Even within the context of recent political history, the past two months in Westminster have been unprecedented. Our Prime Minister was admitted to intensive care with coronavirus at the beginning of April; welcomed a newborn son at the beginning of May; and now, at the beginning of June, faces continued calls to sack his most senior advisor over breaching lockdown rules.
David Wooding, Political Editor at The Sun on Sunday, joined us to help navigate the challenges the Government is currently confronted with and rounded off with a prediction or two for the coming months. Here are five things we learnt.
- From zipwire to high-flyer
David has interviewed Boris Johnson many times over the years, and three times since he became Prime Minister. Over the course of those conversations he has seen Johnson steadily mature; growing from the class clown hanging from a zipwire waving Union Jack flags to a more thoughtful, emotional leader. In David’s view, being hospitalised with coronavirus has had a profound impact on the Prime Minister and will deeply influence how he makes future decisions.
Of the decisions he has made since March, David believes Johnson’s foremost achievement is managing to initially unite the country behind him at the beginning of lockdown – which, he added, would not have been his first instinct given his libertarian streak. He also gives the Prime Minister credit for acting quickly and announcing an extraordinary range of fiscal measures to protect jobs and businesses.
- Cummings and goings
As much as David appraised the Prime Minister’s ability to take decisive action, there is one man that he identified as being like the ‘Emu’ to his ‘Rod Hull’. Johnson needs Dominic Cummings to get Brexit over the line – “Only a man as psychopathic as Cummings could face down the European Union and say we’re going off that cliff edge,” said David. This is a task now made perhaps slightly easier as many are likely to view a no-deal Brexit as a drop in the ocean given the current economic upheaval.
It therefore doesn’t surprise David that the Prime Minister has kept Cummings in post, although he doesn’t contest that it has led to significant reputational damage. The question is whether it’s lasting. David predicts that Johnson will try and mitigate against this by – as with Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell; and Gordon Brown and Charlie Whelan before him – pushing Cummings even further into the shadows.
- Starmer off to a stormer
One man who will certainly try and make political capital of the Prime Minister’s decision not to fire Cummings is the new Labour leader, Keir Starmer. The former lawyer has had a solid start by David’s reckoning, surprising quite a few with his forensic and analytical questioning at the despatch box. A style which is so precise and laser-guided that Johnson struggles to waffle around it and instead is made to look like a defendant in court.
David does however caution that Starmer may need to exhibit more personality if he is to claw back any of the Conservatives’ majority of 80 seats – citing a recent readers’ poll in which a third responded ‘don’t know’ when asked how he was performing. He would also like to see the Labour leader engage more with the Westminster lobby, an area where he believes Jeremy Corbyn’s communication team shot themselves in the foot.
- Back to the feature
David is seeing some semblance of normality returning to the news agenda, as coronavirus related stories slowly slip off the front page and he is forced to give back column inches to showbusiness journalists. He is keen to receive good news stories from PRs and believes there is now room in the paper for three or four strong business features each week.
While coronavirus stories might be less in demand, expect there to be many deep diving, wide ranging investigations into the handling of the current pandemic once we are further out of the woods. David identified the protection (or lack thereof) of care home patients as a story which journalists have yet to properly get their teeth into, but which we’ll likely be hearing a lot more of.
- Easy as ABC
If a week is a long time in politics, then the last five years have been a lifetime. We’ve had three general elections, three Prime Ministers and one referendum. However, given David’s track record of forecasting – having touted then newly elected MP for Maidenhead Theresa May as a potential future Prime Minister – he felt confident enough to conclude the discussion by providing us with a couple of predictions.
Since the turn of the century we’ve had Afghanistan, Brexit and Covid-19. Looking ahead, David believes that the inevitable ‘D’ story coming our way could likely be ‘downturn’. When pressed on who would follow Johnson as Prime Minister, he identified Rishi Sunak as someone who ticks a lot of boxes and performs well in front of cameras but has a lot still to get through.