There is a common pattern to Mr Johnson’s governance. What was clear in his approach to the referendum is now revealed as his modus operandi. It starts with an ill-thought-out policy, presented with a flurry of insouciant optimism. For example, the ludicrous claim that ‘frictionless trade with the EU would continue after Brexit,’ or having dilly-dallied on lockdown that the UK would have a ‘world-beating track and trace system by 1st June,’ and on A-level results the insistence that the system was ‘robust and the fairest way of ensuring kids all get fair marks.’ Once the policy’s shortcomings are revealed, the first instinct is to bluff and refuse to apologise. Only when this position becomes untenable will the government U-turn while simultaneously attempting to shift the blame.
Thus, the government would have us believe that: the Brexit deadlock is all the fault of the EU; the track and trace debacle emanates from Public Health England; and the A-level fiasco resides with Ofqual. True to form the government ignored expert warnings regarding its Covid tracking and the A-level algorithm before reluctantly being forced into inevitable U-turns. The fact that PHE is the only bit of the health service directly under the government’s control has been concealed in a welter of disingenuous bluster and the discriminatory nature of the A-level algorithm had been clear for many days if not weeks. There appears no limit to the number of times government ministers will claim officials ate their homework.
Close observers of Mr Johnson, even amongst Tory loyalists, never had high expectations regarding his fitness to govern. They had observed his lack of integrity, his struggle with detail and distain for hard work, but naively, they consoled themselves with the belief that he would honour his word and surround himself with high calibre advisers. We now know that Mr Johnson’s ‘high calibre advisers’ consists primarily of one man: the ruthless and bizarre Dominic Cummings. Mr Cummings’ is a self-confessed wrecker, a believer in provoking emotions and divisions as well as a dispenser of half-truths rather than facts. Mr Cummings’ avowed contempt for MPs, civil servants and many other British traditions e.g. the BBC, imparts unease if not something more sinister to his slogan ‘take back control.’ Perhaps most alarming is the uncertainty regarding the extent of the unelected Svengali’s control over an incompetent Mr Johnson. Only too well aware of Mr Johnson’s penchant for gaffes and provocative quotes, is it Mr Cummings’ that has limited the PM’s public appearances to Kim Jon-un alike, staged photo opportunities?
Despite claiming to dislike ‘big bureaucracies’ Mr Cummings’ is currently driving a massive centralisation of government while moulding a Mr Johnson autocracy. The PM’s mode of governance is based on terrifying critics, be they Tory MPs or civil servants, into obsequious silence. Having brutally removed higher calibre ministers for the ‘insubordinate’ crime of wanting to soften the damage of Brexit, we now have a second-tier cabinet lacking intellect and experience; with the possible exception of Rishi Sunak. The peevish decision to strip Julian Lewis of the Conservative whip for daring to stand against and beat the very second rate but Downing Street approved Chris Grayling for chair of the independent, intelligence and security committee amounts to intolerance typical of one-party states.
Studies suggest that many older voters were beguiled by Mr Johnson’s claim that Brexit would restore the UK to former ‘glories’ but I doubt many had in mind a rapid return to the 1960’s epithet ‘the sick man of Europe’. Coming hot on the heels of it revealing that England has had the highest number of Covid excessive deaths in Europe, the ONS released data showing that the UK economy suffered a bigger slump than any other major European economy in the second quarter, shrinking by a fifth and falling into its deepest recession on record. The government imposed the lockdown late partly in an attempt to protect the economy, but in the event, it has achieved the worst of both worlds.
The UK compares especially badly with Germany, where GDP fell 11.9 per cent over the first half of the year and where economic recovery is well under way whereas in the UK reputable economists, drawing on the falls in employment and investment, expect recovery to be spread over 3-4 years. This gloomy outlook comes on top of many years where output per person, per hour in the UK has lagged behind that of comparable EU members. This disgraceful situation largely accounts for the stagnation since 2008 in real, household incomes. Reversing this trend, alongside conquering Covid-19, is now the UK’s major challenge. As a responsible chancellor, Rishi Sunak should be warning that in the face of the colossal damage that is being done to employment and incomes by Covid-19, countenance of the economic set-back inherent in leaving the EU at the end of the year, even with a second-rate trade deal, is inexplicable.
To press on with Brexit in the knowledge that the outcome will be even greater hardship for low income families, is not only crass and heartless but also a monumental failure of governance. Despite the lies and distortion, prior to Covid-19 it was possible to argue that in electing Mr Johnson people had voted to ‘get Brexit done’ regardless of the inevitable economic disruption. But Covid-19 has delivered undreamt of economic disruption and Mr Sunak’s pledge to do ‘whatever it takes’ to support household incomes does not sit easily with inactions that will compound the economic hardships for many.
Economic damage aside, Brexit threatens to exacerbate the widespread dissatisfaction with the functioning of British democracy. As with much of Mr Johnson’s the rhetoric, his claim to be dedicated to ‘levelling up’ will by his stubbornness turn out to be the opposite i.e. further levelling down. No doubt Mr Johnson’s obstinacy is motivated by the desire to avoid the embarrassment of a massive U-turn; but then U-turns are the defining characteristic of his government. A statesman would not hesitate.