Boris’s Corona Catastrophe

An indolent, blustering prime minister surrounded by supine, vacuous incompetents


No government would choose to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, a political death-trap that would have presented an immense challenge to any administration in history. By February, some scientists, to whom the government chose to listen, were suggesting the disease threatened to kill on a scale unseen in the developed world since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

Unlike then, however, this government has to deal with a people of whom some have become risk-averse to the extent where they see death as an outrage, rather than as an inevitable feature of life. Nor, as in 1918, was there a political consensus underpinning a coalition government against a common enemy whose destructive potential was far worse than any disease.

In 1918 the government’s task in negotiating the pandemic was, paradoxically, made easier because the country was engaged in a total war. When the first wave reached Britain in early June that year, the German spring offensive on the Western Front had not quite run its course. No one could be sure the enemy would not take Paris and win the war.

There was no question of what we now call “lockdown”: the decision to carry on as normal was dictated to the government by the necessity of yet greater events. With almost all factories devoted to war production, it was impossible to close them. With thousands of military and medical personnel going to and from the continent each day, they could be confined only at the cost of losing the war.

In 2020, no such considerations pertained. When a nervous population saw other countries closing down, it expected its leaders to do the same. Their elected leaders did not have the courage to resist this desire.

However, the fact that preventive measures seemed technically — and, to some, economically — possible created an even greater difficulty than the virus itself. It led to what was effectively an arms race between Western governments as defences went up against the pandemic. One developed country locked down after another — except for Sweden. One polity after another put the productive sectors of its economy into a deep freeze, and increased public spending spectacularly to try to protect the jobs and livelihoods of those affected. It would have taken a brave government (as Sweden’s was) to have stood out against this tide. There was little chance the British government would have the intellectual self-confidence to do so and no chance at all that it could draw on a deep reservoir of statesmanship to make such a decision.

A decision was not taken, direction was changed, and thus the worst of both worlds was accomplished

Ironically, despite the de facto socialising of the economy, the coronavirus provided an opportunity to the left for political agitation, which some (notably in the teaching unions and on the provisional wing of the scientific profession) seized upon. The former saw a chance to secure benefits far beyond the needs of the situation; the latter could use their scientific expertise to destabilise a government that contained none whatsoever.

Therefore, throughout the crisis, scientists could not agree about what politicians, desperate to convey an impression other than complete ignorance, pompously call “the science” — a noun that has acquired a definite article as a means of mystification and to keep the general public at a distance.

However, the most impenetrable barrier any government would come up against is a people that, thanks to the sudden encouragement given them by the state, has almost unconsciously become welfarist to the point where it expects government to deal with all imaginable evils, whatever the cost. It would take a resolute and confident government to disappoint them, and to have said that the state would not use the heavy hand in managing the crisis.

Also, it has not helped that China, where the disease originated, is institutionally mendacious and appears to have sought to influence the World Health Organisation to conceal the origins of the virus and its transmissibility.

Finally, the consequences of poor decisions taken by their predecessors, and fellow Conservatives, have compounded the problem for today’s ministers. Governments that claimed to support the NHS under-invested in it, apparently ignoring the long-predicted demands of an ageing population. The longest-serving health secretary of recent times, Jeremy Hunt, made no provision for a pandemic after a logistical exercise of 2016 directed how one should be managed.

Hunt now chairs the Health Select Committee, and his pronouncements will be scrutinised in the light of his past record.  Furthermore, the Cameron administration eventually enacted, but did not implement, the provisions of the 2011 Dilnot report on elderly care, compounding the shortcomings of the NHS by placing massive extra burdens upon it exactly when the social care sector should have been integrated into the health service, and expanded.

However, when the prime minister is an indolent man for whom the exercise of power is a recreation or an indulgence rather than a duty; when his ministers with few exceptions lack the wit and the experience to exercise judgment and common sense satisfactorily; and when we have a political class for whom ambition outweighs a sense of public service in almost every case, dealing with this already highly taxing problem becomes nearly impossible.

In April, as the prime minister convalesced at Chequers, the Sunday Times outlined what it called “38 days of inaction” from the moment when the gravity of the impending pandemic became clear to ministers until ministers actually did anything concrete about it. At every step there was a failure to take clear decisions. The choice was either to implement lockdown, or to behave like Sweden — the second option was popular among a substantial minority of Johnson’s own MPs, for whom the long-term economic consequences of crashing the gross domestic product were too awesome to contemplate.

Setting a template that would be followed throughout the handling of the crisis, a decision was not taken, direction was changed, and thus the worst of both worlds was accomplished. By not proceeding with the original idea of herd immunity, as Sweden did, it will never be clear whether it would have worked or not; by locking down late, the disease had already taken hold in some parts of the country.

There were changes of mind on testing too; and having avoided imposing quarantine on those landing at UK ports and airports, the government threatened to impose it when it could do maximum damage to an economy that was supposedly picking itself up off the canvas. Finally, the government let the canard that we had the worst death rate in Europe run and run, when the dead per 100,000 was far greater in Spain, Italy, and Belgium. It was as if someone at the heart of government was following a manual on how to mismanage a crisis.

