The Tories now see that although Johnson can win elections, he simply can’t govern

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<span>Photograph: WPA/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

Boris Johnson’s CBI speech may prove to be one of those moments that damningly define a prime minister in the public mind and which they can never shake off. Many will hope that something reputation-puncturing happened to Johnson this week. And perhaps it did.

It is true that Johnson has never been less popular as prime minister. His YouGov approval stands at -35, with 64% of voters saying he is doing badly and 29% well. But the most powerful evidence that things are going off the rails for Johnson is not to be found in the polls but at Westminster and in Whitehall.

There have been three dominant domestic political events in the past 10 days: the U-turn on MPs’ outside earnings, the slashing of the HS2 rail project and the launch of the new social care cap. All three are large issues. All three have been bungled. The government’s standing in the polls, the headlines and within the Tory party have all taken serious knocks.

Those knocks now have consequences. By far the most significant words this week were not Johnson’s halting “Forgive me … forgive me” in South Shields. They were the incendiary comments reported by the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, from a Downing Street source: “There is a lot of concern in the building … It’s just not working.”

Kuenssberg is too important and reliable a reporter for these remarks to have been either casual asides or unrepresentative whinging. Their message is a devastating one, that Johnson and his team are not up to the job. They imply that changes are required at the centre if the Conservatives are to emerge, from a winter dominated by the cost of living, Covid and the Channel migration crisis, in a position to win the next general election.

Related: PMQs: Starmer attacks Johnson over social care plans as Tories insist prime minister is not losing grip – live

What form should or might the necessary change take? In Johnson’s great man view of history, he stretches out across the petty conventions of politics and government to connect with and inspire the public and achieve grand goals. The problem, very simply, is that this is not happening because the whole conceit does not work in the first place.

As history, Johnsonism does not withstand scrutiny. “Young Alexander conquered India,” says the Brecht poem; “He alone?” But as politics and government it is not delivering either. Good government requires strategy, rules, hard work and, perhaps above all, a team. It can be enforced by terror and force, or through trust and ethos. The former is thankfully not available to Johnson; the latter is something he does not do.

Britain’s embrace of Johnsonism in 2016 and 2019 is now confronted by Johnsonism’s in-built unworkability in practice. Faced with an irreconcilable, the Tory party will eventually have to make a choice. Either it will bet the farm on Johnsonism, or it will try to rein it in. Perhaps, if it manages to do the latter, it can then pretend that it is still doing the former and thus, if it is lucky, win another election.

Johnson’s character means he will initially respond with denial and distractions. The unveiling of a punitive criminal justice plan on Wednesday to impose automatic life sentences on killers of emergency service personnel was an obvious example. The migration crisis in the Channel will probably generate more. Arguments with Europe will also be escalated. But the government’s need to make progress on delivery cannot be postponed for ever.

The former Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith once said that “the office of the prime minister is what its holder chooses and is able to make of it”. Johnson’s problem is that his preferred way of governing is on the extreme end of the spectrum of possibilities. He has got rid of a generation of senior civil servants. He first brought in and then fired the arch-disrupter Dominic Cummings. Few of his appointments last long. Johnson’s way has been tested to the brink of destruction.

It is no accident that this crisis has arisen after barely two years, a period in which few governments could achieve anything. If he or any successor seriously wanted to govern for a decade or more, he should take a lesson from the most important democratically elected leader in Europe who has done just that. Angela Merkel is about to step down after 16 years as Germany’s chancellor. But she owes that long and remarkable reign not just to her own calm mastery but to the system she built around her in the chancellery.

Merkel governed through a team of six highly trusted advisers and officials who offered solidity, strategic thinking, professionalism and complete discretion. Led by the chief of staff, Beate Baumann, they have no public profile. But their loyalty and competence are legendary. In the entire 16 years of Merkel’s leadership, there have been only 10 holders of the six jobs. Baumann has been at Merkel’s side throughout, as has political liaison chief Eva Christiansen. None of the other four senior jobs in the chancellery has had more than two holders throughout Merkel’s time.

There is no disputing which of the two systems has produced good government and which has produced bad. And while Germany is about to make a seamless transition to Olaf Scholz’s chancellorship, Britain faces a governmental emergency. No 10’s lack of a team, a structure and a shared ethos adds up to a humiliating verdict on this country’s politics. Solving the problem posed by the chaotic Johnson court is the priority of the day. The question is whether, in the light of the way that Johnson has governed since 2019, it is even remotely possible to solve.

  • Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist

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