Bernard Ingham: May must learn she has to cut Boris some slacks

Cartoon: Graeme Bandeira
Cartoon: Graeme Bandeira
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BORIS Johnson, our unforgettable Foreign Secretary, is undoubtedly an intelligent and learned man. His – and Theresa May’s – problem is his DNA. He is over-endowed with the flamboyant thespian gene and under-supplied with that which promotes restraint. He cannot help making waves.

This is what makes him so entertaining. The world can scarcely wait for him to meet Donald Trump for a mutual hair ruffling.

Meanwhile, he causes ructions even when making a serious point. I rather admired him when, in Rome recently, he took Iran (Shia) and Saudi Arabia (Sunni) to task over the Yemeni civil war and by implication the effect of their Islamic factionalism on the bloody instability of the Middle East.

That has needed saying for too long. It is about time more senior statesmen began to try to get Iran and Saudi Arabia to face up to their responsibilities.

Just because they are rolling in oil does not mean we should not tell them where to get off, especially when the USA is making itself more energy independent through fracking. I hope the anti-frackers of the UK get the point: the more independent we are of Middle East oil, the freer we shall feel to pressurise warring states and help untold millions of the region’s ravaged and oppressed.

But to return to Mr Johnson. Surely, he must have known that when he took Iran and Saudi Arabia to task his Prime Minister had only just been in the Middle East promoting post-Brexit trade and that he himself would be in Riyadh at the weekend where, as No 10 testily put it, he would be able to explain himself.

The jolly charmer seems to have done so, but his timing was not inspired. Arabs are sensitive souls – with much to be sensitive about.

Perhaps Mr Johnson has for too long led a relatively carefree existence as a journalist, backbencher and Mayor of London – not to mention campaigning for the Tory leadership – to hold himself in check in central Government. If so, he had better soon accept he is now only a cog – though a big one – in a wider machine. Otherwise, things could get awkward.

However, No 10 needs to learn how better to handle the Blonde Bombshell. Mrs May – and certainly her apparatchiks – are acquiring an early reputation for slapping down wayward ministers when there are gentler ways of coping with their deviation from the straight and narrow, such as:

“No doubt he was thinking aloud”;

“An interesting point. I’m sure the PM will want to discuss it with him sometime”;

“Ministers were sent to entertain us”; and one I employed regularly:

“Oh come on, you know what xxxxxxxx is like”.

Mrs May takes life seriously but she and her uppity staff need not always show it.

The public does not like to see a government in an edgy state within itself. Intelligent people will always have their own ideas about how to do things and should be given some leeway provided they do not compromise the Government. No 10 needs to recognise that life is difficult enough without complicating it further by taking affront whenever someone nudges the party line.

I speak with authority. Margaret Thatcher was not God’s gift to tact and loved nothing better than a no-holds-barred, knock-down argument. She seemed oblivious to her impact on the male ego when she berated someone in front of his fellows. But the Mistress of 
No 10 cannot forever treat ministers like fifth formers.

Recently a former Permanent Secretary at the Treasury argued that Prime Ministers, Chancellors and Foreign Secretaries who do not get on do not last. He no doubt had Sir Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson in mind.

They eventually did not get on with Mrs Thatcher and neither lasted. Nor did she long outstay them.

But the break was a long time coming. They served in government together for more than 10 years before their acrimonious partings.

Ministers will put up with almost anything if they think they are winning the game. And with Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour Party, who can think of the Tories losing? But time is not a great healer in politics. Eventually someone like Nigel Lawson who wanted to run the economy without prime ministerial let or hindrance cracks with frustration, ambition or fatigue.

In short, calm down, Mrs May. Your long-term prospects with Jeremy Corbyn around are excellent. Don’t ruin them from the start. And Boris should remember that timing and tact are all – both at home and abroad.

It’s called diplomacy.