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At Christmastime last year, the only cloud on Boris Johnson’s horizon was how he was going to pay for a winter break with Carrie on Mustique. The answer, rather typically, was that someone else would pick up the tab. The opposition later raised a complaint, but few Tories begrudged their leader his getaway in the Caribbean. He had just delivered a “stonking” election victory, their best since Margaret Thatcher was at her zenith. He was, in the words of one senior Tory, “lord of all he surveys”. Celebratory Christmas receptions at Number 10 were pungent with the scent of hubris.
Being a student of the classics, the prime minister should have known that the gods will punish arrogance. Nemesis came in the shape of an invisible microbe. The pandemic has tested the mettle of leaders around the planet, but among the mature democracies few were as singularly ill-equipped to handle a crisis of this nature and magnitude as Britain’s prime minister. He has looked good only when benchmarked against Donald Trump.
The coronavirus crisis could not have been more cunningly engineered to expose Mr Johnson’s flaws. He was made prime minister not because anyone thought that he was a cool and decisive head with the leadership skills and moral seriousness required to handle the gravest public health emergency in a century. He was put there because he was a successful representative of the entertainer branch of populist leadership that prospered in the pre-virus era. “We elected him to be a ‘good times’ prime minister,” comments one senior Tory. “His curse is to be prime minister in bad times.”
Few of his strengths as a politician have been of much utility in this emergency. All of his weaknesses have been searingly exposed. A man who spent his career ducking responsibility was suddenly confronted with a challenge that could not be run from, though that didn’t stop him vanishing at the outset when he went missing from critical meetings. In the coronavirus, he met an opponent impervious to glib slogans and empty promises. Here was a disease posing hideous and inescapable dilemmas that confounded the “have your cake and eat it” philosophy by which he had lived his life.
Not that he didn’t try to do that anyway. At the time of the first national lockdown, when one of many “lives versus livelihoods” arguments was boiling within government, I attempted to discover which side the prime minister was taking. One witness to these internal debates told me: “Boris being Boris, he wants to end all the restrictions and get the economy fired up again without a single life lost. He can’t have that, of course.”
The wrong criticism of his performance is to say that he has made mistakes. Confronted with a novel disease for which the country was unprepared, any prime minister would have made errors. The correct criticism is that he has failed to learn from his mistakes and egregiously repeated them. There is a pattern from the prevarication over ordering the first lockdown, to the bout of indecision over the second, to last night’s sudden cancellation of Christmas relaxations and imposition of a Yuletide lockdown on London and the southeast.
The pattern is one of resisting taking the necessary steps at the time when they would have been most effective and then being compelled to implement them late and with more damaging effect. Even Tories concede that their government’s record is at the bottom end of the international league table. Britain has suffered the double-whammy of having one of the highest death levels per million of population while enduring the most severe hit to the economy among the G7 club of prosperous states. One former Tory cabinet minister remarks: “There’s bound to be a public inquiry. We will be held to account for the fact that our deaths are higher and our recession is deeper.” This senior Conservative adds the coda: “Boris will tell the inquiry that he was chairman of the board and it was his people who failed him.”
That sounds right. From supply failures of essential equipment to the summer exams debacle to the care homes scandal, another pattern of the crisis has been attempts to swerve culpability for all the things that have gone wrong by blaming anyone else but ministers. Power without responsibility has been their credo. Six senior civil servants, among them the cabinet secretary, have been sacked or pushed out this year. Not a single minister has resigned. Yet few dispute that Mr Johnson appointed one of the weakest cabinets in modern history. Given his lack of dedication to detail and the hard grind of delivering competent government, he needed a capable cabinet. Feebly fearful of having any substantial figures around the top table who might challenge him, he instead surrounded himself with a cabinet characterised by Tory MPs as “lightweight”, “talentless”, “loyalist duds” and “nodding dogs”.
The only explanation for the extraordinary survival of the serially blundering Gavin Williamson as education secretary is that he exists so that the rest of them can say: “Well, at least no one can call me the most useless member of the cabinet.” Another persistent pattern during this plague year has been to over-promise and under-deliver. We were going to have a “fantastic” this and a “world-beating” that and a “moon-shot” the other. We would have settled for a test, trace and isolate programme that worked. This was accompanied by a compulsion to claim the virus was about to be beaten. Way back in mid-March, he breezily proclaimed that “we can send coronavirus packing” before suggesting “we can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks”.
Optimism can be a positive trait in a politician, but wishful thinking is a fatal characteristic in an epidemic. So is deceptive messaging to the public. In the summer, Mr Johnson foolishly tied himself to a guarantee that Britain would enjoy a “significant return to normality” by Christmas, a promise that his scientific advisers conspicuously declined to endorse at the time and which was dramatically proved completely false last night. That misjudgment, like all the other ones, flows from his personality. Just below the surface of his performative face lurks an insecure character who trusts no one and yearns to be loved by everyone. He hates being the bearer of bad news and tough choices. One of the many women in his life, Petronella Wyatt, once excused his mendacity on the grounds that “he will do anything to avoid an argument, which leads to a degree of duplicity”.
Yet the successful handling of this crisis demanded a capacity to confront people with things they wouldn’t want to hear and sufficient reserves of trust to persuade them to act in ways they’d rather not. His most effective personal performance was in the video he released after his own self-described mugging by the virus when he paid tribute to the NHS as “the beating heart” of the nation. Even then he failed to start a proper conversation with either his party or the country about the tradeoffs involved in getting through this kind of emergency. Though he became prime minister because his party rated him as their best communicator, he has persistently struggled to find the right tone when addressing the nation.
Anyone familiar with his biography knows he is a libertarian Tory who used to earn a living as a columnist by fulminating against the “nanny state”. In some ways, this has served him well. It has been obvious that he has imposed curbs on behaviour with extreme reluctance. This has not stopped rightwing Tories from railing against restrictions, but it probably meant that he got less pushback from the public than a Labour prime minister might have done. Yet there has been a profound problem with a prime minister who never gives the impression that he fully believes in his guidance to the nation. Even when he has life-preserving advice to dispense, he hasn’t been able to shake the habit of trying to disguise grave tidings in comedic gift wrap. Remember “squashing the sombrero” or “Operation Last Gasp”? Now, it is the invocation to “have yourself a merry little Christmas”.
With his party disenchanted and voters disapproving, this Yuletide won’t be accompanied by hubristic partying at Number 10. The prime minister’s hopes of a revival of his reputation in 2021 now rest on a successful vaccination programme. “In the new year,” says one senior Tory, “we will need bouncy old Boris back to cheer us up that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
The light will have to be exceedingly bright to wipe away all the memories of how long and dark, stumbling and flailing has been the nation’s journey through the tunnel.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: With his sudden U-turn over Christmas, Boris Johnson caps a year of debacles | Boris Johnson