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We need a leader who does more than tilt at windmills

All alone: Boris Johnson's Churchillian pretensions have left Britain, and its leader, in a lonely place - Credit: Martin Rowson

As tighter lockdown looms, what does Donald Trump’s response to his coronavirus infection tell us about leadership in a crisis like this, his own and that of others stricken by illness at a crucial moment? How does it compare with Boris Johnson’s behaviour after he too succumbed as the pandemic took hold last spring? And why do they behave as they do?

It might be tempting simply to relish their discomfort – Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s too – as reckless populists who made light of the Covid-19 threat to millions of lives for reasons of political expediency, then succumbed to it despite their own sheltered bubbles. After all, it is barely a week since Trump (again) mocked masked Joe Biden’s caution during their ugly exchanges in Cleveland. The Democratic challenger didn’t need to underline the irony. The White House and Pentagon have become hotspots.

Even those acknowledged as great leaders sometimes behave recklessly and cover up their infirmities too. No photos were ever published showing how badly polio had affected president Franklin D Roosevelt (nor of his girlfriend either). In 1919 Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke which left his wife in charge. No one knew, as they did not know the extent to which glamorous John Kennedy depended on painkillers (and girlfriends) to ease his recurring back injury.

As for Boris’s hero, Winston Churchill was reckless with his health – pudding, brandy and cigars, not jogging, for him. He faced down fear by courting physical danger all his life. Up on the air ministry roof during the Blitz, he was keen to go up the beach on D-Day (aged 69) until the king forbade it. Heart attacks, pneumonia, strokes?  In 1941 and ’43 – less forgivably in 1953 – the PM’s parlous condition was kept a secret.

In a 1973 essay, penned when the wartime hero’s lustre was still untarnished by armchair revisionism, the psychiatrist, Anthony Storr, wrote that Churchill’s recurring depression – his “Black Dog” – was central to the character of a sensitive, bullied child, neglected by his parents, but determined to battle on. A more realistic politician might have sued for peace in 1940. Churchill, as he had often done in a turbulent career, found a glimmer of hope in the darkness and the right words – grave but optimistic, laced with grim humour – to command public assent most of the time.

I expect you can see where I am heading. Don’t get your hopes up. I detect little of FDR in president Trump’s shallow, narcissistic bombast, though both men tried to pack the Supreme Court. Not much of Churchill in Johnson’s uncertain rallying cry or strategic fumbling. Claiming to be as “fit as several butchers’ dogs” when he’s obviously not doesn’t quite cut it.

But at the weekend the Mail on Sunday carried the first extract from Tom Bower’s new biography of Johnson. The Gambler paints a savage portrait of his parents’ marriage, of physical assault, mental illness and a traumatic divorce which turned young Alexander Boris de Pfeffel (then 14) into an assertive loner. Unable to form strong bonds with men or stable ones with women, he became eager to make himself invincible. Do we detect an ambition to be “World King”?

Fraught childhoods are a common spur to high ambition, for good and ill. In her memoir, Too Much and Never Enough, Trump’s niece, Mary, offers a bleak glimpse of Fred Trump’s harsh treatment of his children which instilled in young Donald an amoral contempt for “losers” like his older brother, Fred III. Mary’s father died of drink and despair at 42 – alone in hospital while the future president went to the cinema. 

I don’t think Boris would have done that: the Johnson clan is close, despite everything, as were Churchill and his troubled brood. I think – as you probably do – that this PM lacks the courage and experience, the work ethic and high moral seriousness, ever to be more than a Poundland Churchill. He remains a joker, not an orator, a tactician, not a statesman. But I think his self-regarding biography of the old boy goes a long way to explain his gambler’s stance on Brexit. We can hear him saying “Very well, alone,” as David Low’s misleading cartoon did after France fell.

However misguided the comparison – British imperial wealth and military power was still immense in 1940 – BJ sees his negotiation with the EU27 as being in the British go-it-alone tradition of Splendid Isolation. Standing up to European bullying, refusing to appease like Theresa May – his Neville Chamberlain – he declares himself prepared to walk away from an unacceptable trade deal. That’s what Boris the Gambler told Ursula von der Leyen at their Zoom session on Saturday, their first such contact in three months.

So the talks have been extended beyond Michel Barnier’s declared deadline, as they will be beyond Boris’s own, the 27’s summit on October 15. The French reportedly face pressure to compromise on fish – symbolically, not economically, important on both sides. Lord (David) Frost has offered a three-year transition to the seven EU states which fish in UK waters – with ‘phased down’ catches. Is Emmanuel Macron politically strong enough to take the hit on the Le Pen-voting Channel coast? We’ll soon find out.

