The events of the summer have exposed how ill-suited the prime minister is for the task that lies ahead, says JAMES BALL.
Among the flurry of questions given as part of the cognitive tests used to determine whether or not someone has dementia is one that usually should be straightforward to answer: who is the current prime minister?
That question was surely markedly more difficult than its designers intended this summer, as throughout a series of crises that would typically see a PM dominating the airways he was absolutely nowhere to be seen.
We had a summer beset with refugees drowning in the Channel, on their desperate journey to a better life. We had a rolling scandal around the conduct of housing minister Robert Jenrick. We have just four months left to avoid or mitigate a catastrophic no-deal Brexit. We have seen a nation’s 18-year-olds devastated by a shambolic attempt to grade their imaginary exam results. We are trying to endure the biggest recession that any of us have lived through. And, lest we forget, we remain in the middle of a worldwide and deadly coronavirus pandemic.
Throughout all of this we neither saw nor heard more than the barest of minimums from our prime minister Boris Johnson – for it is still he.
The issue was not that the prime minister took a cottage and/or camping holiday in the Scottish Highlands – everyone needs and deserves a holiday – but rather that it made no apparent difference to either his visibility or involvement in the affairs of the British state.
Perhaps most disheartening was that the one time Johnson did manage to pitch up after his summer of silence it wasn’t to address any one of the very real crises besetting the real lives of millions of people – instead it was to give a Trumpian soundbite on a concocted row around the Last Night of the Proms.
With this Macavityish performance – causing mischief at the sidelines, but never there when there’s a reckoning – Johnson is confirming the worst fears of both his critics and those on his own side.
These were that he was a man with little interest in or aptitude for actual governance, but was someone more interested in media rows, photo ops and legacy projects – and so someone woefully unsuited to be a leader in a crisis… or crises.
Even Johnson’s ministers, speaking off-the-record even though not strictly criticising him, say he prefers to act as a ‘chairman’ of the government, hands-off from the individual issues unless he needs to step in.
Much the same was said of David Cameron – whose inglorious exit from Number 10 may have seen him reconsider the approach – but his successor-but-one seems even less inclined to actually step in and grasp any one of the numerous issues on which his government seems to be aimlessly flailing.
Even as his party’s headline polling just about holds steady (albeit with some showing a tightening lead over Labour), the general public’s perception of the government’s competence is through the floor, as are Johnson’s own personal ratings on almost every measure going.
The nation is getting the impression that the prime minister is both not up to the job and not interested in doing it – whether as a result of a slower-than-signalled recovery from his Covid-19 infection, his natural temperament, or a result of his choice to pick battles on too many grounds, Johnson seems a man overwhelmed.
This should be especially alarming to us as we have no reason to expect the next few months to be calmer than the ones through which we have just come. In fact, every single factor points at them being worse.
The first barrier with which Johnson will have to contend is the return to school. This would be a difficult task for a government and an education secretary at the top of their game working with no distractions. Instead, Gavin Williamson is still reeling his way through the aftermath of an A-levels fiasco of his own making, which will itself still take months to clear up thanks to its knock-on effects on universities.
The return of classes will require effective checks on schools’ precautions, alignment on best practices (such as whether students should wear masks in the classroom, for example), a plan on how strictly to enforce attendance on parents wishing to keep their children at home, and constant vigilance over whether schools are affecting both the overall R-number or localised outbreaks.
Ideally, such a huge and delicate operation would be extensively planned and communicated in advance: we should all know the exact plan by now. It would hopefully be accompanied by plans to reassure the public that once schools are open they could be kept open – given the UK’s R-number is hovering perilously close to one, are there plans in place to increase distancing or shutdowns in other sectors to keep them open? Has anyone even thought about this?
On that alone, the prime minister should be visibly leading the operation both inside and outside of Whitehall. But just as the schools come back, the government’s support for furloughed workers goes away – on October 31. This means that we should expect some dire headlines on job losses throughout October, given the government has taken a hard line that it will not extend the scheme.
And then, to paraphrase a once-popular television show, winter will have come. Outdoor dining, drinking and socialising is one thing in August and quite another in November, meaning many of us will be tempted to crowd back indoors for a pint or a pie – possibly trying to shut the doors and windows because of the cold.
That will be accompanied by the usual rise of strains on the NHS that come every winter, and which usually see it operate at close to 97% capacity even in a normal year.
We can hope social distancing and hand washing will mean a mild flu season, but we soon face the prospect of needing to test millions of cold, flu and Covid patients at once to check which of the three they have.
It will take fewer cases in winter than during spring to overwhelm the NHS – and the government will have spent autumn systematically dismantling its support networks for shut down businesses.
Johnson could soon face new and worse acute phases of both his rolling health and economic crises, at the same time.
As ever, the cherry on a cake that absolutely no-one would want to eat is the spectre of no-deal Brexit – preparations for which clearly overwhelmed the civil service even before they were also dealing with coronavirus.
This time there is almost no scope for last-minute extensions or transitions – if Johnson doesn’t secure a deal within the next month or two (while dealing with everything else) we will have a supply-side crisis, shortages on shelves (again) and chaos at the border right in the midst of those other crises.
The stakes in the coming months could not possibly be higher. But what it requires is everything Boris Johnson notoriously dislikes: it is all about execution, about practical realities, and about methodical work. There is no photo opportunity or clever zinger that will manage any of these problems away.
Even Brexit, his favourite of those issues, is about to move to a new phase: as things stand, in four months’ time, the ‘doubters, doomsters and gloomsters’ will not have to predict bad things and Johnson will not be able to shrug them off. We will simply be able to look out of our windows, onto our roads, into our ports – and at our supermarket shelves.
The fear is that the prime minister won’t just try valiantly to tackle each of the tasks ahead of him and fail. It’s that, faced with this onslaught of everything he dislikes about being prime minister, he’ll just play Macavity once again, pop up once or twice a month where it’s obligatory, and otherwise leave us with nothing but a void.
Whenever there is trouble, then… the prime minister’s not there.