To get elected in a democratic society it pays to have a gift for public speaking. If you can accurately capture the mood of the mob and craft it into narrative to stir the soul, you will win elections, and your words may in turn inspire others to build the world of tomorrow. Churchill and Thatcher had it, Blair to some degree, Major and Brown not so much, and May not at all.
Johnson is a gifted writer and orator, his bon and not so bon mots are memorable. Where he is lacking, however, is in his grasp of the need for substance beneath the style and point-scoring. Rhetoric without the hope of reward is a recipe for disappointment, and in COP26 at Glasgow his decision to engage in a year of eco-evangelising and catastrophising, fully aware he could not deliver, has yielded precisely that outcome. Or to be fair, the hypothetical promise of a few tenths of a degree less warming should everyone do what they say they might do… probably.
The Glasgow Climate Pact is weak, technocratic, and hard to explain, and predictably so. The idea, at the best of times that major emitters India, China and the United States would row behind an agenda likely to damage their domestic interests was a non-starter. It should not have been left to the last minute to try and reduce expectations in a process that despite 26 meetings has delivered only two that anyone can remember, at Kyoto and Paris.
Further damage has been done to his personal brand. The architect of ‘taking back control’ has transformed himself from a nativist slayer of ‘rice pudding’-weak windfarms, into a global influencer comfortable with promoting the agendas of unelected bureaucrats, so long as they are in UN agencies, NGOs, and corporations, not the EU. The likely political cost of doing this, never mind the actual cost to the British public, is something Boris circa 2016 might well have advised Boris circa 2021 to avoid. He was hoping for a post-COP bounce in the polls – he got instead Labour’s largest poll lead since July 2019, just before he took over from Theresa May.
He didn’t get everything wrong. His decision for example to appoint the quietly passionate and methodical Alok Sharma MP as summit President was wise. That approach goes down well with the international diplomatic community much in the manner his own bluster does not. Global Britain still doesn’t have a clear vision or plan, but in Sharma it may at least have a competent future negotiator and networker.
Behind the scenes, the City of London also had some success. Although the resolution of climate change depends fundamentally on the deployment of technology, the UK’s comparative advantage in green supply chains is largely in science and finance, not manufacturing. That there were deals done on deploying capital for green investment and the financing of aid programmes, with the UK taking a leading position particularly on setting standards, was a domestic success, albeit not one that free marketeers will necessarily welcome, smacking as it does of corporatism. Again, quiet graft and patient conversations got results.
The irony of COP then is that the PM has championed a stage upon which it was least likely his advantages would be asset. Perhaps he thought it would be like the Olympics, where waving a large flag and inviting the world to London to do their best was appropriate. But there all the hard work had been done by others, he just had to turn up, sell it, and congratulate the winners. Climate conferences by contrast are a marathon with a finish-line decades hence, few winners, and no medals. In those circumstances sober reflection and understatement, the traditional British virtues would have been the wiser path.