MAKING a statement before entering Number 10 is a relatively modern act among new Prime Ministers. Churchill, having a proper war to fight instead of tending to a barney started by his own party, gave a brief V for Victory sign and got to work. Harold Wilson preferred a long wave to a short pronouncement.
The tradition began in earnest when one Margaret Hilda Thatcher rocked up to Downing Street on May 4, 1979, quoting St Francis of Assisi: ‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”
‘Call an election now’
I remember it well. Some people have their moon landing memories, others recall where they were on hearing of the the deaths of JFK/Elvis/Diana. I was watching the news in a friend’s house when Margaret Thatcher arrived in Downing Street. The summation by my friend’s mother, though it seemed bleak at the time, turned out to be blisteringly accurate: “We’re in the soup now.”
How true. Everything Mrs Thatcher promised to do, she did the opposite, trading harmony for discord and hope for despair. She left the UK divided, traumatised, and firmly set on a course that led directly to the EU referendum and where we are now.
David Cameron was just as guilty of saying one thing on entering Downing Street and doing another. “I want to make sure that my government always looks after the elderly, the frail the poorest in our country,” said the PM who unleashed two decades of austerity.
Theresa May dedicated herself to tackling injustice. A year later Grenfell Tower was ablaze; 72 people, some of the poorest and most vulnerable in society, dead, right there in the capital city of the fifth richest country on the planet.
In short, whatever a Prime Minister says on the steps of Downing Street should be taken with enough salt to grit the roads during an entire Scottish winter.
No ifs or buts on Brexit delivery
So it was with Mr Johnson yesterday. Speaking in a voice that was part Pathe newsreel guy/part crazed chipmunk, his aggressive, up and at ‘em delivery was that of Donald Trump in his inauguration speech. Lots of promises and spending pledges, all of them issued in a scattergun way. It was as if he was speaking to his party conference rather than a sceptical country. As for his praise for the Union, his “awesome foursome” phrase, straight from the campaign trail, is already sounding tired.
The only surprising moment was when he pledged to take personal responsibility for delivering Brexit by October 31. It should not have needed saying, of course he is responsible, but that he needed to say it spoke to the doubts that even he, drunk on the fizz of his powerful new job, knows is out there. Those “doubters, doomsters and gloomsters” he referred to are on his side of the political divide as much as the other.
Spree of resignations
If this was the famous Johnsonian light he had been hiding under a bushel it was hardly dazzling. But never fear, say his supporters, it will all work out in the end. This, according to the Johnson faithful, is how his premiership will play out. Essentially it is his stint as London mayor/Leave campaign chief revisited. He plays the role of charismatic central figure. Around him will be packed various Rasputins, clever chaps, perhaps even a few chapesses, who will come up with the ideas and, courtesy of their cult-like zeal, will work night and day to get them through, by any means necessary. Except bus slogans, that would be far too provocative, even for them. But expect a major marketing blitz and some wizard wheezes.
Next comes the assembling of a Cabinet of all the talents. Every PM claims to have one at the start. The make up of Johnson’s is meant to say, “Look folks, despite what you may have read and heard, I don’t have racist or sexist bones in my body. I’m a pretty cool kind of dude with room for all, even Remainers”.
In reality his ministerial ranks will be full of people only too easy to dump when the going gets rough, as it surely will. Being mayor is not in the same universe as being PM, the Olympics are not Brexit. This job will require Mr Johnson to master detail as never before, to maintain his calm under pressure, and PMQs will be the least of it.
Theresa May’s last PMQs yesterday was a hot and bothered affair at times, the high temperatures outside reflected in the crimson sweaty faces of MPs inside the chamber. Normally such occasions are remembered for the goodwill on display, the setting aside of political differences in common support for democracy. But with the various digs at her successor, and her attack on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – perhaps it was time for him to accept his time is up, she suggested generously – the May premiership ended as it had been conducted, largely in rancour, and stained with tears (her own). As she left the chamber she cut a lonely figure, departing as she had governed.
I don’t recall any such session in the past in which some MPs appeared genuinely fearful about what might be coming next. Perhaps they were rattled by the US President claiming Mr Johnson to be his Mini-Me. “They’re saying Britain Trump. They call him Britain Trump,” he boasted. Between Mr Trump’s grammar, and his daughter Ivanka’s welcome to the next PM of the “United Kingston”, it was a bad day for advertising the value of an American private education.
May bids her farewell
Nor can I remember so many snipes at a PM-in-waiting, particularly from his own side. Still, I expect Mr Johnson’s “energy” and “positivity” will see him through such grumbling. So far, it has made him sound more like a yoga teacher than a PM, but each to his own.
One of Mrs May’s final tasks as Prime Minister was to write a memo to her successor. Oh to read the drafts of that one. Perhaps she left the pages blank on the grounds that Mr Johnson has acted throughout the last three years, indeed his entire life, as though he is in need of no-one’s advice and already has all the answers.
We cannot wait to hear them.