’, announced the Telegraph. ‘Better late than never’, declared the Mail. Guto had been busy.
‘What on earth are you doing? You’re tearing the party apart. You had a perfectly good job. Don’t do this to me!’ Cameron was screaming into his mobile phone, Bertin looking on nervously. ‘Yes, you bloody well are. This is about you, your ego, and getting one over me. Just stop it.’ He resisted throwing the phone at the door – but only just – and turned to his worried-looking aide. ‘What? What are you looking at?’ he shouted at Bertin. ‘This isn’t about me. I am thinking about the bloody party.’ He looked close to tears.
But as the grassroots membership flocked to Boris, and the majority of the party’s MPs followed suit, Cameron was left with no choice but to call a leadership contest. The voting was worse than he could have expected, with Cameron forced to drop out after the first round, leaving Boris to romp to victory against the unpopular pair of George Osborne and Liam Fox. At that year’s delayed Conservative Party conference, Boris was unveiled as the party’s new leader. Walking on to the stage to the strains of the Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun’ – Boris’s ‘fantastically optimistic’ choice on Desert Island Discs seven years previously – he sent delegates into wild delight as he declared: ‘Mr Miliband – we’re coming for you. Mr Fallen, er, Farron – watch your step. The Conservative Party is back and ready for business.’
Over the next few years, Boris successfully dominated the media, outwitted the earnest Miliband at PMQs, and prompted a rapid rise in party membership. His reserves of energy surprised many pundits, but those who knew him best recognised the same youthful Boris who would smash his siblings at table tennis and repeatedly top the family general knowledge contests. Miliband and his team were at a loss. Class warfare didn’t work – Boris felt no shame in talking about his happy days at Eton – and any attempts to paint the Conservative leader as a philandering cad were met with a shrug of the shoulders. And if Boris ever strayed into un-politically correct territory then he seemed to have little problem laughing it off. The non-political classes loved him; the Tories felt indebted to him; and his opponents were driven to despair. Ed Miliband was unable to make himself heard, while Boris’ apparent inability to remember Tim Farron’s name had the desired – humiliating – effect.
David Cameron, meanwhile, had slipped from view. Bloggers joked that he was now living in isolation with Gordon Brown, who despite his re-election in Kirkcaldy in 2013 was still rarely spotted in the Commons. But the truth was that Cameron was in a state of shock: he simply could not accept that his old rival had beaten him. But Boris didn’t give his predecessor a moment’s thought. All eyes were set firmly on the next election. ~ It came quicker than he had expected. By the start of 2016 Ed Miliband was in a precarious position. His inability to break through Boris’ wall of sound had caused considerable disquiet in party ranks. The Labour Party was increasingly split as the Prime Minister’s feuds with his brother David Miliband, the Home Secretary, were played out via anonymous briefings. Boris, meanwhile, had lost his clownish reputation. Osborne, Michael Gove, and Fox were all denied roles in his shadow cabinet, with a welltimed visit from his old friend Arnold Schwarzenegger, reputation restored after the success of Terminator IV, leading to the inevitable headlines in the tabloids. Boris seemed to be taking the reverse journey of a number of his predecessors as Tory leader – the buffoon was now respected for his seriousness.
Worse still for the government, the international situation had dragged Miliband horribly away from his party. The great uprisings of 2011 had seen unrest spread across the Arab world and the Middle East, and by 2016 Iran was on the brink of war with Israel. US President Romney, desperate for re-election, was pushing for military intervention. Not on speaking terms with France’s President Le Pen since calling time on the UK’s three-year-long involvement in the no-fly zone over the former Libya, Miliband had led his government into near-global isolation, with foreign leaders far more interested in spending time with the charismatic new Tory leader.
In a desperate bid – his ‘Falklands moment’, suggested some commentators – to regain some international standing, Miliband declared his support for Romney. Fifteen years since they had gathered to register their opposition to the invasion of Iraq, the anti-war marchers reassembled on the streets of London, holding aloft placards of the late antiwar campaigner Brian Haw. Deputy Prime Minister Farron was quick to resign, and Ed Miliband, having learned from Cameron’s inability to lead a minority government, wasted no time in calling a general election. ~ The campaign, of course, was dominated by one man. Boris, preaching a return to ‘good old-fashioned Conservatism’, flamboyantly dominated the television debates as Farron and Miliband unconvincingly argued the toss over the Lib-Lab coalition’s failings.
