THE first job of Prime Minister is surely to look Prime Ministerial. To convey to the public a sense of command and authority. To give confidence, when storm clouds gather, that there’s someone at the helm who knows what they’re doing. To represent the UK on the world stage in a way that makes everyone feel proud of their country.

Boris Johnson is no-one’s idea of an orthodox political leader. It’s long been suspected that his chaotic public persona is carefully calculated artifice. A way of connecting. Bridging the divide between ruler and ruled. And anyone who’s met Johnson testifies to his affability. What’s more, the performance – if that’s what it is – is a proven electoral success.

The chaos, it turns out, is not artifice, but reality of life behind the famous black door. What other possible explanation can there be for the events of the past few weeks? A Just William government of japes and scrapes.

Warning lights are now flashing. People who used to laugh with Boris are starting to laugh at him. Or deciding he’s no laughing matter at all.

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Those who know Johnson best say that behind the frivolity lurks a serious man who thinks deeply about issues. An insightful leader of unusual creativity and originality. If so, this might be a good time for him to show it.

We’re at a transformative moment. Omicron. UK renewal post-Brexit. A climate emergency. States, like China, hostile to our liberal values. An information technology revolution changing rapidly our whole way of life. Just one of these issues would test any government. This government is having to deal with all of them at the same time.

The country can ill afford a Prime Minister who appears, through carelessness, to be sabotaging his own government. “It’s rather like sending your opening batsman to the crease only to find that before the first ball is bowled, their bats have been broken by the team captain” – that was Sir Geoffrey Howe’s devastating verdict on Margaret Thatcher’s final year of leadership. Ministers sent out in recent weeks to survive the morning media round will know exactly how he must have felt.

For those of us who care about Scotland’s place in the UK, the Prime Minister’s recent pratfalls are exasperating. Undoing UK ministers’ good work to demonstrate they’re attuned to Scottish sensibilities. Boris Johnson is the Christmas gift to the SNP that keeps on giving.

Nicola Sturgeon isn’t exactly a stranger to slipperiness and evasion. Yet even she felt emboldened by the Prime Minister’s mishaps to start hurling rocks at him from her perch in an exposed glass house.

And this is the nub of the exasperation. Many Conservatives, who are no fans of Boris Johnson, still want him to succeed. They can see he’s creative – if only it wasn’t so often with the truth. He’s genuinely interested in big, bold and original ideas. Prepared to risk ridicule by thinking the unthinkable. For every flight of fancy – a bridge to Northern Ireland or Boris Island Airport – there are also seriously sound ideas. A US-style Advanced Research and Inventions Agency to establish the UK as a science super-power. A radical devolution of power in England to level up. Ambitious projects to match the scale of the challenges ahead.

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Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon could not have more different characters. She clearly regards him as a clown. But if he’s a clown what does that make her?

She could never be accused of being an original thinker. She’s only got one idea and it’s a bad one – breaking up the UK. And while Johnson won a referendum no one expected him to win, she lost hers. Nationalists will still be screaming “get Scexit done” by the time Nicola Sturgeon eventually leaves office.

In the meantime, cautious conservatism in every other area is the only way to keep her mission’s flame burning. So no essential reforms to Scotland’s public services either. There will be little to show for her many years in office. And more thoughtful nationalists know it.

In July, the First Minister’s heir apparent Kate Forbes announced a new council to develop a 10-year national strategy for economic transformation. Bold, long-term thinking was promised, with a report expected in October or November. As autumn gives way to winter, there’s still no sign of a report. Hardly a surprise. The authors have been handed an impossible task.

“Scotland is not a small open economy but instead part of one of the largest free trade areas with the rest of the UK (the world’s sixth largest economy)”, say the council’s minutes, emphasising the need to “build on existing interconnections” and to “consider how the economic strategy connects with UK policy, such as the UK’s new innovation strategy”.

And isn’t this the point? The Forbes council is embarked on a fool’s errand. In current circumstances, the only way it can produce, a stable and predictable 10-year strategy – one helpful to business and jobs – is to assume Scotland stays within the UK. Yet the SNP Government remains boneheadedly insistent on planning for the upheaval of Scotland leaving the UK during the next decade. The two scenarios are irreconcilable.

Ms Forbes delivered her budget last week. She had a generous settlement from the Treasury to work with. Yet promises and problems pile up. Simply allocating the money isn’t enough. Scottish ministers need to find ways of delivering more from existing resources or generating additional revenues.

Time you might think for bold, reforming government. Instead, the revelation SNP tax rises have produced almost no additional revenue. And a budget in which increasingly emasculated local councils – who could be agents for delivering services more efficiently – were thrown under the bus.

Here’s the puzzle. Boris Johnson’s shambolic reputation obscures a UK government attempting big, bold and serious things. Nicola Sturgeon’s disciplined presentation conceals a Scottish government whose tank is empty.

Time to shape up, Prime Minister, or ship out.

Andrew Dunlop is a Conservative peer in the House of Lords.