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Where is Boris Johnson? It’s now four days since the assassination of Iranian military chief Qassem Soleimani and the prime minister of the United Kingdom has not appeared on TV or in the Commons to make any comment.
The PM addressed cabinet on the crisis and chaired a National Security Council on Tuesday, but signally failed to turn up to parliament to lead for the government. With Dominic Raab in Brussels, it was left to defence secretary Ben Wallace (who also happens to be one of Johnson’s longest serving political allies) to bat for HMG.
Jeremy Corbyn tried to ram home the importance of the issue by himself appearing at the dispatch box for the Opposition, and Lib Dem leader Ed Davey said it was “shameful that Boris Johnson is hiding behind his ministers” and “must stop dodging parliament”.
Moreover there will be a growing suspicion that this is actually going to be the way things are under this PM. With a majority of 80, he has no need to worry about the Commons, a place where his lack of oratory and impatience with procedure has always made him look uncomfortable. Yes, he’ll turn up for big events like Brexit votes and Budgets, but will he bother otherwise?
Well, one clue was given by No.10 today when his official spokesman defended him against the charge of failing to lead from the front on the Iran/Iraq crisis. “The PM leads a cabinet government and the response to events in the middle east is a collective cabinet response,” he said. The PM had been speaking directly to world leaders and “has overseen the ministerial response”.
That felt to me an awful lot like Mayor Boris’s modus operandi that we saw during his London City Hall tenure from 2008 to 2016. Delegation was the key to Johnson’s reign in the capital, passing to deputy mayors a range of responsibilities. He even had a deputy for the key job of policing (Ken Livingstone did it himself) and relied on a superb fixer (the late Sir Simon Milton) to rescue him from the early chaos of his tenure.
In No.10, Johnson clearly likes to delegate too. But as in London, he also has a habit of seizing on particular details and pursuing them doggedly. When he was at City Hall, those who worked with him remember he was a mix of the man who dealt with ‘big picture’ broad brush strokes, while also getting “very micro if he needs to”. Sometimes he would ask why an individual traffic light was in a certain street or why police had failed to respond to a stabbing in time.
As Mayor, he famously came back late from his holiday during the London riots and as PM he refused to cut short his Caribbean Christmas break early when the crisis sparked into life last Friday. Even Tory MPs suspect that the real reason he didn’t want to appear in the Commons was because he hadn’t had time to ‘read himself in’ properly on the Iraq situation, or at least not in the detail that Wallace had a grasp of (and during an 80 minute session he handled every query thrown at him). Johnson certainly avoided saying anything on camera that Donald Trump could get upset about.
Similar suspicions abounded before the election when it seemed that Johnson just hadn’t read the Intelligence and Security Committee report on Russia, or at least in enough detail to allow it to be published. As foreign secretary, his apparently slapdash approach to his brief (the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe evidence session being the most glaring example) was notorious too.
Yet PM Johnson may share the delegating-yet-micromanaging tendencies of Mayor Johnson. Today the cabinet was warned by chancellor Sajid Javid that he wanted all departments to look at their legacy projects (there could be ‘hundreds’ of them sources say) and see which should be axed. “Ministers need to root out any waste, particularly anything that is not aligned with the government’s priorities and demonstrate value for money of every pound of taxpayers’ money that we spend,” he said.
The PM gave his wholehearted backing for this new war on waste (waste that has developed since 2010, during the Tories’ own tenure). “There will be some squeals of protest,” one source said. Labour’s John McDonnell called it a new cuts programme aimed at finding money “down the back of the sofa”. McDonnell joked to us hacks that he wanted the “scrapping any associated expenditure with the Heathrow airport expansion”.
But maybe McDonnell put his finger on something. Johnson would love nothing better than to claim a third runway at Heathrow simply lacks the value for money case to justify the government support and subsidy it needs. Transport secretary Grant Shapps, who has a quasi-judicial role, said last year he wanted “a really close look at whether the figures stack up”.
That’s the curious thing about Boris Johnson. Sometimes he seems he’s not really there. But other times, you just can’t ignore him. It worked in London and it may work again in government. No wonder Labour is still struggling in how it handles his premiership.
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Tuesday Cheat Sheet
The first leadership hustings for the Labour leadership took place as contenders appeared before fellow MPs. Rebecca Long Bailey faced tough questions on anti-Semitism and was contrasted with the ‘future-facing’ rivals Keir Starmer, Lisa Nandy and Jess Phillips.
Asked to rate Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Long-Bailey told ITV “I’d give him 10 out of 10 because I respect him and I supported him all the way through”. She blamed his poor reception on the election doorstep on media misrepresentation and said a rebuttal unit was needed.
Corbyn attacked the US killing of Qassem Suleimani, claiming it put British servicemen and women in danger. He said Boris Johnson had failed to stand up to Donald Trump because he was desperate for a post-Brexit trade deal.
The committee stage of the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill began, but with a majority of 80, most amendments are purely academic during the eight hours of debate scheduled.
Rosena Allin-Khan and Ian Murray entered the race for Labour’s deputy leadership. John McDonnell endorsed Richard Burgon for the post. Dan Jarvis announced he would not be standing for the leadership itself.
No.10 revealed that the FCO had started the process for choosing a replacement for Sir Kim Darroch, the former UK ambassador to the US forced to quit last year over leaked remarks about Trump. Only serving diplomats and civil servants will be allowed to apply - so Nigel Farage’s dream of being our man in Washington just died.
What I’m Reading
Why Trump Lacks The Experts To Deal With Iran - Washington Post
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