Copying Private Sector Corporate Structures and appointing an Operating Prime Minister (in charge of the day-to-day and short-term exigencies) would leave the PM free to focus on the Executive Role - promoting a vision and strategy for the country and his party; as well as delivering on his promises.
When asked what had undone his premiership, Harold Macmillan is alleged to have remarked, “Events, dear boy, events.”
Like Macmillan, Johnson has seen his premiership - one that opened with so much promise and bombast - overtaken by events.
Perhaps the role of Prime Minister has become impossible. It is really a combination of three very difficult jobs rolled into one. Firstly, there is the role as the national and party leader: enunciating a vision and a shared identity. Then there is the operating manager role: monitoring the day to day, delivering on promises and managing crises as they arise. On top of all this is the constituency job of every MP, addressing the demands of roughly 100,000 people. Any one of these would be enough to sink most of us.
Today, the job has become even more difficult, because you cannot overlook anything. In an age, when, as Jeremy Paxman has observed, ‘everything is a crisis or a tragedy’ any omission or misplaced comment can swell into a Twitter storm and threaten the entire government. Anyone who has ever done a managerial role knows full well how modern technology can take over, turning every waking minute into a perpetual exercise in fire-fighting. Macmillan may have felt beleaguered by events. But today, events seem to be all there is.
No wonder Johnson has lost his stride. You may not have liked his politics but at least the old Bojo had mojo. He was exciting, jocular and flippant. That has gone. How can a man nearing sixty and allegedly with long-Covid, hope to complete three near-impossible jobs? Like Boris, I have two young kids and I can barely shake myself out of bed, even without anything like his responsibilities. Then there’s the Shakespeare biography, the propriety investigations, the alleged money problems, innumerable romantic and political exes, and the fact that half the country (and 90% of the media) is still nursing a personal vendetta over Brexit.
So here is a plan to get Bojo his mojo, and refocus ‘big dog’ on what he claims to be good at. The answer is for Johnson to appoint an Operating Prime Minister.
The Operating Prime Minister (OPM) would not just be the equivalent of Deputy Prime Minister. This is about division of labour. The OPM would be in charge of the day-today stuff and any emergencies that come along.
This, after all, is exactly what almost every private sector company does. You have a CEO; in charge of execution, long term strategy and presentation. Then you have the COO (Chief Operating Officer), who looks after the day-to-day running of the business. The COO is all about the nitty-gritty details, people management, and dealing quickly with problems as they arise. There is also a Chief Financial Officer - the corporate equivalent of the Chancellor. In other words, the private sector has worked out you need at least three in the C-suite. Two is not enough. And the core reason for that is that CEO, CFO and COO roles require very different skill sets.
It is notable that many of the great corporate successes of the modern age have required this sort of leadership combination: think Zuckerberg-Sandberg (Facebook), Brin-Page (Google) or Jobs-Cook (Apple). In all these cases, a visionary genius required someone to supplement their inadequacies in day-to-day management or human relationships.
In other words, an OPM could handle the stuff that Johnson has proved terrible at – from his vacillating over Covid restrictions to the Afghanistan withdrawal. By his own admission Johnson is not a details man. Perhaps more than ever he is too tired for details.
That would leave Johnson to focus on defining an ethos for his premiership - something that has hitherto been entirely lacking. He could lay out his grand plans, embellished with his trademark Churchillian jingoism. This is what Johnson’s allies claim he is good at: getting the big stuff right. With an OPM he would at least have the chance to prove it. Crucially, he would have the time and focus to ensure he actually delivers on those pledges. Even more than Partygate, it is those broken promises that are fast becoming Johnson’s Achilles heel.
This would not be an unfamiliar position for the Prime minister. Matthew Parris, reflecting on Johnson's 'glorious reign’ as editor of the Spectator recalls: ‘His deputy at the time was an under-sung hero, Stuart Reid, a kind, scholarly and careful man, and an unobtrusively deft editor with a good eye for quality – besides being a patient clearer-up of his boss’s messes.’
And who could play the under-sung hero this time ? How about Jeremy Hunt? There are already calls for him to be made chancellor to mollify the rebels. The job of OPM would spike their guns. How could Hunt run for PM if he already is one? Being Operating Prime Minter would be a tough job. Every crisis that comes the government’s way would be on his watch.
Yet who could resist? Throw in a pay rise, the title of ‘Prime Minister’, and a grace and favour residence, and there is enough to seduce any red-blooded ego.
With the weight off, I suspect we would see a new man in Johnson. Still flawed; but a better version. Perhaps he could even find time for the odd afternoon nap or a spot of writing.
The idea of a joint Prime Minister is untested in politics. Yet it is worth a try for the simple reason that it cannot make things any worse. Better a leadership COO than a leadership coup.