Back in the late 1940s, Sir Winston Churchill was about to address a huge Tory rally in the cavernous Central Hall, Westminster. In the build-up to the event, he had taken neither alcohol nor tobacco.
It was only as he prepared to mount the steps on to the stage to face an excited audience that he stuck a fat cigar in his face and lit up, proudly declaring to his chairman, the late Sir Hugh Linstead, a predecessor of mine as Member for Putney: ‘My boy, never forget your trademark.’
And so he clambered up, puffing away, to yet another standing ovation.
But what happens when you forget your trademark? Boris Johnson’s Conservatives are about to find out.
The catastrophic announcement about lashings of new cash for the NHS and social care breached not one but two fundamental pledges in the Tory manifesto – promises not to raise taxes.
To allow the burden of taxation to become the biggest in 70 years is a fundamental breach of everything the Conservative Party has traditionally stood for. And it has, predictably enough, gone down like a lead balloon.
Boris Johnson who has forgotten the Tory trademark, according to DAVID MELLOR
The first opinion poll from YouGov, published on Friday, puts the Conservatives on 33 per cent, two points behind Labour.
As recently as May, the Tories were 18 per cent ahead.
When questioned, less than half the sample believed the Tories were any longer the party of low taxation. Just as worryingly, despite all that money pouring in, hardly any sceptics have been persuaded the NHS really is safe in the hands of the Tories.
It is a potentially disastrous turnaround in public perception, made inevitable because Boris himself has no fundamental beliefs except, maybe, the greater glory of Boris – and certainly no grasp of detail.
And he isn’t a Churchill, though he’d love to be.
Instead, he’s Mr Micawber, always hoping that something will turn up. As of now, that’s likely to be electoral oblivion because what happens when this unfocused spending fails to deliver? Why, more cash will have to be poured in.
It’s the road to ruin. And it’s been made possible by a simple fact that, up to now, most of his supporters have chosen to ignore: Boris isn’t really a Conservative.
At best, he’s an English nationalist. At worst, he’s a tax- and-spend socialist, who once tried to forget about the tax bit. But of course he can’t, and, last week the cost of his spend, spend, spend policies finally hit home.
A great leader whistles a tune the public can hum. ‘Low taxes, Tory, good. High taxes, Labour, bad.’
A big hit for decades, now to be replaced by the kind of tuneless rubbish composed by the notorious German composer Stockhausen.
Churchill was once asked (perhaps apocryphally) if he had ever heard of Stockhausen. He replied: ‘No, but I have stepped in some.’
In the meanwhile, we are also beginning to learn what the NHS will do with all this new cash of yours. They have begun by recruiting 42 additional pen-pushers on salaries of up to £270,000.
Can you imagine Mrs Thatcher ever doing what Boris did last week? I was her youngest Minister for four years and a member of her Government for nine, until her fall in 1990.
She treated me with even more contempt than my mother did, but I put up with it because she believed in something worth believing in, and wanted to do something for the benefit of our nation, not just be somebody.
Margaret Thatcher had an impassioned belief in the fundamentals of Conservatism. Personal freedom. Confining the state to the few things only the state could do. Above all, leaving as much money as possible in the hands of the people.
Boris doesn’t believe any of that stuff. And he will pay a heavy price if he continues to make it clear to the electorate that he has no time for Thatcherite principles.
There must be people in Johnson’s Cabinet who realise with the same clarity I do that the Tories are chucking it all away. Yet none of them stood up to him last week.
That’s because Boris’s Cabinet, with a few honourable exceptions, such as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, is weak. Few would even have been junior Ministers in one of Mrs Thatcher’s governments. They were chosen not for their all-round capability, but because they backed Boris. Anyone with what the religious call ‘doubts’ was ruthlessly excluded. Interestingly, something Mrs Thatcher never did.
Her Cabinet consisted of lots of men who felt little loyalty to her, or indeed her beliefs, but who could do their jobs. One of them was my first boss, Francis Pym, Leader of the House of Commons. He would sit with his head in his hands in his office with me during her TV broadcasts, intoning: ‘I wish she hadn’t said that.’ But he was a hugely well-respected man and did every job she gave him extremely well.
Boris can best be described as indecisive about most things in the past few months, but now he’s not so sure.
To reshuffle or not to reshuffle? He let it be known at the beginning of the week that he was going to do it. By the end, he let it be known he wasn’t, after all.
And so his poor performers will be left to stumble on as unconvincingly as ever.
What a joy it was last week to hear several highly effective interviews from the new Health Secretary, Sajid Javid. But he is only there because the wretched Matt Hancock could not be saved by Boris, however much he might have wanted to.
Javid’s authoritative performances are a sure sign that there is much talent on the Tory backbenches that Boris needs to employ immediately. He certainly needs more Ministers sceptical about his fundamental belief that you just chuck money at problems.
He needs a new Kenneth Clarke, who, when Health Secretary (I was his deputy), pointed across Whitehall to the Cenotaph and said: ‘People keep demanding we increase the proportion of GDP devoted to health, regardless of what we do with it. Makes no real sense.
‘So why don’t we just get some cash from the Treasury, pile it high in used tenners up against the Cenotaph, make a bonfire of them and dance round naked shouting we have just increased the proportion of GDP allocated to health?’
As for Dominic Raab’s holiday, he can spend a whole year in Crete for all I care, but should have the decency to resign as Foreign Secretary first.
When I was appointed to Government in a lowly role at the Department of Energy, I was on holiday in the States. Foolishly, I asked Mrs Thatcher if I should come back. ‘Immediately,’ she said. ‘Be at your desk within 24 hours. It’s a privilege to serve.’
Sadly, Boris doesn’t think like that, and seems to let them go away whenever they want, even in the middle of an international crisis.
I began by recalling a political leader of the past: Winston Churchill. How about another one – Michael Foot?
Foot was a charismatic fellow with a brilliant turn of phrase used to great effect in Parliament, at party conferences and elsewhere. Remind you of anyone?
But Michael Foot had a flaw. He was once described as a man possessed of every ability save that of making himself useful to his fellow citizens.
His own father (a noted Liberal) once observed that his other children were all picky eaters, but Michael would swallow anything.
Boris would like to be Churchill reincarnated. But on the evidence of last week, he’s in danger of becoming a new Michael Foot, who disastrously lost the 1983 Election as his full range of beliefs became known to the British public.