Many excuses are made for Johnson, such as that he would be a great prime minister when all is going well; but that is a little like saying that a man is the master of the road when he has a driverless car. Fighting for his party’s leadership, and more particularly in the campaign for last December’s election, he avoided scrutiny wherever possible. It was an election he was never going to lose — Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson saw to that — which made his avoidance of, for example, an interview with Andrew Neil all the more cowardly.

But had someone of Neil’s interrogative abilities put Johnson through the wringer, might the lack of application that has shone through during this crisis have been more apparent to the British public?

Those who knew Johnson from his life as a journalist, and as a Mayor of London who needed eight deputy mayors to do his job adequately, knew he lacked attention to detail, and had a modus vivendi of bluster and braggadocio designed to conceal the fact that he was lazy, selfish in the extreme and capable of a breathtaking lack of professionalism. Such people were told that none of this mattered because Johnson, in Downing Street, would surround himself with brilliant and capable people who could do his job for him.

It didn’t work out like that, and the pandemic only highlighted the absurdity of such a conceit. The British constitution does not allow for a puppet prime minister who acts as a figurehead while others do his job for him. It was not even as though the main substitute was accountable; the brilliant and capable person — allegedly — with whom Johnson surrounded himself was Dominic Cummings. Both were absent from Downing Street during the crisis because of illness — so bad in Johnson’s case that, we learn, doctors prepared to announce his death to the world. Ill, too, we now learn, was Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary; who, we also learn, has had an argument with Johnson about who actually implements to the anti-Covid programme. Johnson, inevitably, believes it is not he.

The British constitution does not allow for a puppet PM who acts as a figurehead while others do his job

It was while Johnson, Cummings and Sedwill were all ill that the full vacuity of an already exposed government was apparent to the public. Johnson deputed the foreign secretary, and first secretary of state, Dominic Raab, to act in his place, but gave him no authority to act. Raab is one of the brighter men in the cabinet but even he seemed out of his depth, not helped by other potential prime ministers engaging in a bitch-fight to maintain their profiles and ensure they were not sidelined.

Johnson’s cabinet is one of the least credible, experienced and capable ever to have held office. Cummings not only ensured that only the entirely compliant joined it, but also that they had as special advisers people whose first loyalty was to him and not to the minister they served. This especially undermined Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer. When he took his post, on the resignation of Sajid Javid, Sajid announced — quite reasonably — that no one could take on the job under the condition that Johnson, under instruction from Cummings, had sought to impose upon him: that he would accept as his special adviser whomever Cummings chose.

Sunak was thus diminished by his predecessor from the moment he accepted the job. This was a shame, because with his charisma and business background Sunak is a rare person of ability in the cabinet. And he has the statecraft to have become steadily more concerned about the drain on the Treasury the longer the lockdown has continued.

No minister can be said to have had a good war. Let us start with Johnson himself. Why was he absent from five Cobra meetings at the start of the crisis? When the public inquiry comes, as it must, it has to demand an answer to that question: for should warnings of a pandemic come again, it must be settled that no prime minister can go missing in action at such a crucial time. Michael Gove imitated his master’s bluster by claiming it was unnecessary for Johnson to have attended those meetings. That is self-evident nonsense, and someone of Gove’s intelligence should be ashamed of himself for insulting the public by saying so. Given what Johnson later claimed to be the gravity of the crisis, it was an appalling dereliction for him to take a 12-day holiday at Chevening, apparently — and versions of the real reason are legion — to try to manage uncomfortable aspects of his increasingly surreal private life.

It was during that absence in February that a lead was needed on the supply of personal protective equipment. Given the numbers of medical staff who have died in the pandemic, this is an especially shameful failing.

Why did Matthew Hancock, the increasingly posthumous-looking health secretary, take so long to act on the acquisition of PPE and testing equipment? What attempt was there at cabinet level to evaluate the respective submissions of scientists, before rubber-stamping them? The indication early on was that these people were dictating policy rather than merely advising.

Did the government intend it to seem like that, to deflect possible criticism? Or were they so uncomprehending of what was going on that they had no choice? There will be time enough to discuss the other burning question of the decision-making process — the ultra-statist response to the crisis so readily pursued, and who initiated it — during the long months of painful economic recovery that lie ahead. The government must prepare to defend its policy of taking the line of least resistance to “the science”, a policy taxpayers will be funding for some time to come.

The crisis, with its increasingly embarrassing evening briefings from Downing Street, showcased the inadequacies of Johnson’s team of yes-men. Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary — who by driving off for the weekend to his Herefordshire holiday home flouted the lockdown rules he so unctuously espoused, and escaped being sacked by a distracted, absent prime minister — announced the imminent arrival of protective equipment that had not even been ordered. If he, Grant Shapps and Priti Patel, between them resembling an end-of-the-pier trio well past whatever heyday they ever had, were the best the government could put forward to soothe the public, the remaining depths of talentlessness must be shocking.

