Who is really running the country, Labour voters (and even a few Tory backbenchers from the powerful Conservative 1922 Committee) might be asking following PM Boris Johnston’s recent debacle during his CBI speech.
If ever there was a ‘car crash’ delivery of a keynote industrial speech, this was it! Labour’s Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, the MP for Leeds West, branded it a “bumbling” address which saw ‘Bumbling Boris’ lose his place in his notes, impersonate a car, and talk about a visit to Peppa Pig World!
Given the seriousness of the Covid pandemic, the ongoing looming crisis in Northern Ireland over the Protocol, the general bad feeling between the EU and the UK over Brexit, not to mention the unfolding tragedy of the Channel migrant catastrophe, folk may be wondering if Mr Johnston is actually in full control, not just of the Tory Party, but of his Cabinet and even the country itself?
Even the so-called Iron Lady of Conservatism, the late former PM Maggie Thatcher, faced a coup in her own ranks which eventually forced her out of office. At what point do rumblings within the 1922 Committee become an open revolt against the PM?
At what point do the Tory backbenchers during the Christmas recess from Parliament, instead of discussing Brussels sprouts, rather discuss ‘Boris Out’?
Ironically, Boris needs to take a leaf out of the Thatcher manual for handling rebel Tories. In 1981, it was perceived that Thatcher had caved in to the demands of the IRA and INLA hunger strikes in the Maze prison.
She had created 10 new martyrs for the republican cause when in reality she could have given in to the demands after the deaths of the first two hunger strikers - Bobby Sands MP and Francis Hughes. Then again, did the other eight prisoners who died on that death fast actually need to die or were the leaderships of the Provisional republican movement and republican socialist movement merely sacrificing their prisoners for propaganda purposes - but that’s a debate for another day.
Thatcher desperately needed to save face in 1982 after the 1981 hunger strike debacle for her premiership. Then Argentina invaded the Falklands.
Thatcher’s reaction was to send a full-blown British task force to the islands in the far away south Atlantic to liberate the islands. The net result of scenes of Thatcher in full-blown combat gear secured her a landslide election victory the following year in the 1983 Westminster General Election.
What Boris needs in 2022 to face down any perceived Tory revolt that Downing Street is totally disconnected from not just the Conservative party, but the entire UK, is a major propaganda boost.
It is said a good general picks his battle fields carefully. Boris will need to pick a fight on a topic on which he can clearly win, not just score a few brownie points. It has to be an outright crushing victory - and it has to be very, very public.
Its no use making another speech from behind the comfort of the lectern in 10 Downing Street as if it was the daily Covid briefing; nor is touring a successful factory bedecked in a high-vis jacket and hard hat any use. It has to be a PR coup which clearly gives the strong impression of a PM that is firmly in control of the leadership of his nation.
In today’s media-driven world of politics, perception can be as persuasive as reality.
So who can the target be that can guarantee this outright PR victory? The pandemic with all its variants is so unpredictable in direction and impact, it would be foolhardy to claim that the various deviants have been medically defeated.
Unless Boris can stand up in the House of Commons in the New Year and claim the Northern Ireland Protocol has been entirely axed, any threats about what the UK Government will do will come across as empty rhetoric.
So with Brexit, the Protocol and the pandemic ruled out, that leaves only one avenue - declare war on the people traffickers forcing migrants to cross the English Channel. The brutal solution against the traffickers - British boots once again on French soil!
Imagine the propaganda coup for Boris - prancing along Calais beach in full combat gear, accompanied by armed British bobbies and squaddies, giving a Churchillian-style speech about fighting the human traffickers on the beaches? It would show Boris in control of the situation in which people are currently losing their lives trying to reach the safety of British waters and shores.
And Boris can score a double whammy in any retort to French President Emmanuel Macron if the latter issues a flat ‘Non’ to British boots on French soil - well, you were glad of British boots in 1914 and 1944 when your country was occupied by the Germans, firstly under Kaiser Bill and then by Nazi tyrant Hitler.
The latter sentence may come across as patriotic sabre-rattling, especially as the French are mighty angry at the UK leaving the EU, but it will give Boris the unique perception that he is actually in charge of the UK - ‘Bumbling Boris’ becomes ‘Beachhead Boris’.
The real serious political danger which Boris faces is that he is relying too much on his Commons majority. He does not find himself - as yet - in the same precarious situation as his predecessor as PM, Theresa May, who needed a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with the DUP MPs to prop up her Tory Government.
But Boris should remember the fate of the Iron Lady. That 1983 General Election returned Thatcher to Downing Street with a massive majority, something similar to Boris’s current majority. But within the decade, the political wolves in the Tory party had savaged her and she was gone.
If there is one bitter pill which every Tory PM needs to swallow, its don’t take the blessing of the backbench 1922 Committee for granted. Now get that ticket to Calais beach booked ASAP, Boris!
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.