Her opponents never got to grips with Margaret Thatcher, be they from inside or outside the party that she led. In Opposition, she was either mocked as hopeless (“Heath with tits”) or denounced as heartless (“the Iron Lady”). Neither line of attack stopped her winning three elections in a row.
Ditto Tony Blair. His own journey took him from Bambi – toothy, graceful and slight, in both senses of the word – to Bliar: the squinting monster of the Iraq War. He remains the only Labour leader in history to have gained two landslide victories.
Boris Johnson may not win a second general election, let alone a third. But, almost a year into his premiership, his enemies might ask themselves whether the escapes, luck and elusiveness of “the greased albino piglet”, as David Cameron is meant to have called him, may turn out to mirror theirs.
We have learned quite a lot and nothing at all about the Prime Minister during his first twelve months in office. Nothing at all, because his disposition is evidently what it was and has shown no surprises. This fan of the Romans, about whom he has written a book, is a bread and circuses politician.
Ultimately, he wants to entertain the electorate and, for reasons that combine gifts, character, genes and, it seems, a depressive streak in the family, this brooding extrovert, whose family and friends call him by his first name, Alex, has blossomed into “Boris” – who voters think they know, and whose public exuberance bucks many of them up.
Johnson favours “boosterism”, his own word, by which he means tax cuts, grand projets and more borrowing (because we aren’t generating the growth that would render it unnecessary). That imagined bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland is like the Roman aqueducts he lauds in The Dream of Rome.
He is ill at ease with anything that can’t be turned into a joke. The London riots of 2011 were the best pre-government example; they seemed initially to throw him off his stride. The Coronavirus is a more grisly example. It has killed tens of thousands of his fellow Brits, and might well have done for him, too.
Which is a reminder to recite the litany of his last year: elected Conservative leader, loses votes in Parliament, removes the whip from 21 Tory MPs, is ruled against by the Supreme Court, wins an election by a near-landslide, gets divorced, engaged, becomes a father, and is rushed into intensive care, which “could have gone either way”.
This is the stuff of myth and legend, of which he is clearly made. For although he may have won only one election to date, the mark he will leave on history is arguably bigger than Thatcher’s: for he has led Britain out of the European Union.
Without him, Vote Leave might not have swung the referendum. And without him, the Conservatives would, at best, be where they were when he stood for the leadership (i.e: at some 20 per cent in the polls); at worst, we would all be on our way to a second referendum in a still-hung Parliament (with a Tory Party that had finally split).
Johnson was slow to respond to the iconoclasm, vandalism and unreason of the New Puritans – though he finally huffled and puffed himself into more or less the right place, and has had the low cunning and good sense not to “take a knee”. And he deserves a Turkmenbashi-style gold statue himself for his achievement in Getting Britain Out.
But if we have learned nothing at all about his outlook, we have learned quite a lot about his capacities – about what sort of national leader he will turn out to be. As his term as London’s Mayor suggested, he is good at taking decisions, when he really has to do so, and good at delegating, which not all Prime Minister’s are.
It is worth marvelling again at how brilliantly he called last year – grasping at the start that Theresa May’s attempts to please everyone had ended up pleasing no-one, and that a great swathe of the British people, regardless of how they voted in 2016, wanted to “get Brexit done”. It was his Churchillian finest as well as darkest hour.
His critics would say that he may be good at campaigning decisions, but not at governing ones; and that he may be relaxed about delegating, but he is doing so to a second-rate Cabinet – from which able MPs have been excluded on no ground other than that they didn’t vote for him in the leadership contest.
There is a lot in this line of thinking. The Cabinet needs a purge, a theme to which this site will return, and the Government is over-centralised. International Covid comparisons are tricky, but Britain has clearly performed poorly. Evidently, the Prime Minister will get blown about in the wind, as the free school meals row showed.
On the other hand, Johnson knows the media well enough, as a former Editor himself, not to get whacked out by bad coverage. He understands how today’s news flurry is forgotten by tomorrow, and how little bothered the public is by U-turns – as over Huawei, say.
What may undo him yet is the Potemkin nature of his majority. This generation of Conservative MPs was elected to deliver Brexit and spend money: 50,000 extra nurses; 20,000 more police; 50 million more GP appointments a year; “millions more invested every week in science”.
But the new MPs from Red Wall seats and others haven’t be trained to back tough economic decisions – to say No. They are not in a good place to support spending cuts and tax rises when the time comes for them, let alone the wider programme of reform needed to reduce the third of public spending that goes on health, welfare and pensions.
There is also more than a single questionmark against whether or not his grand levelling-up scheme can be delivered. As he and Dominic Cummings and other have devised it, the plan is about a cultural as much as an economic shift.
It means a movement of young people from academic courses that are of no use in the jobs market to vocational ones that are; curbing the abuse of human rights (as in the Shamima Begum case) and judicial review; ensuring freedom of speech in universities.
There is a risk of all this and much else – including outcomes for some of the very worst-off in Britain, such as rough sleepers – getting lost in the struggle simply to salvage the economy, make the best of Brexit and save the Union, as Scotland’s elections approach next year.
With so much running against Johnson, one would think that Keir Starmer would already be ahead in the polls. And yet there his Party is, leading Labour by 44 per cent to 37 per cent. We presume that Labour will get ahead at some point over the coming year.
Nonetheless, that 44 per cent total, restored to roughly where it went for the Tories after the EU referendum, shows up Johnson’s biggest strength. After two terms as London Mayor, some ten at the top of politics and an election win, he is a known quantity. Certainly, the familiar; almost, the secure.
For all the savagings he has endured, there is no shape to them, no consistency. And whatever else Johnson may be, he is a winner – “reincanated as an olive”, in which guise we show him today. But never forget, as he will not, a grim footnote: it was Blair and Thatcher’s own backbenchers that brought them down.