The cameras loved him and the right-wing press cheered him has he cycled his way across the UK, soapbox never far behind. His shadow team, containing the likes of Ken Clarke, Iain Duncan Smith, Rory Stewart, Margot James, and his uncompromising Chief Whip Mike Penning, provided an impressive mixture of youth and experience, and while his policies were light – national Boris Bike roll-out, nationwide crime-mapping, the revival of Green Line buses, and the creation of a wave of so-called ‘Boris’ Grammars – the media were hardly exacting in their scrutiny.
Boris-mania had gripped the country, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. Farron’s Lib Dems were increasingly divided at Westminster, while Miliband and Miliband were barely able to share a platform together. Boris seemed to be the only candidate leading a party which was pulling in the same direction. To the evident bamboozlement of the psephologists, the 2016 election was also the first contested under AMS, as the 2014 Electoral Reform Act had easily passed after Farron and Miliband had presented a united Yes front. Boris had seemed strangely calm during the TV debates, telling interviewers ‘that he would play the ball, not the man’ – a nice line which saw that clip of his famous popular footballing cameo replayed endlessly on the rolling news channels. The result saw a tentative re-ordering of the political landscape.
Parliament now had 12 UKIP MPs, 7 Greens and, depressingly, 2 BNP members. Boris, however, had secured a 53-seat majority, defying predictions that nothing but first-past-the-post would suit the Tories. Second-choice votes fell almost unanimously for the Tory leader. ‘Tory? Well, of course. But not in some ghastly tribal way. I’m British, I just happen to be a politician. That’s the main thing, isn’t it?’ Boris had famously declared on the Today programme as the election approached. His party flinched, but the opinion polls soared. London’s doughnut, the ring of suburbs which had flocked to him in the 2008 mayoral elections, filled out nicely across the central boroughs, while a record number of Labour constituencies showed their anger at Miliband’s foreign policy by noting their support for Boris, a man who every house in Britain was aware of.
The country’s most recognisable politician had reaped the benefit of a system in which everyone could vote more than once. Following a visit to Buckingham Palace and a meeting with the recently crowned King George VII, Boris skipped down Downing Street in front of the waiting media. ‘Floreat Patria’, Boris declared, modifying his old school motto, with his triumphant victory cheer picked up by an ITN microphone as he bounded through the front door of Number 10. For some reason Gordon Brown, the recently appointed Greenspan chair of economics at Harvard, had still refused to submit a photo for the famous Downing Street stairwell gallery, but Boris didn’t care. He had done it. A Conservative Prime Minister with a majority government, the first in nearly twenty years.
Life had always been rather interesting, he thought, but this was something else. ~ Cabinet appointments followed. Clarke became party chairman, IDS was handed the Home Office, while his old schoolmate Rory Stewart was made Foreign Secretary despite some last-minute lobbying from Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Philip Hammond was made Chancellor, Zac Goldsmith was handed the energy brief, Margot James was fast-tracked to Business Secretary, and Jo Johnson, Boris’ younger brother, was promoted to Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
A series of policy announcements followed. Lords reform, which had progressed no further than the abolition of a further forty-two hereditary peers under the Lib-Lab government, was thrown out, work on the controversial High Speed 2 rail project was stalled as Boris ploughed resources into speeding up the completion of Crossrail, a promise for ‘all of Britain to fly where they want to’ was issued, and a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU was casually talked up. Boris then exerted his authority in the most extraordinary of ways, declaring that to ‘be elected is to be given the power to decide’, after King George had called for the construction of a Poundbury in every county. Boris’s chiding somehow managed to be deferential, playful, and authoritative all at once, and across the board, the remaining newspapers – 2015 had seen the closure of both The Independent and The People, with The Guardian becoming an entirely online operation – declared their admiration.
The Lib Dems, shell-shocked after securing just 40 seats under the new system, endured their most fractious autumn conference in living memory, with a split between the party’s left and right wings ending a torrid week. Farron remained in charge of the Liberal Democrats, while David Laws and Danny Alexander left the conference vowing to establish the New Liberals as Britain’s realistic alternative. From his position as EU Commissioner for Trade, Nick Clegg expressed his support for the latter. The Labour Party, meanwhile, was far from happy. David Miliband had been elected to lead under the slogan of ‘New Labour – the Only Way’, but Lord Prescott had been aggressively beating a drum for a Real Labour Party to represent honest working people. Ed Balls, left out of a job after the abolition of Labour’s shadow cabinet elections, was notably supportive. So along with the four Irish parties, Plaid Cymru, and the SNP, as well as Liverpool Wavertree’s Socialist Labour MP Ricky Tomlinson, the Palace of Westminster was now officially home to fourteen parties, all jostling for attention.
