Westminster is in Easter recess. But the Prime Minister is not taking time off.
He’s too busy, as per his press conference on Monday, when he announced things that were already the case and revealed vague plans that set 100 hares running and will have to be clarified in the coming days.
He’d have been better taking a break.
But this PM, with a reputation for sloth, is determined to appear at toil. Hence his decision to skip out on paternity leave recently. Having said since son Wilfred was born last year that he’d be taking some paternity leave, it was hardly surprising that Johnson clocked up yet another U-turn and got his spokesperson to tell the press he’s “too busy” to take time dedicated to looking after his child.
As any parent will tell you, running the country with the help of countless civil servants and ministers looks significantly more straightforward than trying to keep a toddler sweet. By turning down the chance to take paternity leave, Johnson is turning his back on the real hard work.
And he’s passing the opportunity to be a role model to men across the country. If men take more paternity leave not only are they and their families all happier, healthier and more productive, according to the research, but they open up opportunities for women to get back to the workforce sooner and the economy gets a multi-trillion pound boost. Gender equality fuels economic growth – something crucial to the post-pandemic recovery.
So the PM spurned paternity leave because he’s lazy and has little interest in gender equality.
The candidates for Deputy PM
But another reason for his decision is surely the question of who would fill in for him should he absent himself for a fortnight. Only now are we beginning to piece together the full story of what happened last spring when he got sick with Covid, and there was nobody to step in while he was incapacitated. Dominic Raab was front man for a few weeks but by all accounts he did not or dare not exercise any real power.
There’s unlikely to be an inquiry into how Downing Street dealt with the pandemic until Johnson is far enough way that he can’t be held accountable. For now we must make do with the gossipy accounts of how this administration works currently emerging in the media. One thing is clear from all of them. Johnson is a political loner, lacking sidekicks he can trust and who respect him. The closest he’s got in recent years is Dominic Cummings and he was a straight up nonsense.
All of which makes the case for a Deputy Prime Minister. It’s a role that has no official standing and yet a quick look at recent post holders shows how effective it can be. Nick Clegg, John Prescott and Michael Heseltine – it’s hard to think of three better guests at a fantasy political dinner party. More seriously they all brought something crucial to government.
Clegg is now a big cheese at Facebook where his thoughtful approach to society, liberty and government are all put to good use.
Prescott kept the Blair government of spin and special advisors anchored to the people it was elected to represent. And stopped the 2001 election being the most boring of all time by punching a man.
While sleaze and ineptitude swirled around John Major’s administration, Heseltine kept ploughing the same furrow he has throughout his career – getting stuff done, trying to help people by providing opportunity and responsibility to all.
John Prescott stopped the 2001 election being the most boring of all time by punching a man
What all three had in common was that they each had a philosophy, a goal, and they were in politics for the right reasons. On all three counts Johnson fails. Yet if he had a number two who could bring those traits to government it would improve the quality of the administration at a stroke.
Michael Gove fits the job description but for one vital quality. Previous deputy prime ministers got the gig because, for various reasons, they could not or would not challenge their boss for the top job. Gove’s already betrayed Johnson once, in the wake of the EU referendum. It’s understandable if the PM doesn’t trust him now.
Other Scots might make a shortlist for the job. Liam Fox has surely finally given up his ambition to lead the Tories and is scouting about for big job. Ruth Davidson is about to land in Westminster as a baroness.
But it’s not the personality that matters, it’s the role. Without a proper constitution the post of deputy PM occupies an odd and unofficial position in our politics. But past experience shows that it can be incredibly effective at providing a prime minister and his administration with ballast, direction and a philosophy to lean on among the hurly burly of everyday government.
Boris Johnson ought to think not just about hiring one now but embedding the role into the way Westminster works.
James Millar is a political commentator and author and a former Westminster correspondent for The Sunday Post
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