Pig’s ear leadership of Boris Johnson as migration crisis deepens – Patrick Mercer

BORIS Johnson’s latest crisis starkly reminds me of one of my commanders in Ulster.

Boris Johnson's leadership continues to bemuse and bewilder after his 'Peppa Pig' speech to the CBI conference.

Our colonel was a cool hand with the gift of the gab who got the best out of the troops by making them feel good about themselves.

One day, though, he was meant to lead us into blood and bullets. Then there was bluster and ‘go on, lads, 
I’m right behind you’ and his orders were met by silence then a single, strangled laugh. Whilst he wore the badges and drew the pay, he never led us again.

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Well, there have been a series of contemptuous snorts at the Prime Minister over the past few weeks.

Boris Johnson's leadership continues to bemuse and bewilder after his 'Peppa Pig' speech to the CBI conference.

From U-turns on sewage and Northern Powerhouse Rail to the Owen Paterson affair, disdain is obvious.

And I must ask, how could anyone who lived through the expenses scandal (albeit as London’s Mayor) not grasp the sheer, poisonous power of ‘sleaze’?

It’s no good blaming Jacob Rees-Mogg or his admittedly weak Chief Whip; the judgment was Johnson’s.

With the stink still in the air from this, there followed the infamous speech to the CBI.

Boris Johnson's leadership continues to bemuse and bewilder after his 'Peppa Pig' speech to the CBI conference.

Now, however unsupportive elements of the CBI might seem to be, they’re an important and influential group who should not be treated to playground vroom-vroom noises and muffing the script.

Nor should the PM have made endless references to Peppa Pig; 
had he forgotten the ridicule heaped upon David Cameron’s alleged affection for swine?

Just like expenses, this was another wholly avoidable man trap.

Meanwhile, in America, there’s a living example of how loss of credibility can squander poll leads and alienate goodwill.

Boris Johnson's leadership continues to bemuse and bewilder after his 'Peppa Pig' speech to the CBI conference.

Poor, hapless Joe Biden is clearly struggling with the practicalities of being the boss – Downing Street hasn’t missed this and it should be ingrained upon Mr Johnson.

Doesn’t the PM know that it’s crucial not to lose your place, splutter and descend into nursery talk on any occasion – least of all with important, critical audiences?

There were shades of the US President, too, when a journalist asked Mr Johnson after the CBI speech: “Is everything all right, Prime Minister?”

Even the usually stodgy Sir Keir Starmer managed to ask the same question on Wednesday, to the PM’s obvious discomfort.

And all this, of course, manifests itself in lack of party discipline, most obviously in the rebellion over the social care plan.

Now, there’s no doubt that the whips cannot exert as much pressure when you’ve got a healthy majority, for MPs know that missed or ignored votes aren’t crucial.

Added to that, the new ‘red wall’ Tories are keen to lever whatever they can out of the Johnson regime.

They’re responsible, after all, for the emasculation of the opposition and the crushing power of an 80-plus seat majority and I don’t blame them for being bolshy.

But there are other, troubling signs for Mr Johnson here. First, there were noticeable gaps on the benches behind him during Prime Minister’s Questions amidst the Paterson debacle which were only filled this week by, I suspect, brutal whipping.

That may not seem important, but when the fans desert the terrace any team and any manager know that they’re in trouble.

Then, there’s the rumours of letters of no confidence being submitted.

This process is meant to be highly confidential, with 54 such documents needed to trigger a leadership contest.

Clearly, it’s the easiest thing in the world for an MP to claim to have written one and then leak it to the Press, but one leak does not add up to 50-odd billets doux. Yet, a whip has now been anonymously quoted by The Telegraph saying: “If the next month is like the last month, and horror stories continue, more letters will be submitted.”

That sets my antennae quivering.

A whip should have a mouth like a coffin. They must not gossip or back-stab and if they do their pay and privileges can be removed as easily as they were given.

And if proof is needed that Mark Spencer runs a limp whips’ office there’s no surer sign than one of his henchmen snitching.

A whip’s sense of self-preservation would normally preclude such a thing, but this smacks of a KGB officer daring to grass-up Stalin.

A shaky poll lead, a more confident Opposition, knives behind his back and a tricky winter looming are all things that Prime Ministers can deal with and, indeed, expect mid-term.

But, on top of all these woes, the hardest challenge that Mr Johnson is going to have to face has been brought into sharp focus by the ghastly drowning of at least 27 migrants and asylum seekers on Wednesday in the English Channel.

From my own experience, immigration is a grievance that invariably comes up on the doorstep, a tangible crisis the handling of which is a clear test of competence.

There can be no more waffling, no more swerving on this issue for the manner that this is or isn’t dealt with will change voting intentions just as readily as Brexit did in the ‘red wall’ seats.

This will test Mr Johnson in the same way as blood and bullets found out my old commanding officer.

The colonel never recovered from being laughed at. I have a horrid feeling that Mr Johnson’s leadership might founder in the same way.

* Patrick Mercer is a former Conservative MP.

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