DOMINIC SANDBROOK: The greatest leaders turned despair into triumph

DOMINIC SANDBROOK: Yes, it’s Boris’s darkest hour…But the greatest leaders have turned despair into triumph — he must learn from them

Of all the great political virtues, the most underestimated is sheer resilience. Getting to the top is one thing.

To stay there, however, you need to keep going when fate has turned against you, to clamber to your feet when the crowd are baying for blood, to drag yourself back into the arena when survival seems impossible. You need, in short, to be a fighter.

At his hangdog nadir last week — that interview with Sky News‘ Beth Rigby — Boris Johnson didn’t look like anybody’s idea of a fighter.

Boris Johnson pictured in 2019. In the past weeks, the Prime Minister has been embroiled in the 'Partygate' scandal

Boris Johnson pictured in 2019. In the past weeks, the Prime Minister has been embroiled in the ‘Partygate’ scandal

He was more of his rumbustious old self at PMQs the next day. And for now he remains in the ring: bruised, battered but somehow still alive.

As bleak as things appear, I suspect it’s far too premature to be writing his political obituary.

Not only is Mr Johnson’s career littered with astonishing comebacks, but history is full of prime ministers who seemed doomed beyond recovery, only to fight their way to a stunning victory.

Indeed, you have only to look at the recent past to be reminded how quickly things can change.

A decade ago, David Cameron’s Conservatives were becalmed on just 29 per cent of the vote, 12 per cent behind Ed Miliband’s Labour.

For the Tories, victory seemed impossible. And yet by the summer of 2015, Mr Cameron was strolling back into Downing Street, a nonchalant winner once again.

The most striking example, though, is the astonishing comeback staged by Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s.

Today we remember the Iron Lady as a three-time election winner. But in the final months of 1981 nothing could have seemed less likely.

With the economy in meltdown and unemployment soaring, the Tories had sunk to third in the polls, behind Labour and the new SDP-Liberal Alliance.

The most striking example is the astonishing comeback staged by Margaret Thatcher (pictured) in the early 1980s

The most striking example is the astonishing comeback staged by Margaret Thatcher (pictured) in the early 1980s

Just one in four people said they were satisfied with Mrs Thatcher’s performance, the worst figure for any prime minister in history.

The Government’s approval rating was only 18 per cent, and when Gallup asked which party people expected to win the next election, just 13 per cent named the Tories.

Yet even as Mrs Thatcher’s backbenchers plotted to oust her, she kept going. And we all know what happened next: an economic recovery, victory in the Falklands War and a crushing electoral landslide in the summer of 1983.

As political personalities, Boris and Maggie could hardly be more different. But what lessons can he take from her comeback 40 years ago?

The most obvious is that he really does need to start telling the truth. (Yes, I know this is probably very unrealistic, but there’s always hope.)

Whatever else her critics said about her, they never accused Mrs Thatcher of being dishonest. Everybody knew she meant what she said.

They also knew exactly where they stood with her, which is not something people often say of Boris.

So if he wants to stay in Downing Street, he needs to lance the boil of these accursed lockdown parties, once and for all.

He should tell us the whole story, leaving nothing out. He should apologise properly, heaping himself with sackcloth and ashes.

Second, it’s now blindingly obvious Mr Johnson’s No 10 operation is a complete shambles.

If the leaked photographs of the parties are any guide, the country is being run by a well-lubricated gaggle of chinless wonders scarcely out of their teens, like a cross between the cast of Brideshead Revisited and the gang from Scooby-Doo.

If he is serious about survival, he needs to get rid of the lot of them and bring in the kind of seasoned, hardened operators who ran Downing Street under Mrs Thatcher. 

Above all, he needs a really tough, experienced chief of staff who knows exactly how Westminster and Whitehall work.

Third, he needs to sort out his Cabinet. It is frankly absurd that despite the challenges of Brexit, the pandemic and the economic recovery, ministers are still being rewarded for their loyalty to Mr Johnson rather than their record of achievement.

Why is Jeremy Hunt, a senior minister for a decade and the longest serving health secretary in history, still on the backbenches?

Why is Penny Mordaunt, a former defence secretary long regarded as one of the Tories’ brightest talents, not sitting in the Cabinet?

The obvious answer is that Mr Johnson is frightened of them. Well, that’s no good. Was Mrs Thatcher frightened of Michael Heseltine, Douglas Hurd or Ken Clarke — all of whom often disagreed with her?

Of course not. Believe it or not, there are plenty of talented, effective people on the Tory benches.

Winston Churchill gives his V for Victory sign in April 1945 outside 10 Downing Street

Winston Churchill gives his V for Victory sign in April 1945 outside 10 Downing Street

Yes, they might challenge the PM now and again. But that’s how you get a decent government, not by cowering in a sycophantic echo chamber.

Now to my fourth lesson. One key reason Mrs Thatcher turned things around was that she had a positive, plausible story to tell.

As she explained, she was unswervingly dedicated to the task of rebuilding the national economy after the travails of the 1970s, and soon voters would see the benefits.

What’s Boris’s equivalent? The answer is obvious. We are emerging from the pandemic earlier than almost any other country in the world, with a stellar record on vaccinations and an economy growing at breakneck speed. He needs to get out there and sell that message.

Give people a reason to be cheerful, and eventually they’ll forget about a scandal that’s already almost two years old.

Merely telling a story, however, isn’t enough. So — fifth — he desperately needs to show tangible, concrete, everyday results.

Don’t just talk about building houses. We need to see bricks and mortar. Don’t just promise lower taxes in the far future. Start bringing them down tomorrow.

The next election won’t be decided by an email chain from the summer of 2020. It’ll be decided by bread-and-butter concerns in the next two years: the prices of goods in the shops, the size of people’s wage packets, the impact of their energy bills, even the potholes in their local streets.

‘Delivery, delivery, delivery.’ That must be the mantra. And there’s one more thing — in some ways, the most important of all. To put it simply, don’t panic.

What often dooms governments is a sense of spiralling hysteria. As events run out of control, the carrion crows gather and leadership rivals sharpen their knives, it’s only too easy to lose your bearings.

But even in their darkest hours — Churchill in 1940, Thatcher in 1981 — our greatest leaders kept calm. They knew, as Mr Johnson should know, that fortunes can change very rapidly.

Remember that the Tories won a thumping majority after the humiliation at Suez. Mrs Thatcher won despite the recession of the early 1980s. Tony Blair even won after the debacle of Iraq.

So should we write Boris Johnson off? Surely not. With a bit of honesty and humility, a Downing Street clear-out, a reshuffled Cabinet, a new sense of optimism and a disciplined agenda focusing on the living standards of ordinary families, there’s every chance he can turn it around.

Easier said than done, of course. And I can already hear the incredulity from here. Honesty? Discipline? Is this still Boris we’re talking about?

Still, miracles do happen. And if there’s one man in Westminster who can defy political gravity, it’s that battered, bloodied figure, clinging desperately to his place in history.