A Prime Minister in search of a hero

Although statues are quite rightly very much in the news at the moment, this post is not about them. Instead, read the compelling pieces by David Olusoga in The Guardian last Monday – The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue is not an attack on history. It is history – and Simon Schama in today’s FT – History is better served by putting the Men in Stone in museums.

Instead, I want to look at the thread that Boris Johnson posted on Twitter earlier today, and in particular the first two tweets.

In the thread he argues that we cannot now try to edit or censor our past, he deplores the risk of damage to the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, and, having at least in his own mind placed himself on the right side of history, goes on to claim that the recent protests have been hijacked by extremists intent on violence.

It is all very much aimed at his base (and perhaps not surprisingly it has attracted a considerable number of likes and retweets).

And it is all remarkably disingenuous.

There is certainly a lot going on in the thread as a whole but what about those first two tweets?

As I read them my immediate thought was just how much Johnson wants us to see him as our latter-day Churchill – the hero leader, saving this country from . . .

Well, from what?

It was going to be the tyranny of those ungrateful Europeans. Wasn’t that what Brexit was all about? But it is now, like it or not, the Covid-19 pandemic.

And heroes, Johnson implies, should be forgiven their failings – for no better reason it seems than they are heroes.

Johnson firmly places Churchill against racism (and in doing so he very definitely edits history) and he allows him those unacceptable opinions. And in so doing, Johnson seems to be suggesting that we too should allow Johnson his unacceptable opinions.

Hmmm. He may be disappointed.

Cometh the hour . . .

Whether or not they are thinking it yet (and my money is on the grown ups in the room doing just that), are some in the Conservative Party wondering just how much longer they can leave Boris Johnson in post? May is a long way off.

The analogy with Britain at war in 1940 has been done to death – if I am allowed to use that expression. There is a constant evocation of the Blitz spirit, a harking back to Britain standing alone (not that far off the truth given that we appear to be taking a somewhat different approach to managing CV-19 than anyone else), and appeals to a sense of country and adversity framed in terms of duty and patriotism. And all the while, the Prime Minister channels his inner Churchill, addressing the nation in front of two Union flags, his language a pale imitation of his acknowledged hero.

But just occasionally history has lessons. So back to May, and in particular May 1940. I had a debate with the boss this morning about the suitability or otherwise of Boris Johnson. The argument advanced was that however poor he is, and he undoubtedly is, we should stick with him. I disagree. For all that he tries to emulate his hero, Johnson is no Churchill and is singularly ill-equipped to lead the country through this crisis.

The events of early May 1940 are instructive. Leo Amery lit the blue touch paper in the course of the Norway Debate,

“I will quote certain other words. I do it with great reluctance, because I am speaking of those who are old friends and associates of mine, but they are words which, I think, are applicable to the present situation. This is what Cromwell said the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: ‘You have sat here too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.’

speech, House of Commons, 7 May 1940

By 10 May 1940 Neville Chamberlain had gone, the King had called Churchill to the Palace, and there was a National Government in place.

The question now is not whether the Tories can wait until May, but rather whether they should. Now is not the time for party but country – but then we have heard that before.

Running scared

Engaging her brain before opening her mouth is obviously not one of Hazel Blears’ virtues, if her reported remarks in the FT this morning about Boris Johnson are to be believed.

“He’s a nasty, rightwing elitist with odious views and criminal friends like Conrad Black [the former newspaper tycoon].”

Leave out ‘rightwing’ and substitute ‘leftwing’ and you have Ken Livingstone: except Ken’s criminal friends are closer to home.

Read Rod Liddle in this week’s Spectator for a slightly different take on the Ken and Boris contest.