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We’ve become accustomed to the unpredictable during the Covid pandemic, but few could have forecast the latest political alliance rolled out in prime minister’s questions. Despite years of mutual mockery and despite being miles apart on issues like Brexit, Boris Johnson aligned himself with none other than Tony Blair. Who’d have thunk it?
Johnson famously complained that “nailing Blair is like trying to pin a jelly to a wall”. Yet as we’ve seen over the past few years, the PM has been notoriously difficult to attack too. His brand of guerrilla politics, rarely giving his opponents a sitting target as he ducks, dives, borrows and steals, has helped him to both seize the Tory crown and win a big majority.
Blair saw the writing on the (unjellied) wall two years ago, telling me: “If you have a Boris Johnson led Conservative Party, he’s a formidable campaigner, he’s an interesting personality, he can get out there and do his stuff. And I have absolutely no doubt that if you have a right-wing populism against a left-wing populism in this country, the right-wing will win.”
In fact, it seems Johnson is reading the Blair playbook these days even more closely than Cameron and Osborne did. Late last year, it was the former Labour PM who pushed hard for first and second doses of vaccines to be spaced out to deliver quicker protection. Sure enough, Johnson adopted that strategy, with great success. Ditto on Blair’s call for Covid passports.
Only today, there was fresh evidence of the Blairisation of government, with No.10 announcing the restoration of a Downing Street Delivery Unit, similar to that axed in 2010. The new outfit, set up on the advice of Blair’s former unit chief Sir Michael Barber, will be headed by Dr Emily Lawson, who led the operational delivery of the NHS coronavirus vaccination programme.
The Blair itch project, scratching those parts of Whitehall to make sure they carry out the PM’s will, seems just one part of the strange new alliance. In PMQs, facing the latest cronyism charges from Keir Starmer over the James Dyson texts, Johnson used Blair as a human shield. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic,” Blair had said earlier. “I find it hard to get worked up about this.”
Non-aligned swing voters may well have a similar attitude, as they heard Johnson say “I make absolutely no apology at all for shifting heaven and earth to secure ventilators for this country.” Even though he ensured airtime because this was a BBC exclusive and guaranteed headlines as a result, the danger is that in crying “sleaze” too often, Starmer devalues its currency
But Starmer’s point was a wider one, that this was really about “tax breaks for mates” (a phrase he used twice). The punches that landed came when he pointed out that the three million self-employed left out of Covid help schemes didn’t have the PM’s personal mobile, and neither did NHS nurses in need of a pay rise.
Still, just as Blair was often dubbed “Teflon Tony”, Johnson relishes in his “bounceback Boris” reputation. Even Angela Rayner, who has been leading the charge on cronyism, this week told the i newspaper that Johnson won some northern seats “because people knew what they were getting..they saw that he was a guy with, you know, inadequacies..he was imperfect. But he cared about his country, he cared about the people as they saw it – although it pains me to say it.”
And it’s that sense that Johnson’s imperfections are “priced in” by the public that the PM seems to be relying on in the whole “sleaze” saga right now. The overall message can be boiled down to: here I am, warts and all, but I’m on your side. Fully aware of his notoriously slippery relationship with the truth, in PMQs at one point he even turned a gaffe into a self-deprecating gag. “I don’t wish to sound like a stickler for accuracy” he said, before realising his error and adding “which is my normal position!”
Starmer knows that he needs more than mere “sleaze” to topple Johnson, and that in fact rank incompetence and waste are more potent charges. If unemployment spikes later this year, all the jokes and the chaos may not seem quite so funny any more.
At the next election, Labour needs a public weariness of the Tories having been in power for 14 years, and sleaze is just another symptom of a party drunk on power. Tony Blair knew that and deployed it to devastating effect in the 1990s. So while Johnson may currently revere him, he really ought to fear him in equal measure.