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Boris Johnson’s Britain: Uncertainty, empty words and repeated failures

Boris Johnson's attempts his whack-a-mole strategy for coronavirus. Illustration by Martin Rowson. - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE looks ahead to a summer of local lockdowns, recriminations and economic gloom.

The paradox at the heart of this week’s dismissal of Mark Sedwill as Whitehall’s Grand Vizier is that Dominic Cummings has scattered so much forensic evidence at the scene of the crime that it will likely seal his own fate in due course. Experienced senior officials simply have to allow this ‘career psychopath’ to trip up on his own cleverness (again) and make sure he takes the blame.

Who knows when or how this variation on Boris’s beloved whack-a-mole will come about? Perhaps this week’s undignified dither over the significant uptick in Covid-19 cases in Leicester and the necessity (disputed) to re-impose a local lockdown ahead of Saturday’s Stage 3 ‘Independence Day’ will be tracked-and-traced to Dom’s door. Or will Gavin Williamson’s implausible threat to fine parents who refuse to send their kids back to school when – and if – they reopen in September do the trick? Dom must have signed off on that bright idea too, unless the education secretary has a death wish all of his own.

With so much uncertainty surrounding the easing of restrictions – and epidemiologists’ fear of first wave resurgences, let alone a winter second wave – reorganising the inner machinery of Whitehall will strike many as an odd distraction at best. Especially at a time when ministerial rhetoric is emphasising the localisation of power and prosperity just as soon as Covid and Brexit permit. It’s not how they actually behave, is it, Matt Hancock and you, Robert Jenrick?

If the Great Re-Opening goes wrong Cummings knows better than anyone except the PM’s ex-wives and sweethearts that in a him-or-me moment he cannot rely on the loyalty of Boris (again). As for Michael Gove, forced by David Cameron to sack his turbulent special adviser in 2014, no one hoping to enjoy a ripe old age should put much faith in ‘Trust Me’ Govey. The ‘hard rain’ Cummings so recently predicted for fallible civil servants will drown him too. There will be no social distancing problems at his political funeral.

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For Brexit-focused TNE readers the important detail to emerge from Cummings’ latest drive-by shooting is that Johnson apparently hopes to have sovereign Britain’s EU trade deal tied up by September. Either that or talks will have broken down. It may simply be a bit of fantasy game theory, intended to put pressure on the 27 who will just shrug – if they notice at all. This week’s mood music from Angela Merkel is not encouraging: Britain will have to ‘bear the consequences’ of its decisions, she says.

Either way No.10’s timetable will allow his negotiator, David – soon to be Lord – Frost, to replace Sir Mark as national security adviser. Unlike Sedwill and other previous holders of this grandiose title, Frost is a political appointee, one with no relevant experience, as an angry Theresa May was moved to say. Now that haywire government policy is actively undermining national security it may not matter much. Sedwill is reportedly promised Boris’s backing (ho, ho) to become next secretary general of Nato in 2022. That is another fantasy scenario.

Prime minister Boris Johnson. Photograph: Toby Melville/PA Wire – Credit: PA

As Michel Barnier’s negotiating clock ticks away, Britain and the 27 have publicly flagged up willingness to show greater flexibility. So there may be some prospect of a pretty basic deal emerging before the Brexit transition ends on December 31, though Tony Blair’s friends in Brussels tell him otherwise. I saw a single paragraph, appended to a Sedwill story in Monday’s Times, suggesting UK concessions on enforcement procedures (including acceptance of retaliatory tariffs) for future breaches of level playing field agreements on trade, fishing and security.

Barnier and Lord Frosty met in Brussels for two hours on Monday, the first such face-to-face session since lockdown and the first of six planned by slimmed-down teams between now and August 17. Tuesday’s papers were devoid of diplomatic posturing by either side, let alone reports of possible progress. That may be a good sign that serious engagement may finally be under way behind firmly closed doors.

In our world of 24/7 media distraction, No.10 had already switched the rolling drumbeat of self-promotion towards Tuesday’s ‘build, build, build’ announcement by the PM. Not content with being the new Churchill, he now plans to be the new Franklin D. Roosevelt as well. On Tuesday’s he duly re-announced public spending on neglected or overdue infrastructure projects, those 40 hospitals, 50 schools, HS2, plus roads, homes, apprenticeships and much else. As usual, it is government by column, hasty back-of-envelope stuff. Oh yes, and it’s going to be green too.

Johnson’s promises are huge, the sums involved – £5 billion or so – relatively modest, not least when compared with the £300 billion bill which Covid-19 has already cost the Treasury. In any case the timing was spoiled by clashing with Sedwill’s sacking (‘we have agreed that I will leave’) and several days of confusion over what restrictions ministers planned to impose on Labour-controlled Leicester.