It is little wonder that from people so amateur, led by a prime minister disorientated even before he was ill, the country had the series of conflicting messages before the lockdown review on 10 May that prompted loud newspaper headlines about liberation to be followed almost immediately by others, in the same papers, about the need for “caution”. Introducing that review, Johnson maintained his strategy of bluster and vagueness, prompting derision with his new slogan to “stay alert”: calls for clarity were simply ignored, not least because the government has no idea what clarity might be. As for Johnson’s promise to tackle the deaths in care homes, why did that take until seven weeks after lockdown, given the vulnerability of the elderly?

As his celebrated testing target was briefly met, and then failed to be met almost as swiftly, the health secretary started visibly to panic. He was already on the ropes for having left it so late to seek supplies of protective equipment, and to find a procurement expert who would find them for him. Lecturing Rosena Allin-Khan, a Labour shadow minister — who also happens to be a doctor — on her “tone” was a regrettably insulting and patronising turn of phrase. Hancock, once a professional greaser to George Osborne, shows increasing resentment towards any criticism, and, rather like Johnson, gives every impression of being tripped up by his own ambition.

Senior Tories believe the circus is increasingly being run by the civil service, with ministers increasingly relegated to befuddled bystanders. A public inquiry, which even some Tory MPs are saying has to happen, should be convened quickly and work round the clock, because one can never know when another such pandemic will arrive; or even just when the next peak of this one might hit us. Should any of that happen, all the lessons of spring 2020 must be clear and have been learned, not least because a further closure of the economy for months would be unfeasible and ruinous.

There also needs to be an unsentimental look at the National Health Service, the dedication of whose staff (and the heroism of some of them) is not in doubt. One message was clear, that the lockdown was to protect the NHS first and human life second. But it is also clear that the NHS is deeply in need of reform, not least in procurement; and that, given the enormous importance the NHS has assumed in the public’s regard — an importance cynically encouraged by the government — the Health Secretary must be a person of stature, with experience of dealing with the professional classes and a soviet-scale workforce, and possess a mind of his own. He should even have special advisers of his own.

It is the mark of a weak man to surround himself with the callow and the instinctively obedient

There are wider political considerations to be addressed. One is whether, since crises such as this can spring up without warning, it is ever sensible for a prime minister to pack a cabinet with people who so supinely agree with him and his all-powerful adviser, and who are so personally weak and motivated by ambition that they struggle to put the needs of the country before their own. Mrs Thatcher didn’t do this; nor Tony Blair; nor Harold Wilson; nor Churchill. It is the mark of a weak man to surround himself with the callow and the instinctively obedient; and when problems occur, such people lack the self-confidence and ability to tackle them. An early reshuffle is essential to improve public confidence.

Can a prime minister lack application, attention to detail, honesty, commitment and intellectual curiosity — the last an important quality, since it understands that he may not have a monopoly on wisdom and is interested in the views of his colleagues? The government, wallowing in its large majority, comes to resemble Lord Hailsham’s “elective dictatorship”. But at least when Hailsham made that criticism, cabinet ministers still carried some weight and were respected by a prime minister who was primus inter pares (a rare Latin phrase that seems to give Johnson some difficulty). Now they are just front-men and women for their departments; the real wielders of political power cannot be held to account and the prime minister in whose name they act tries as hard as he can not to be. He even started to avoid the chairman of the 1922 Committee, who wished to express the critical views of MPs to him.

Johnson’s diminishing band of cheerleaders have lost all sense of objectivity about him. As he began to indicate the end of lockdown, his knack of sowing confusion betrayed that he is probably not the man for this hour. That became apparent over a few days in early May. First, he bumbled and blustered in his initial outing at prime minister’s questions against Sir Keir Starmer, whose refreshingly dull and detail-packed approach, learned in a lifetime at the Bar, is likely to tax Johnson to an extreme at which he becomes highly vulnerable. His second session with Starmer, when he misled the House about care homes, was even worse: those who like the sight of blood should keep watching.

Too many of Johnson’s statements are vacuous and unrooted in fact; few suggest the application of a serious mind. He has learned in the most drastic way that governance is not like the Oxford Union; he is as much a victim as the rest of us of the sorry fact that this terrible crisis has come just as he enters Downing Street. It was not supposed to be like this. So long as he remains prime minister, it is likely that almost every difficulty the country faces in its attempts to return to something approaching “normal” will be traced back to his management, or mismanagement, of government in the crucial weeks between his departure to Chevening on “holiday” and the task of winding down lockdown.

In retrospect, though, those weeks may well come to be seen as the easy part. What may happen in the months ahead could, like the pandemic, tax even the finest statesmen. Instead, we have Boris Johnson. It could yet leave him needing a different type of intensive care, from which he might not emerge so happily as he did last time.

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