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Where’s the plan, man?
Can anyone believe a word Boris Johnson says? During the last general election campaign, the voting public were more than aware of the PM’s lifelong slipperiness with the truth. But they nevertheless gave him an emphatic endorsement, clearly believing his pledge to ‘get Brexit done’ by January 31.
This Friday will see that Brexit promise kept, of course. Yet questions still linger about Johnson’s trustworthiness and the next few weeks may lay bare just how many people he’s hoodwinked, or at least strung along, on some pretty big issues of public policy.
Was all his scepticism about HS2 real or a ploy? Will cabinet ministers who stood by him (Liz Truss was flirting with standing for leader herself) be brutally dumped in a reshuffle? Will he go ahead with Huawei being allowed access to the UK’s 5G network, despite all the warm words he has offered to Donald Trump (the president sounded very reassured by Johnson at the Nato summit last month) and to hawkish Tory backbenchers?
In an ominous urgent question in the Commons today, a raft of those backbenchers got on their feet to express their unease. Most telling of all was the suggestion from Iain Duncan Smith that the PM had somehow given the strong impression that he would block Huawei. “I was led to believe that this government would not make that decision,” he told the chamber. Yes, led to believe...Will he betray others on his side just as he betrayed the DUP over a border in the Irish Sea?
It won’t have been the first time perhaps that Iain Duncan Smith has been bamboozled (if not directly misled) by Johnson. Westminster was rife this summer with chatter that IDS had decided to chair his leadership campaign in return for some kind of cabinet post. A job didn’t materialise, though a knighthood in the New Year’s Honours list was not a bad consolation prize.
It’s possible too that defence secretary Ben Wallace, a close ally of the PM, will feel let down too over Huawei, given his own personal opposition in private. When the decision is finally announced on Tuesday, the cabinet will naturally rally behind Johnson for putting the British national interest first. But there will be a fair few Tory MPs who will feel short-changed and to get their first prick of doubt about just how much they can trust their leader after all.
Backbencher Tom Tugendhat has not done his own long-term ambitions any harm by warning that allowing Huawei even limited access would be like “letting the fox into the hen house” (a phrase he has used repeatedly). Not for nothing did US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, due in town later this week, praise him on Twitter.
There may also be a suspicion that the PM has been ‘captured’ by the very ‘establishment’ that he and Dominic Cummings were meant to be disrupting. This isn’t just about abandoning the idea of radical Whitehall departmental restructuring. Insiders say Johnson has an excellent relationship with cabinet secretary and national security adviser Sir Mark Sedwill, who played a key role in the summary departure of Gavin Williamson over the Huawei leak last year. Don’t forget that Williamson has been put on a humiliatingly low security clearance level (some ministers in his department have to handle sensitive stuff) despite his recall to cabinet.
Many in government will however be reassured that the PM is actually not trying to second guess the clear judgement from UK security officials that the Huawei risk can be managed, while also delivering savings in time and cost vital for the rollout of gigabit broadband and 5G.
Yet away from Huawei, the bigger problem perhaps for Johnson is not that he can’t be trusted, but that he is just pretty bad at planning. His ability to win elections is not in doubt, but his ability to govern effectively very much is. He beat Ken Livingstone not once but twice in a ‘Labour city’, and he’s smashed through the party’s ‘red wall’ in the north and midlands.
Yet just as he arrived in City Hall without a clear plan in 2008 - and had a nightmare first few months - he seems so far to have arrived in No.10 without any clear blueprint for government on hefty issues (a strategy for science, tech and maths seems to be the exception, but that’s because Cummings has a very clear idea of what he wants).
Saying yes to Huawei access is in a way the easy bit of 5G, actually getting a competent rollout of gigabit broadband to all those rural and other areas he promised is a big test of competence of public-private interaction.
Similarly, dollops of cash for the NHS is one thing, but actually doing the heavy lifting on social care policy is another entirely. Bigging up infrastructure like boys’ toys can get you so far, but the real hard business of government involves making a firm decision on a high speed rail link that will inevitably annoy key allies. On Brexit too, the problem is not even that he will get a backlash either way on alignment/divergence, but that he just doesn’t seem to know what kind of Brexit he wants yet. That’s pretty extraordinary, if you take even a moment to think about it.
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What I’m Reading
How James Corden Made It In America - New Yorker
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