Boris Johnson – How do you solve a problem like a former Prime Minister?
On the eve of Joe Biden’s inauguration, former Prime Minister Theresa May launched a stinging attack on Boris Johnson in an op-ed for the Daily Mail. It started off fairly boilerplate, singing the praises of the newly elected President and congratulating him on rejoining the Paris Climate Accord. But then it got a bit livelier.
May also lambasted Johnson for breaking international law and for reneging on the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of its GDP on foreign aid.
This is not the first time Theresa May has been critical of Johnson. A few months ago, she excoriated him for appointing his ally, David Frost, as National Security Advisor (a plan which has now been abandoned).
She may have a point, but the question is: Is she the right person to be making it? I would argue that she is not. Her key criticism of Johnson and his government is that they have diminished the UK’s standing in the world. This may be true, but the same criticism could easily be levelled at May herself. After all, she was the Home Secretary who was arguably most responsible for the Windrush debacle. Her hostile environment policy led to British citizens of Caribbean origin being denied healthcare and housing, and in some cases deported. Let’s also not forget her infamous ‘citizens of nowhere’ speech, that sent a terrible message to the world just after Brexit. And then her stubbornness in refusing to immediately guarantee the rights of EU nationals made those people feel even more unwelcome. Arguably, she has done at least as much damage to Britain’s international standing as Boris Johnson.
Keeping it in the ‘family’?
Theresa May is not the only former prime minister to re-enact Ted Heath’s ‘incredible sulk’. John Major, who led the Conservatives to one of their worst election defeats in history, regularly intervenes to explain why he thinks his party is moving in the wrong direction. Politicians are only human, and so it is understandable that ex-prime ministers would feel embittered by their political failures — especially if they felt they had more to offer. But that does not take away from the fact that the behaviour of May and Major is inelegant, to say the least. No one likes a bad loser.
That being said, I do think that former prime ministers have valuable skills and experience to offer. And the government should tap into this. At a time of national crisis, when the country faces unprecedented challenges, Boris Johnson would do well to make use of these assets and offer our former leaders government posts. Given her grasp of detail and organisational skills, Theresa May could play a positive role in sorting out the government’s failing Test and Trace system. Tony Blair has made some interesting suggestions regarding the roll-out of the vaccine (Nigel Farage, of all people, suggested he should be given a role). And David Cameron’s affable personality and extensive contacts’ list from his time as PM would be well-suited to a diplomatic position of some kind (although perhaps not to Europe).
The question is, of course, whether Boris Johnson would be willing to make such a move. He seems to be extremely thin-skinned, evident in the way he treated competent ministers such as Julian Smith, the former Northern Ireland Secretary — probably because he disagreed with him over Brexit. It is therefore doubtful whether he would be magnanimous enough to appoint ex-prime ministers who have been extremely critical of him. At this point, anything would be better than the catastrophic sycophants in his current cabinet, But do not hold your breath.