Why Boris Johnson would have exasperated Margaret Thatcher - Bernard Ingham

If Boris Johnson has not spent Christmas and the New Year break wondering how to cope with 2022, he is dafter than he looks.

Boris Johnson. Picture: Getty.
Boris Johnson. Picture: Getty.

And name me another Western leader who excites so many to throw balls of wool at the telly shouting “Comb your hair”.

It is part of his charm but how far will charm get him this year as he still fights the Covid virus that has damaged the economy and wreaked havoc with the nation’s finances?

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Let us be fair: he had no more idea than the rest of us that Covid-19 would beset the world.

Margaret Thatcher. Picture: Tony Harris/PA Wire.

It could be argued that, notwithstanding all the mistakes and inconsistencies in handling the pestilence, he has done better than most world leaders.

Only hypocrites can attack him for the £400bn or so spent on fighting the pandemic and the consequent budget deficit since they never complained while the money was flowing. And some of them want the tap turned on again.

He did not invent our long-standing problems with the NHS, social care, education and law and order.

He certainly does not deserve the antics of Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford in Scotland and Wales.

It was fairly predictable that Brexit would cause trouble with the EU and its fellow travellers in the UK.

But in getting it done Boris was serving the declared will of the people. Sooner or later the French and Germans will have to face reality – and that Northern Ireland is not their colony but part of the UK so long as its people wish it.

As for those two Commie threats to the world – Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping – they have been menacing for years and have upped the ante with the West in disarray and a failing president in the White House.

So what’s wrong with Boris in No 10?

The only respectable answer is that it is a mirror image of the Prime Minister himself – untidy, disorganised, undisciplined, neglectful of detail and given to playing it by ear. I suppose he has got out of so many scrapes in his life that he thinks a few more won’t hurt.

He is as different from Margaret Thatcher, for whom I worked for 11 years, as gunpowder from flour.

He would have exasperated her.

The issue is how to arm him for the fight in this, his decisive year – and prevent him from blowing himself up.

It is fashionable to blame his staff for not being tough enough with him.

But how can you handle a chap who is congenitally resistant to order?

On the basis of my experience of a rigorous No 10, I offer a five-point plan of action.

It is based on the premise that Boris has to be made to listen to and generally act on sincere advice.

It is often ludicrously claimed that Mrs Thatcher never listened. If she hadn’t she would never have argued so much with anybody and everybody. That was in her nature. How can we manipulate Boris’ far more wayward genes? I hope this would do the trick:

1. Led by Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, a delegation of constructive party greybeards must demand a meeting to deliver the message: things have got to change.

2. They should call on him to appoint a senior Tory who does not want his job as deputy Prime Minister.

Mrs Thatcher never said a truer word when she innocently remarked “every Prime Minister needs a Willie”.

Willie Whitelaw was a loyal sounding board who also cleared out the political undergrowth.

They don’t make Whitelaw’s every day but surely the Tories are not so poverty stricken that they cannot produce a passable replica. Is Sir Graham the answer?

3. Every weekday in No 10 must start with a meeting of private and press secretaries to clear the decks for rehearsed action on the issues of the day.

The Government needs to look better organised and prepared and stop contradicting itself.

4. Boris should call a weekend Cabinet conference at Chequers to demonstrate his desire for change and to run a better co-ordinated, collegiate ship.

5. If Boris is disinclined to burden himself with detail, he must appoint a sieve – whether politician or senior civil servant – to root out damaging inconsistences and anomalies before policies see the light of day.

For all his faults, Boris’ heart may be in the right place. We now need to fix his head.