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We got used to the unpredictable during the Covid pandemic, but few could have predicted the latest political alliance that was put in place on the Prime Minister’s questions. Despite years of mutual ridicule and miles apart on issues like Brexit, Boris Johnson joined none other than Tony Blair. Who would have thought?
Johnson famously complained that “nailing Blair is like trying to stick a jelly on a wall”. As we have seen in recent years, it is also known to have been difficult to attack the Prime Minister. His type of guerrilla policy, which rarely gives his opponents a sitting target as he crouches, dives, borrows and steals, has helped him both conquer the Tory Crown and win a large majority.
Blair saw the writing on the (unglazed) wall two years ago and said to me, “If you have a Conservative Party led by Boris Johnson, he’s a formidable activist, he’s an interesting person, he can get out there and do his stuff. And I have absolutely no doubt that the right-wing will win if you have right-wing populism versus left-wing populism in this country. “
In fact, Johnson seems to be reading the Blair Game Book even more closely these days than Cameron and Osborne. At the end of last year, it was the former Labor Prime Minister who made a strong case for the first and second vaccine doses to be separated in order to ensure faster protection. Sure enough, Johnson has adopted this strategy with great success. The same goes for Blair’s call for Covid passports.
It was only today that there was new evidence of the Blairization of the government. No. 10 announced the restoration of a Downing Street Delivery Unit similar to the one that was deleted in 2010. The new outfit was set up on the advice of Blair’s former department head Sir Michael. Barber is led by Dr. Emily Lawson, who led the operational delivery of the NHS coronavirus vaccination program.
The Blair Itch project of scratching those pieces of Whitehall to make sure they do the Prime Minister’s will seems to be just part of the strange new alliance. In PMQs, Johnson used Blair as a human shield when faced with the latest Cronyism charges from Keir Starmer over the James Dyson lyrics. “We are in the middle of a pandemic,” Blair had previously said. “I find it difficult to get upset about it.”
Unaligned swing voters may have a similar attitude when they heard Johnson say, “I do not apologize at all for moving heaven and earth to secure fans for this country.” Although he made time for airtime because it was an exclusive and guaranteed headline on the BBC, there is a risk that Starmer will devalue his currency by shouting “Sleaze” too often
However, Starmer went on to believe that it was really “partner tax breaks” (a phrase he used twice). The blows that landed came as he pointed out that the three million self-employed who were banned from Covid’s relief programs did not have the prime minister’s personal cell phone, nor did the NHS nurses need a raise.
But just as Blair was often referred to as “Teflon Tony”, Johnson enjoys his reputation as “Bounceback Boris”. Even Angela Rayner, who led the cronyism charge, told newspaper i this week that Johnson won some seats in the North “because people knew what they were getting. They saw that he was a guy with shortcomings. he was imperfect. But he cared about his country, he cared about the people as they saw it – although it pains me to say it. “
And it’s a feeling that Johnson’s imperfections are being “priced in” by the public that the Prime Minister seems to be relying on right now throughout the “Sleaze” saga. The overall message can be reduced to this: Here I am, warts and everything, but I am on your side. He was fully aware of his notoriously slippery relationship with the truth and once even turned a gaffe into a self-deprecating gag in PMQs. “I don’t want to sound like a stickler for the sake of accuracy,” he said before realizing his mistake and adding, “this is my normal position!”
Starmer knows that it takes more than “sleaze” to overthrow Johnson, and that rank incompetence and waste are actually stronger charges. When unemployment rises later this year, all of the jokes and chaos won’t seem quite as funny anymore.
In the next election, Labor needs public fatigue from the Tories, who have been in power for 14 years, and Sleaze is just another symptom of a party drunk with power. Tony Blair knew this and used it to devastating effects in the 1990s. While Johnson may adore him right now, he really should fear him as well.