Boris Johnson is not a one-man government; others must step up – Patrick Mercer

WHEN my father was 60 he became ill, so ill that he nearly died.

Boris Johnson is still recovering from Covid-19.

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Physically, he fully recovered but, by his own admission, all the stuffing had been knocked out of him.

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The razor sharp, funny risk taker I’d known became cautious and almost lacklustre.

Boris Johnson made one address to the country since being released from hospital.

In a similar vein, I was talking to a doctor the other day about the Prime Minister’s illness.

She was emphatic that he must be allowed time to recover and shielded from the media and his own ministers who would be clamouring for attention.

And, worryingly, she predicted that his decision-making could be erratic for months after such a close call.

Now, I rejoice in Boris Johnson‘s recovery, but I wonder if my doctor friend’s prescience is behind the drift that seems to have overtaken 10 Downing Street?

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab continues to deputise for Boris Johnson.

To underline this, a Tory MP is quoted as saying: “The Prime Minister is in a funny place, I think he’s quite frightened...To find himself floored like this has really got into his head.”

Which may be predictable and understandable, but it completely undermines the Johnson model of government. Like him or loathe him, only one Tory has had two terms as Mayor of Labour-leaning London whilst that same man was returned as PM with an unchallengeable majority only weeks ago.

But that has translated into a one-man Boris Show, the most obvious part of which was the exodus of Sajid Javid as Chancellor and the fusing of resources between Numbers 10 and 11.

The advent of the fiercely bright but emasculated Rishi Sunak has removed the creative tension, the historic pluralism in Downing Street that gave us Thatcher and Howe, Major and Lamont, and underlined pragmatic democracy.

And there are other manifestations.

The coming of the all-powerful but unelected Dominic Cummings, the sacking of Julian Smith despite his success with Northern Ireland politics and the appointment of countless, faceless placemen and women.

A monolithic, even Napoleonic edifice has emerged which should work well so long as the supremo is there to tick off every decision.

The trouble is that the PM hasn’t physically been there when crucial decisions have had to be made.

And now he still isn’t properly around when we need to get out of the bind into which which this virus has plunged us.

It’s easy to be critical of a government that’s having to deal with a completely new problem and for which no blueprint, no precedent exists.

And even easier when a relentlessly negative media picks at every mistake and behaves as if this is a general election rather than an existential threat.

But, with its endless, evening press briefings the Government has made a rod for its own back.

Finding the right person to front-up this teatime toasting has been tricky.

Matt Hancock has had an enormous burden of work and responsibility thrust upon him, he’s been ill and is prone to making making fragile promises such as the 100,000 tests by the end of April.

Priti Patel rode for a fall – and got it – whilst the rest of them look uncertain, hesitant. And who can blame them?

The clearest example is Dominic Raab, someone whom I’ve always admired.

But he’s been put in an impossible position by not wanting to look as if he’s crowing at having got the top job (albeit temporarily), being in thrall to scientists and ‘experts’ who are jockeying amongst themselves and, worst of all, not being properly anointed as the acting prime minister with all the clout the job carries with it.

Raab constantly seems to be glancing over his shoulder for approval: few of his words carry the conviction of which I know he’s capable.

His lack of certainty goes beyond not being master of medical complexities, it’s as if nothing can be done without the head boy’s say-so. And it’s gone viral amongst the rest of the Cabinet.

Now, I understand and applaud sticking rigidly to the mantra of “Stay at home etc” with no public discussion of what lies in the future until the rabid virus is brought to heel.

But I worry that the country’s passage out of lockdown can only be announced and then steered by one man.

Now what happens if that one man has not been allowed to recover properly?

What if, as my doctor friend suggested, his decision making is erratic, if he remains, “in a funny place” and “quite frightened”?

Perhaps the best way of describing what’s happened to Team Johnson is that it’s been a victim of its own success.

But its very strength is its fatal flaw and without the captain at the tiller in uncharted waters, it’s doomed – almost designed – to wallow.

In my view, this Government is doing a fine job in testing circumstances.

But, of all the lessons that have to be learnt, its leadership and decision-making must become more resilient.

There’s no room here for the Johnsonian slapstick which delights so many voters: when the pilot is stricken there must be a simple and practised procedure to replace him.

Patrick Mercer is a former Conservative MP for Newark.

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