Its formidable elected mayor, the veteran ex-MP, Sir Peter Soulsby, called ‘cobbled together’. Hancock’s 9pm statement to MPs on Monday sounded too little, too late. Soulsby, who had been told in a 1am message, protested that he had flagged up the city’s apparent surge 11 days earlier and increased testing. Hancock says he knew that and had concluded that targeted local action hadn’t curbed the surge as it had done in Keighley and Weston-super-Mare. Doncaster next in line for renewed hibernation?

It’s wise to try and sympathise with ministers in a daunting situation which finds echoes in many countries and regions the world over. The mounting sense of crisis in the US – 4% of the world’s population, but 25% (125,000) of its Covid deaths – is painful to watch. Mostly southern states of the Texan ‘live free or die’ variety which re-opened too soon and too casually face resurgent outbreaks. It is not (as I wrongly wrote here last week) the second wave, it is – we hope – the last twitch of the first. Most pandemics return. Social distancing and track-and-trace testing is about dealing with the near-inevitable.

Conservative-minded scientists and their free market allies have argued throughout this pandemic that the lockdown strategy has been wrong and may kill more people through economic hardship. Isolating the old and vulnerable would have been better, they say. Most of the elderly dead would have died anyway.

That sounds a bit breezily Brexity to me, Swedish if you prefer. But I’m no expert. What I do know is that the Spanish flu of 1918-20 wasn’t actually Spanish in origin, but Spain was neutral in the First World War and so first reported what was hushed up elsewhere. It came back in August 1918 in a more savage form that killed the young and healthy in 24 hours.

The super-spreaders of 1918 were mostly soldiers in the closing drama on the Western Front, initially via American troops arriving for the last big push, because the first outbreak was detected in an army base in Kansas in March (don’t tell Donald Trump it was ‘Kansas flu’). Doctors thought they were dealing with a bacterial infection, not that they could have handled a viral one in those days. As Jeremy Hunt, the best Tory pandemic PM we haven’t got, said this week, recovery will be a ‘stop-go process until we find a vaccine’. If we find one, doctors added.

Meanwhile, we’re feeling our way in semi-darkness, albeit with much more light than in 1918. Those hedonistic crowds pouring on to Bournemouth beach, leaving behind over 50 tons of litter (including laughing gas canisters), upset the locals who now know what the residents of Majorca’s Magaluf and other Mediterranean tourist hotspots endure every year. The Greeks have just turned down Brits wanting to visit in July. Funny that they see us as potential spreaders, not the other way round.

But we are all learning, and bustling Bournemouth may serve a test case purpose. Will there be a traceable surge among those who rashly dashed to assorted seaside resorts on a boiling hot weekend, playing the role played by General Pershing’s ‘doughboys’ arriving in French and British ports in the summer of 1918? If not, does that mean it’s safe for the young and healthy to get on with their lives? Always provided they’re not poor, black and/or doing menial frontline work, you might add.

Simply to frame it that way is to underline how much is at stake here, the outlook as unsettled as summer’s weather forecast. In 1918 our medical ignorance allowed societies worldwide to carry on war-fighting. The human cost was great (up to 50 million dead, more than those killed in conflict) and ricocheted into the future because key peacemakers at Versailles, including Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson, were infected. But the damaged global economy kept going.

Nowadays we are so much richer and smarter, but also more risk-averse, less stoical in our willingness to endure hardship at a much lower level – for most of us – than people accepted then. Watching crowd-free Premier League football on TV (we can opt to switch off the canned cheering) or listening to how live performers – theatre and music face existential crises – can recapture versions of acoustic reality is both daunting and a reminder of how far we have come.

How might we have behaved in lockdown without Netflix or Zoom? The crowds outside Anfield when Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool FC finally clinched the Premier League, at the spontaneous raves in many towns and cities (some spontaneously organised by drugs gangs?), the beach crowds, they all point to pent-up energy rearing to go.

The Black Lives Matter protests highlight more troubling divisions, as do attacks on police officers trying to break up illegal parties. As with Brexit it is tempting to see the nation torn between the reckless and the ultra-cautious when most of us are somewhere in between.

The Johnson government manifests both tendencies in its distinctively chaotic way. Though Blair’s criticism was implied rather than stated in his Sunday Times interview (the one where he admitted never doing the lockdown cooking or cleaning the loo), half of his brain clearly itches to take charge again, though he sees our post-Covid economic prospects as ‘terrifying’. As one American pandemic veteran old the New York Times, ‘it’s not about closed vs open. It’s about how to open safer and how to do it carefully so we don’t have to close again’.