The level playing field on state aid can be fixed, arbitration that keeps the ECJ at bay too, though the EU’s widely-admired data regime (GDPR) remains difficult and much more important than patriotic fish. Alas, GDPR is world-class enough to be targeted by Dominic Cummings, the Whitehall arsonist and his rag-bag of very UnConservative weirdo advisers who so unsettle thoughtful Tories. Dom thinks he can do better.

But Dom is lying low, probably under orders since his unpunished Barnard Castle eye test dragged down the boss in Tory popularity stakes. Reality-TV star Trump’s self-dramas also help the EU trade negotiations because they distract media and public attention from increasingly secretive talks and draft texts. Not yet in the endgame ‘tunnel’ or ‘submarine’, but where we might expect to be when the posturing is put aside. A bad deal is better than no deal, as Mrs May almost said.

Boris told Andrew Marr that he wants a deal, but “we can more than live” without one. Does he really think that? It’s hard to say when a prime minister treats so much policymaking like writing his 1,100-word Telegraph column: how do I get through today? In the past week he’s promised technical education for all who want it (excellent), help to young people on the property ladder by lifting post-2008 restrictions on 95% mortgages (foolishly wrong), a vaccine for us all by Easter (yeah, right). Or is it just the most vulnerable 50%? Crikey, we’ll get back to you.

But promises to build a post-Covid New Jerusalem is so much hot air without serious planning and expertise. Dido Harding is a clever woman, but no William Beveridge, author of the post-war welfare state. So putting a Tory pal and MP’s wife in charge of test-and-tracing, now the revamped Public Health England too, was asking for trouble. She’s a classic Oxford generalist – PPE, not PHE – who presided over a spectacular data hack when she ran the TalkTalk telecoms business.

No wonder then that Matt Hancock took a Commons beating over that 16,000 loss of positive test results, so that their 50,000 contacts were not traced in time to isolate and the Covid-19 spike under-estimated. Some test results being sent to PHE from lighthouse labs – a much-criticised, public/private hybrid rapidly created since April – failed because they exceeded the maximum file size. A basic error made more likely when using off-the-shelf commercial software, say medical IT experts. On Wednesday Roche warned of a major drop in processing capacity, in swabs and testing equipment, because of problems at its new automated warehouse. Cock-ups are normal in life – wartime Americans called them SNAFUs – and can be overcome if there is competence and confidence in the leadership. Johnson is trying to do too much – and badly.

On Tuesday the tottering World King pledged to make Britain “the Saudi Arabia of wind power’,’ enough renewable wind energy – solar, even hydrogen too – to light every home by 2030. World-beating too, wouldn’t you know? Before 1914 Britain actually was the Saudi Arabia of coal – exporting worldwide. Does he know that? No. Is his admirable goal realistic? No and it will be even less so if Holyrood (“It’s Scotland’s wind”) secedes. 

Talk of “floating windmills” and “the wind that puffed the sails of Drake and Raleigh” do not plug the credibility gap. Churchill better balanced hope with realism when he famously declared Britain’s first land victory of the war – at Alamein in 1942 – to be not the end, or even the beginning of it, but possibly “the end of the beginning”. He did not over-promise or gloss over past disasters.

I realise – though it’s easy to forget – that this has been Tory conference week, so Poundland hot air must be expected.  Priti Patel has not been idle either. Undeterred by widespread mockery of her discussions to offshore detention centres to Ascension Island or Africa or set up wave-making machines to sink smugglers’ dinghies in the Channel (“the lunatics have taken over the asylum policy” joked cartoonist Newman), the home secretary promised party activists a “fair borders bill.”

I’m not against reform of what is clearly a broken UK asylum system, part of a wider EU failure which has just produced another divisive, unworkable blueprint in response to global migration movements beyond our control. False claims are lodged and the current system gamed with the help of “activist lawyers” (is Suella Braverman one too?) to reduce lawful expulsions to a costly trickle. Do I trust Patel’s competence or honesty to deliver such a reform? 

Not much. Allegations of bullying, cronyism (that charge was levelled against Churchill too), contracts awarded to incompetent suppliers, unsuitable Dido-ish appointments (Charles Moore has pulled out at the BBC despite negotiating a 300% chairman’s pay rise), they all leave a distinctive Boris Odour hanging over SW1.

