Quiz question: of which prime minister was it said, “the P.M. never moves until he is forced, and then it is usually too late”?
Answer: H.H. Asquith in World War One. It’s a parallel that tells us something, I think, about Boris Johnson’s current predicament.
Asquith was a lifelong Liberal – the last man to lead a wholly Liberal govt – but found himself dismantling the liberal state in the face of total war. Conscription, press censorship, unprecedented restrictions on personal freedom: all went against the politics he believed in.
Johnson lacks Asquith’s intellectual depth, but faces a similar problem. The pandemic is shredding his whole approach to politics: the mockery of the “nanny state”, the nose-thumbing at authority, the contempt for rules, and dislike of “do-gooders” who try to tell you what to do.
Temperamentally, Johnson is a sunshine politician, governing when the skies are dark. The struggle to be serious is unravelling his whole political persona: the comic character you josh around with; whose articles shouldn’t be taken seriously; who wants you to feel in on the joke.
For a politician like Margaret Thatcher, the crises of the 1980s were an opportunity: a chance to put her beliefs into action. The worse things got, the more fervently she believed in her world-view. By contrast, Johnson’s crisis, like Asquith’s, is dismantling his politics.
Johnson wanted to be Churchill in World War Two. He’s ended up as Asquith in World War One: presiding over a crisis that forces him to govern against his political preferences. It’s no wonder he’s pulling back against the leash.
Ultimately, the strain on Asquith destroyed his premiership and broke his party. It’s unlikely (though not impossible) Johnson will suffer a similar fate. But so long as he’s fighting a civil war with his own instincts, decisive or coherent govt may remain a distant prospect.