Float Like an Angela, Sting Like the Donald
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Boris Johnson is lucky in his enemies. They want to win rhetorical battles while he wants to win the next election. Every week at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons, the leader of the opposition nails him for his economical ways with the truth and demonstrates that Johnson has performed another screeching U-turn. Invective rains down from commentators in both London and New York that Boris is a plummy, pint-sized Trumpian populist. Liberals sigh for a “respectable” leader — preferably one constructed along the lines of Germany’s Angela Merkel.
Johnson couldn’t care less. The opinion polls show his Conservative government enjoying sustained and substantial leads since January. That’s the sort of consistency he prizes.
The voters gave the prime minister a landslide majority at the last general election fully in the knowledge that Johnson doesn’t share George Washington’s veneration for truth telling. His opportunism was also baked in the tin. The media mock his many changes, of course, but as a former journalist who takes a cynical view of my trade, Johnson believes that most bad headlines in the newspapers are just passing squalls, however loud the sound and fury.
Unlike Donald Trump, Johnson, however, does have a knack for reading the public mood and changing with it. That is a political skill he shares with the stateswoman with whom he is so often unfavorably compared: Merkel — not the stiff-necked 45th U.S. president who lost the last election in large part because he refused to adapt to the changing circumstances of the pandemic. From his inaugural speech about “American carnage” onwards, Trump, unfortunately, stuck to his promises and never reached out across the political divide.
Boris — and the popular use of his Christian name is telling — has elevated inconsistency or opportunism into an art form while frequently stealing his opponent’s policies with the flair of a pickpocket. Unlike Merkel, who diligently explains her changes of course, he scarcely bothers to pretend he hasn’t zigzagged.
While bending with the wind is hardly heroic, it is a sound strategy for political survival in changeable times. It has certainly done Merkel no harm. Her Social Democratic predecessor as chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, fought unpopular battles with his party, the unions and public opinion to reform social welfare policy and promote a pro-enterprise taxation regime. In doing so, he cranked up Germany’s mighty economic motor which had been stuttering. That showed real courage. Apart from a few big business bosses, few thanked him for it — and he lost the 2005 election to Merkel.
His successor as chancellor, however, usually works with the grain of popular opinion, seldom defies it. In her second term it was revealed that Merkel’s government commissioned more than 600 opinion polls to guide policy — an average of three a week. Merkel abandoned “green” nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster in Japan and flip-flopped on foreign policy, the Greek bail-out and European financial integration. She will be always remembered for her warm welcome to migrants in 2015, but even on that issue she hasn’t been a model of consistency.
Early in her long years of office she first derided attempts to build a multicultural society in Germany: They had “utterly failed.” Anyone who didn’t accept that the country was Christian “is in the wrong place here,” she added. Those words in 2010 caught the popular mood perfectly — then. During the migrant crisis, however, she made her ringing statement that “We Can Do This” and accepted hundreds of thousands of mainly Muslim refugees. Germans rightly felt rightly proud of their country’s generosity. But after the November 2015 Paris attacks and the rise of the anti-migrant AFD party back home, there was another sea-change in opinion — and Merkel quietly tightened up asylum policy.
Johnson — Brexit apart — has not been an obstinate leader. He has reversed course on trade with China, planning reform and overseas aid. The opinion polls have registered no dissatisfaction even if he is rarely the toast of global elites or old Oxford competitors who still cannot fathom why he has swept all before him.
And in fairness, while he lacks the German leader’s scientific training, the prime minister has, sometimes reluctantly, “followed the science” throughout the pandemic and clung to his chief medical officer, Chris Whitty as a useful political shield. Trump openly mocked his chief medical advisor, Anthony Fauci. Sure, Johnson’s antennae are not perfect. He underestimated the U.K.’s willingness to put up with social distancing. But in the face of the pandemic, no leader has proved infallible. Even Merkel performed a spectacular U-turn on locking down her country last Easter, while her criticisms of the efficacy of the Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca vaccine have sailed close to the populist wind.
One of Johnson’s famous Conservative predecessors, Margaret Thatcher, who did not duck a fight until her final bout with internal foes, once boasted “The Lady's not for turning.” This prime minister is very definitely for turning.
Over a period of 48 hours this week, he has performed several acrobatic somersaults. Having infuriated millions of travelers to the European continent with his plans for “an amber watchlist” of restrictions on favorite destinations, he scrapped it overnight and allowed the Transport Secretary to take the blame for the scheme. “What I want to see is something that is as simple and as user friendly for people as possible,” said the prime minister who has hitherto been suspected of blocking travel to France solely to pursue a long-running feud with President Emmanuel Macron.
“PM steps in to save summer,” was the gratifying splash in Johnson’s old paper, The Daily Telegraph. Even the anti-Boris Guardian on Thursday led its front page with “Millions get holiday boost as quarantine rules relaxed.”
It has been this threat to his countrymen’s annual holiday in the Mediterranean sun that has narrowed the Tory lead in the polls lately — not doubts about his (lightly-held) principles. Labour has accused Johnson of “flip-flopping” yet again. Yes, indeed he has, and he won’t regret it for a moment.
Oh, and the government is bringing in vaccines for 16-to-17-year olds instead of vaccine passports, as promised. As a father of a 16-year-old girl, I shall be very grateful that next term — unlike the last — my daughter will not be sent home from school for 10 days at a time because a fellow student has contracted or been in contact with someone infected with coronavirus. One politician’s flip-flop is another voter’s huge sigh of relief.
Comparisons can take you only so far. Post-pandemic Johnson has yet to prove he can run an administration as quietly competent and durable as Merkel’s. But if challenged from within his party, he is sure to be ruthless. That’s another political attribute he shares with the German chancellor. Throughout Merkel’s long political career, her rivals and even her designated successors have felt her steel. It has left her party short of a convincing figure to replace her. Boris too aspires to be the only political game in town. That entails a gymnastic ability to twist in the air — and land on his feet.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.