Some Tory MPs, however, were not so comfortable with Boris’ nationwide appeal, and on May Day 2018, Penning broke the news to him. Three senior government figures had resigned: Ken Clarke, Caroline Spelman, who had been reinstated as Environment Secretary by Boris after her 2012 resignation over the sensational badger-culling U-turn, and Stephen Dorrell, the Tory Health Secretary – then spokesman – since Andrew Lansley’s stressrelated retirement from front-line politics in late 2012. For the past three months the Conservative Party had been at war with itself over the issue of Europe.
Egged on by the old Maastricht rebel Iain Duncan Smith, and further supported by the influential junior ministers Chris Heaton-Harris, Andrea Leadsom, and Mark Pritchard, Boris had got dragged into the tedious legalities of how to hold an in/out referendum on the EU. The party was not as supportive as he might have hoped, with 77-year-old Father of the House Clarke continuing to make persuasive speeches in support of the EU and rumours of splits in the cabinet eagerly seized on by a media looking for a way around Boris’ dominant personality.
The triple walk-out came as little surprise, with poverty guru Michael Heseltine, nearing his ninth decade, praising their boldness, and Sir David Cameron, in California for the latest leg of his lucrative global lecture tour with Tony Blair, declaring himself ‘intrigued’. Anything to knock Boris of his perch must be good, though, he privately thought, as he headed off for a set of doubles with Tony, Silvio, and Cliff. Boris laughed off the resignations as ‘irrelevant piffle – just three people who are out of touch with the country’, and moved quickly to replace the grumbling trio. Perhaps it was five years of media adulation. Maybe he had been encouraged by the splits among his rival parties. Could his majority have left him feeling invulnerable? It was, according to The Times, the ‘the most embarrassing reshuffle in history’, while The Sun, with a woefully politically incorrect picture of Boris in President Mobutu-style headwear, announced the reign of ‘Tin Pot Boris’.
Stanley Johnson, Lord Johnson of Exmoor, had been named as the new Environment Secretary. At 77, he was the oldest man ever to be appointed to the cabinet for the first time, the great Sheffield Crucible Pact paying off at last. Just as unexpected was the elevation of Kit Malthouse, Boris’ former mayoral deputy and now MP for Witney, to the policing brief, while Ray Lewis, MP for Hammersmith and another former City Hall colleague, was handed a job in the Cabinet Office. His opponents screamed cronyism – ‘Who next? Darius Guppy?’ snarled Danny Finkelstein in The Times – while the London-focused leader’s circle left many in the party deeply concerned. Boris declared himself uninterested. ‘I was elected to save this country, whose people share my vision, and that is what I am doing – with the best possible people I can work with.’ But alarm bells in the party were set ringing.
With Boris’s local government reforms passing slowly through Parliament, 57 Tory MPs, the majority of whom represented rural constituencies, were led by the restless – and jobless – Liam Fox into an informal voting bloc with the Commons’ UKIP MPs. Though agreeing with Boris’s European plans, they were in opposition to his proposed council tax reforms which, following a deal with Mayor of London Lord Coe, were designed to favour a capital ‘still paying the price for hosting this country’s perfect Olympics’. Noting the shift in influence, the 23 members of the Liberal Democrats quickly stitched up a cooperative pact with Caroline Lucas’ growing Green Party. David Laws’ New Liberal grouping, the last rump of Nick Clegg’s coalitionists, now effectively operated as Westminster’s fifth largest party.
A week before Christmas, Boris and Guto were reclining in the Prime Ministerial den with plates of bangers and mash and Dijon mustard and a bottle of red wine. ‘Don’t worry about Liam and those UKIP loons. He’ll come back – they always do. The party needs me more than I need them’, Boris declared through a mouthful of food. ‘But the time seems right, wouldn’t you agree?’ Guto nodded. ‘Jobs, money, national pride, and named after you. Not bad. Incidentally, the latest polling has you as pretty much every non-Tory supporter’s second choice – again.’ Boris smiled. ‘Good-o! Need to win an election? Appear on TV a lot then slap your ugly mug on every election pamphlet and the undecided or the uninterested tick the box. This additional member thing is bloody brilliant.’ Guto chuckled, and replied: ‘And when the election comes around, just build an airport, eh? Now, let’s get to work on that press conference.’
He set off to break the good news to Lord Branson of Kidlington, the new transport envoy. ‘Guto, hold on’, Boris shouted. ‘Will you sort a meeting with Rachel while you’re at it? I never really agreed with the need for a women’s minister, but she’s been nagging me for ages. Seems a harmless enough thing for her to do once we get the second term sorted out. And shall we take a look at this voting systems green paper again? There might be something that will do me even better than this current arrangement, and this really is such terrific fun. I’m only 54 after all – and up for another decade of this …’.