Yet here is Boris’s Britain, its Brexit and Covid strategies still clouded in uncertainty, its Downing Street nerve centre riven by self-inflicted division, opening up what promises to be a major new chapter in the nation’s history: Boris’s ‘Rooseveltian’ New Deal to re-ignite the economy after what he admitted in hard-pressed Dudley was a ‘vertiginous drop in GDP’. His language was as colourfully lurid as the Monday morning columns he used to dash off for the Telegraph, hyper-active as the scenery crashes around him.

But columns are not government and watching him only made me think of the UCL psychologists warning that everyone put into a Covid ICU – as ‘no cheese-paring’ Johnson was in April – should be tested for post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

Doesn’t New York-born Boris know that FDR is still loathed by American conservatives, which is why they lionise Churchill as a substitute? Doesn’t he know that free market British economists of the kind who backed Vote Leave still think the New Deal’s vast programmes of federal spending held back the US recovery from the Great Depression?

Or does he know, but not care that he is busily offending his suspicious Brexit faction who still worship at the altar of Thatcherism? More important, doesn’t Johnson know that the notional basis for adding to the prodigious borrowing imposed by the pandemic –on top of flagging growth before Wuhan’s first reported case – rests on current near-zero interest rates that can’t last? Certainly not for Britain which depends heavily on retaining credibility in the global financial markets to fund its debt.

Did anyone tell him that one analyst at a major US bank this week rated sterling as on a par with volatile emerging market currencies – specifically with the Mexican peso? ‘Flattening the currency sombrero,’ as columnist Boris might put it if Jeremy Corbyn were promising similar profligacy. Did anyone remind him that the London stock market is under-performing and household personal debt is soaring? Or that Britain’s notorious skills shortage will stop ‘build, build, build’ very quickly unless he imports workers? It’s not just a column.

The clue to the latest Johnsonian lurch can be found (it’s on the No.10 website) in a little-reported speech made to the Ditchley Foundation by Michael Gove on Saturday. Gove is capable of serious speech-making in ways than Joker Johnson is not, but is equally shameless. His hero is Edmund Burke, champion of life’s ‘little platoons’. Yet here he was extolling the most successful democratic exponent of big government.

Gove cited the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, to the effect that societies in transition suffer ‘morbid symptoms’ of social and economic dislocation, in the 1930s fascism and dictatorship. They occur because mainstream elites are judged to have neglected and failed the ‘forgotten man’ and woman. He rattled off the usual list of wars and mistakes, many of which he admitted supporting at the time, including the 2010 scrapping of Labour’s school building plans – now to be revived. Technology is wonderful, but also disruptive, Gove added.

What FDR did when faced with a similar challenge after 1932 was to ‘build from the bottom up’, to innovate restlessly – ‘flexible, adaptive, empirical,’ said Gove spouting pure-Cummings-ese. He also recruited a cross-party array of talented outsiders, ‘weirdos and misfits’ as Dom would put it – to experiment like crazy and jettison what doesn’t work. Out with mutually applauding, risk-averse ‘cosy consensus’ in London, in with ideas from people who live in Middlesbrough, Merthyr or Mansfield. If Govey has his way that will soon include senior civil servants relocated and engaged in ‘bold, restless experiments’.

I think we can all follow that. Indeed we have done, because most governments promise much the same and some even move the dial more than a bit. But hang on. Team Boris says civil servants move too often to acquire expertise in depth, but gives the NSA job to Lord Frost and eases out others whose faces don’t fit. Rule by special advisers is a recipe for ‘group think’ and ‘yes men’ replies Gus O’Donnell, a former cabinet secretary.

Scrap planning laws and regulations? So that Robert Jenrick’s pals and Tory donors can profit more at public expense? Move civil servants to ‘neglected’ cities like Newcastle when it already services most of the DWP? Make government closer to ordinary people when it persistently fails to consult the devolved administrations and bounces its version of local lockdown on Leicester’s competent local leaders, health specialist MPs Jon Ashworth and Liz Kendall as well as Soulsby? Diversity and bold experiment when ‘demolish, demolish, demolish’ Cummings rules No.10 by fear?

Talk about confusing messages to the voters, eh! Talk about ‘cultural condescension,’ as Gove did when the Brexit and Covid strategies have both been hampered by hand-shaking condescension and blithe optimism followed by U-turns.

They now include a promised crusade against obesity led by a man who weighed 17st 7lbs when admitted to hospital and who once championed poor people’s right to stuff themselves with pie and chips. At this rate he’ll soon be doing family values. They’re just words, aren’t they?

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