The self-inflicted injuries of Boris' white knuckle ride need to stop - John McLellan
Clutching crumpled sheets of A4 to which he never referred, Boris Johnson took to the platform at this year’s Scottish reception at the Conservative conference, delivered some knockabout off the top of his head, shook a few hands and disappeared into the night.
Ranging from furrow-browed concern to shoulder-shrugging, head-tilting affectionate bemusement, the members didn’t quite know what to make of it, but - a few members of the Press apart – he was amongst friends.
Three days later he delivered a barn-storming main conference speech which amused, enthused and reaffirmed the membership’s emphatic backing for him as leader in what seems like the distant summer of 2019. The address might have been so light on substance it would have made a prize-winning syllabub on Masterchef, but for that audience at that time it was perfectly judged.
The following weekend in this column I argued that, despite a strong feeling amongst some senior Scottish party figures that the Prime Minister should be kept well away from Scotland, he had the ability to cut through to any audience and Scottish Conservatives should have the confidence that he could be a winner here too if given the chance.
The chaotic CBI speech on Monday, with his marketing of Peppa Pig something its creators could not have bought, illustrated just what a high-risk strategy that could be; if such flagrant disrespect could be shown for the captains of British industry who should be cornerstones of Conservative support, who knows what kind of Prime Minister would turn up to address rebellious Scots?
The chances are it would be somewhere between the Sunday night conference breeze and Peppa Pig, depending on where he’d been the day before. He won’t be at the Scottish Conservative winter convention in Glasgow today, but his performance over the past three weeks is bound to be as hot a topic of conversation as the plans for next May’s council elections. Ok then, much hotter, because the inescapable truth is that for better or worse, be it English care home costs, scrapping HS2 to Leeds, MPs standards or the migrant crisis, Mr Johnson’s action dominate every conversation about Conservative fortunes no matter which part of the country they take place.
Scottish leader Douglas Ross regularly distances himself from Number 10, as he did over the Owen Paterson affair and the standards review, but developing his own distinctive brand is a challenge which would be hard to meet even if he was Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Billy Connolly rolled into one.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the apex of Ruth Davidson’s success in 2017 was during Theresa May’s less than stellar premiership. There may be a few wry quips about recent events in Westminster when Mr Ross presents his report this morning, but it’s unlikely to include anything that could be construed as open disloyalty.
It’s hardly surprising after the events of the past month that there should be animated conversations about the Number 10 operation, but for all the talk of letters going to the 1922 committee from backbenchers who have lost confidence in the leadership, there is no sign of any serious attempt to drop the pilot even if he gives the impression of having no course to follow except his own instincts in the moment.
While even sympathetic commentators observe that, with few real friends in the party, he only remains leader as long he can deliver another election victory, that doesn’t really explain anything because it’s the same for every leader, no matter how dearly beloved they may be.
As they say on the football programmes, it’s a results-based business. But as Manchester United demonstrates, the team getting stuffed after spending millions on star players spells danger for the boss, so ramping up taxes to pay for health improvements which don’t materialise, or throwing billions at transport projects which don’t get off the drawing board and Mr Johnson could go the same way as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
If the trophy is an election victory, then the season is made up of improving people’s lives, not games. It is perhaps stretching the football analogy but as unease grows, so too has the view that, like Celtic winning the league while rangers were Rangers relegated to the Third Division, any Conservative leader would have thrashed the Labour Party in 2019 after Jeremy Corbyn’s disastrous four years in charge.
Love him or loathe him, Mr Johnson’s unpredictability means he can’t be ignored and few, if any, politicians can sear their personality into public consciousness quite like Boris, as even extreme left-wing commentators like The Herald’s Kevin McKenna have grudgingly noted.
But to borrow a saying from advertising, there is nothing quite like good marketing to kill a bad product, and there is no escaping the fact that Brand Boris couldn’t be better known, or that it has had more exposure in the past two years than at any time in his career, or that the past three weeks have been the worst. Yet Labour is only level in the polls when in mid-term it would expect to be well ahead and Sir Keir Starmer must be wondering if his brand of mild competence can ever be the basis of a credible challenge even if Mr Johnson continues, as he put it, to crash the car into a ditch.
This week’s Times/YouGov poll again showed the SNP bandwagon is stalling, and both the Future Soldier defence review and the Union Connectivity transport paper present strong opportunities for furthering the case for the Union, but the self-inflicted injuries need to be stopped. As long as Mr Johnson is at the wheel, the possibility of the Conservative jalopy landing on its roof is ever-present, and while it might make safe arrival all the more exhilarating, it will never be anything other than a white-knuckle ride.