ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on ministers’ mishandling of both Brexit and coronavirus.
There is a new word doing the rounds in Whitehall. Brovid. It must of course be whispered, not shouted, lest word gets back to the Gove-Cummings axis that it is being uttered at all, for to be heard using the word in polite company would be to signal a certain level of doubt about the efficiency of the Johnson regime.
From what I’ve seen, it seems as though Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings are allowed to know, and mutually bemoan, their nominal leader’s unfitness for the top job, but for all beneath them, there must be Omertà. There must be polite nodding whenever anyone says how well Priti Patel is doing as home secretary, or that David Frost is as brilliant a Brexit negotiator as his genuinely brilliant sadly departed namesake was a TV interviewer. There can on no account be any questioning of two central realities which must at all times be felt so as to be properly understood: 1.) Brexit is going well. 2.) Covid is under control thanks to the excellent, nay, world class, work of the ministers in charge.
Brovid brings the two neatly together. It unites them in a morale-sapping reality for all in the employ of HMG – that the government is wholly consumed by one problem entirely of its own making – a Brexit secured and sold on promises that, guess what, turned out to be unfulfillable – and a second problem not of its making, the global pandemic, but the handling of which has created a succession of disasters entirely of their making.
With the possible exception of the Nightingale hospital construction, the furlough scheme (though we will see whether the warm glow lasts as recession bites and unemployment rises) and the eat out to help out scheme (though I fail to see how a restaurant mini boom does not help drive up the infection rate) it is hard to think of any aspect of the government’s Covid handling that justifies the Johnson boast of ‘apparent success’.
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Speed (or rather, lack of speed) of reaction; PPE; tests; care homes; clarity of messaging; death rates. In my view these just the highlights of a catalogue of failures.
As for Brexit, even its high priests have given up singing its praises. I cannot for the life of me remember the last time I heard anyone saying how great it was going to be for the country. It has taken on the feel of a trip to the dentist, or filling in your tax form. Just got to be done.
Those who utter the Brovid word as they work away trying to make sense of nonsense, do so out of frustration that the government for which they work appears unable to focus on anything but Brexit and Covid, yet is mind-blowingly useless at dealing with both.
This is not exactly a recipe for high morale. Governments which have clear and compelling priorities that can be counted on a thumb and a finger ought to be more efficient and more effective. The opposite effect seems to have been created by the Johnson regime.
If things were going well, there would be no need to whisper the B-word. ‘This is the Brovid government,’ Johnson and his ministerial choir could sing in unison. ‘Brexit – such an evident triumph, trade deals galore, no threat to business, the smooth movement of goods guaranteed, an end to red tape, no risk of borders with Northern Ireland, the EU falling over backwards to give us what we want because they need us more than we need them, we hold all the cards, we have our cake and we are eating it… the doubters are all being proven wrong. Covid – the fastest response, the lowest excess death rates, the fastest to get back to normal. We have shown the world how it’s done.’
Even they, fond though they are of pushing their boasts to the absolute limit of the credibility frontiers and beyond, don’t quite have the nerve for that one. And while there are some among the public, and plenty in the slavish media, willing to buy any bulls**t they peddle, the civil service are seeing the realities of ministerial failings on both of these challenges day in, day out. They have made a total mess of Brexit. They have made a total mess of Covid.
So Brovid, far from being a badge of honour, is an expression of the near paralysis that the twin failures have inflicted on the government machine. All the time, all the energy, all the bandwidth, all the money available to government, it’s all going on Brovid.
Taken chronologically, Brovid puts the two constituent parts in the right order. Both are historic events and Brexit, thought not yet ‘done’, came first, as a word shortly before the referendum of June 23, 2016, thereafter as a political reality that quickly gained near universal global recognition.
In no time at all, Brexit replaced Bobby Charlton, David Beckham, the BBC and the Beatles as the first B-sounding entity to form the basis of any conversation with foreigners who realised they were talking to a Brit. But whereas Bobby, Becks, the Beeb and the Beatles were usually accompanied by a smile and a raised thumb, ‘Brexit’ gets a shrugged shoulder and a pained grimace that poses the question: ‘What the hell is happening to your country?’
Covid is a relative newcomer to the global vocabulary but has established itself even more quickly than Brexit did. Indeed, not that many months ago we were as blissfully unaware of Covid as, half a decade ago, we were of Brexit. And how much better was the country and the world without both! But though I salute my former civil service friends and colleagues for seeking to encapsulate the government in a word, I am not sure Brovid quite does it. Brovid is actually quite a nice sounding word. It makes me think of Bovril, and watching football in the winter as a child. Also, ‘Bro’ means brother and that gives Brovid a sense of solidarity that I understand few civil servants to genuinely feel.
Bro also has a slight resonance of Boris, the name by which Johnson prefers to be known because it suggests he is, as per the spin, of the people. So I suggest overlooking the historical order of events and instead reversing them so that this becomes known as the Coxit government.
Coxit because whether we are talking Covid or Brexit, it seems to me as though they are cocking up on both. Whatever they touch, you can trust the Johnson government to Coxit up.
From what I have seen, there have been half a dozen Covid-related trade contracts already which, in my view, had they been under a Labour government, would have had parliament and the National Audit Office up in arms: the 50 million face masks bought as part of a £252 million contract – following an initial approach to the government by an adviser to Liz Truss who also advises the supplier – which turned out to be unsuitable for use in the NHS; a £32m deal with a pest control firm to supply surgical gowns, over which compliance issues have been raised; an £108m contract for the supply of PPE to a wholesaler of sweets, seemingly without any advertising or competitive tendering process; and an £840,000 contract to research public opinion about government policies to a company owned by long-term associates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings, again without apparently putting the work out for tender.
Yet the country seems almost becalmed by it all. That won’t, surely, last. Or if it does, we really are screwed, and en route to becoming a banana republic with no bananas.
Some time in the not too distant future it is going to become as clear as daylight that this government faced two big challenges, and failed on both. It might take the reality of the looming Brexit chaos for the country to become fully aware of just how badly Covid has gone too. In preparation for when that day happens, let battle commence as to whether we call it the Brovid government, or the Coxit government. Either way, there has never been so big a mismatch between the scale of challenge, and the competence of the people charged with meeting those challenges.