Partygate: Boris Johnson needs to scrap National Insurance rise to save his political career – John McLellan

As someone well-versed in Britain’s imperial heritage who dreamt of global leadership since childhood, I imagine Boris Johnson has at least had a flick through the bible of British Army officers, “Serve to Lead”.

A compilation of essays, anecdotes and aphorisms about what leadership entails, a copy is placed on the bed of each new Sandhurst cadet, and in the preface they will find these words from the Bishop of Durham in 1934: “Some men possess an inbred superiority which gives them a dominating influence over their contemporaries… there are those who, with an assured and unquestioned title, take the leading place, and shape the general conduct.”

Plenty people have a sense of superiority without being leadership material, like Edinburgh Council’s SNP leader who lost yet another councillor this week despite a moral certainty that makes the Pope look like Gordon Gekko.

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There’s no doubting Nicola Sturgeon’s moral high-handedness in the way she speaks to opponents, but they can’t deny she has maintained electoral success and held together a disparate following despite her predecessor’s launch of a rival party.

He might not lay claim to any moral high-ground, but after months of being battered and bruised, with a by-election disaster along the way, even his detractors must marvel at the way Boris Johnson has jabbed and jibed his way through the furious onslaught of opposition MPs and a few of his own, and is not only still standing, but appears to have been given even more time to strengthen his seemingly impossible position with publication of crucial passages of senior civil servant Sue Gray’s report on ‘Partygate’ delayed by the Metropolitan Police investigation.

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If this was a rugby match, it’s as if the opposition keeps bringing on an extra player but can’t get the ball over the line, while no-one quite knows the rules and the referee keeps the clock running.

From Matt Hancock caught snogging his adviser, the Owen Paterson standards debacle, begging for a few quid to pay for posh wallpaper, failures in Afghanistan, Islamophobia allegations, the resignation of Lord Agnew over PPE contracts, booze being carted in suitcases into illicit parties at the heart of government, and the ambush by cake, it would be screamingly hilarious if the implications weren’t so serious.

Boris Johnson has demonstrated his survival skills, but must tackle the cost-of-living crisis (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)Boris Johnson has demonstrated his survival skills, but must tackle the cost-of-living crisis (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson has demonstrated his survival skills, but must tackle the cost-of-living crisis (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Not a day goes by without the latest news from Westminster making every TV bulletin sound like it was scripted by Armando Iannucci. If the St Aloysius’ College-educated “The Thick of It” creator does sit down to write the movie one day, The End of Boris could make The Death of Stalin look like Italian neo-realism.

Maybe “rhubarb” will yet enter the thesaurus of Borisisms alongside “an inverted pyramid of piffle” under “494. true (adj)”, but in the absence of conclusive written evidence with the Prime Minister’s imprint that he personally ordered the airlifting of a pack of rescued Afghan mutts ahead of people that looks like yet another charge which doesn’t quite stick.

From being out on his feet two weeks ago, then shame-faced even from behind a surgical mask while being eviscerated by Sky News political editor Beth Rigby (herself suspended for three months after breaching Covid restrictions while celebrating fellow presenter Kay Burley’s 60th), he has almost literally roared back in two successive Prime Minister’s Questions.

As for cakeism and the ribald riposte to SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford about his eating habits at PMQs, the protagonist is already trying to write his own punchlines.

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And despite howls of outrage at “body-shaming”, delivering the line with a smile, not a snarl, means the unwoke majority is unlikely to share the offence. And indeed, whether by leadership, luck or lack of an obvious successor, his chances of survival are growing if focus groups of soft Conservative swing voters run by pollsters Savanta ComRes over the past week are anything to go by.

They indicate a growing sense that the cost of living is what matters, not lockdown law-breaking, even by the person who made the laws, and “getting on with the people’s priorities” is what they want to hear.

Further, there is a perception that Sir Keir Starmer was less effective than the SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, an almost impossible conundrum for Scottish Conservatives facing a different enemy, in which the failure of Labour to land blows in Westminster only strengthens the SNP.

Apart from his seeming ability either to absorb punishment or remain impervious to it, the determination to face down his critics has been his strongest message over the past ten days, but so too is the message back from the party that things must change, and from the public that the cost of living should be the top priority.

No wonder then Mr Johnson is said to be wobbling over the National Insurance increase due in April, but it’s hard to understand why there should be any indecision because that one move meets both demands to ease the burden on working people and honour a commitment that was not just a key 2019 manifesto pledge but is an article of faith for the Conservative rank and file.

After all, “We will not raise the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance,” was not buried deep in the brochure, and dredged up in an opposition ‘Gotcha’ sting, but was one of six key pledges right at the top, and the only part of the manifesto the vast majority of voters will have read. There was no “barring unforeseen circumstances” in the small print.

According to some reports, only one of around 30 no confidence letters said to be with the 1922 Committee has been withdrawn, so the Sword of Damocles still hangs over the Prime Minster’s head.

If Napoleon preferred lucky generals to good ones, he’d have made Mr Johnson a Field Marshall, but now he needs to make his own luck. Scrapping the NI increase is just the start.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh

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