The wholesome exception, of course, is chancellor (“as the prime minister said”) Sunak, the cabinet’s Boy Scout. Sunak is not averse to promising the impossible either, to put “the overwhelming might of the British state” (duh?) behind the pandemic battle while also promising – equally vaguely – to balance the books. But all chancellors say things like that and it usually suits markets – which lend them the difference – to pretend to believe it. The “spend, spend, spend” IMF spurs them on.

More urgent a credibility challenge in Boris’ “bumpy, bumpy” autumn is political: how much locked-down, disaffected voters in Darwen and Darlington believe the government is being fair to them. The suspicion is growing that evolving lockdown policy – oh, the irony – is still geared too much to London’s needs. True or false, it is claimed that Tory constituencies (and Sunak’s own in Richmond) are being exempt while poorer neighbours suffer loss of liberty and employment. Universal credit of £300 a month is not much for gig workers to live on. The poor and young suffer most. Free the young to acquire herd immunity, say 4,000 global scientists.

Risky stuff. But northern mayors and health chiefs echo such concerns and – like chippy Marseilles – proclaim disobedience. Hence this week’s Tory anger towards Hancock for the still-flailing Test and Trace system, which Jeremy Hunt wants localised, and towards what ‘libertarian’ Tories regard as repressive and ineffectual restrictions. It is not outright Trump-and-David-Icke denial, but still a potent brew.

With his hands quite full enough doing the day job, young Rishi is also emotionally smart enough – as Gordon Brown was painfully not – to hide whatever ambition he has – with an 81% activist approval rating, quite a lot? – behind extravagant flattery of BJ’s calm and hope-inspiring leadership (sic). Listening to his unhesitating, nerdy fluency, no jokes but no bluster either, is credibly reassuring. He even claimed “the cabinet is not a collection of robots” – certainly a porkie.

Unlike William Hague and Ed Miliband, too eager for their own good, Sunak (40) knows he has plenty of time. He could safely let some other mug (Hunt?) clear up the Brexit-Covid wreckage if Johnson goes next year. But Tory pundits are finally talking about the succession – in print as well as private. If this week’s conference had been the flesh and blood kind who knows what a tepid reception the activists’ fallen rock star might have got.

Organising an orderly succession is one of the hardest challenges of statecraft. As we admiringly mark the 30th anniversary of peaceful German reunification this week we should note that it is a task that has defeated even Angela Merkel. Along with Canada’s Justin Trudeau the calm but cautious German chancellor emerged as the world’s most admired leader in the latest 13-nation Pew Research Centre survey. 

Yet her anointed successor as CDU leader – do you faintly remember AKK? – floundered and wannabe alternatives have failed to inspire. Should we prepare for a lurch to the right under Bavaria’s Markus Soder? It would not make life easier for post-Brexit Britain to have a similarly-minded populist in power. Merkel disappointed David Cameron when he needed pre-referendum help and has more problems than most envious Brits realise. But reunited Germany has not justified Margaret Thatcher’s pre-unification fears of a vengeful state. Another Thatcher legacy error.

Berlin’s devolved government structure also handled the pandemic crisis with unboastful competence, a key determinant in the Pew survey findings which marked faith in the US and UK sharply down – unlike other developed economies leaders. Which takes us back to Trump’s Covid crisis and leadership – or his parody of it which delighted fans outside the soon-to-close Walter Reed Military Medical Centre in suburban Washington – but horrified many Americans.

Would a real leader boastfully mark his own homework thus: “Nobody that’s a leader would not do what I did” when what he had done was shameful and selfish in most respects? From the Rose Garden’s super-spreader ceremony to ignore Justice Ginsburg’s dying wish to the public fundraiser he attended after knowing he had tested positive and had medical lies spun on live TV to cover the seriousness of the attack, this has been a tawdry spectacle. It makes suspended SNP MP “Typhoid Maggie” Ferrier’s round trip to Westminster look quite responsible. Trump could have used his misfortune to recalibrate his cavalier attitude to the pandemic. To his credit, Boris Johnson did, after enduring a much more serious attack than the president has suffered (so far). Instead POTUS endangered medical staff and secret servicemen by parading outside Walter Reed in his limo, then flew back to the White House – a five minute trip – to declare himself well (“now I’m better and maybe I’m immune”) and, unmasked, belittle the threat again. “Don’t let it dominate you.” The warrior draft dodger’s breathlessness suggested a different story.

Polls suggest this pantomime isn’t doing Trump much good beyond the base. Biden ignores Johnsonian attempts to lure him into culture war fights and (like Keir Starmer) sticks to the economy and Covid health care, issues which most concern voters who don’t get access to the Walter Reed or VIP drugs.

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