Boris Johnson is one of the worst Covid leaders on the planet, says ALASTAIR CAMPBELL, Here ten ways the government has failed the country are laid bare.
A reminder of the 10-point guide to crisis management that I set out, almost three months ago, when Boris Johnson was assuring us that we should trust him and his government to ‘squash the sombrero’ and ‘send the virus packing’.
1. Devise, execute but also narrate clear strategy.
2. Show strong, clear, consistent leadership.
3. Organise from the centre of government.
4. Throw everything at it.
5. Use experts well.
6. Deploy a strong team.
7. Make the big moments count.
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8. Take the public with you.
9. Show genuine empathy for people affected by the crisis.
10. Give hope, but not false hope.
You really do have to be very, very bad at your job to get zero out of 10. That, however, is how I would score Boris Johnson, and even admitting my bias against him, he reminds of the old football joke: ‘We played so badly we were lucky to get nil.’
To go through them, one by one.
1. Strategy – What is it? What has it been? First, it was a kind of weird British exceptionalism; then libertarianism; then herd immunity; then lockdown without it ever really being lockdown; then partial easing pretending it was led by the science; now they have given up even pretending.
2. Leadership – even before he was ill, Johnson was the least visible of the leaders of the major countries of the world, with the possible exception of Vladimir Putin, and since his return he has devoted more energy to saving Dominic Cummings than defeating Covid. Donald Trump has failed on most of the 10 points too, but at least he doesn’t hide away the whole time.
3. Strong centre – austerity, Brexit, the steady undermining of the civil service, and disregard for the devolved administrations, elected mayors and local government have combined to weaken the capacity of the centre to organise a proper crisis response. That explains why on virtually every logistical challenge they have set, they have failed.
4. Throw everything at it – Rishi Sunak got a good press for his furlough scheme, but frankly being Chancellor when the brief is to spend whatever it takes is not the hardest challenge he will face – that is to come amid the economic meltdown that our late lockdown will worsen. In most of the other big challenges, most notably PPE and testing, they have talked the talk, but relentlessly over-promised to under-deliver.
5. Use experts well – they were right to involve experts in the daily briefings, and right to say they were being guided by the science. The problem is that as time went on, the experts were too slow to realise – or worse, they willingly played along – that they were being exploited as political cover; and also, it has become clear in recent days ministers are not following the science at all. The much-vaunted Biosecurity Centre’s Alert Levels 1-4 system is being ignored. The chief scientific and medical advisers were gagged from speaking about whether Dominic Cummings broke the rules, or endangered public health messaging. Bad politics is trumping good science.
6. Deploy a strong team – where do we even start on this one? Alok Sharma or Robert Jenrick? Gavin Williamson or Priti Patel? I am sure I was not alone, when watching Johnson’s appearance at the liaison committee, in thinking that literally every single select committee chair was better informed, and politically more skilled, than any member of the cabinet. It is one of the consequences of the Vote Leave takeover of government that a thin Tory talent squad has been made even thinner. I ask of anyone who was around in the Thatcher era, would any of this current crop have made even junior ministerial ranks?
7. Make the big moments count – Johnson’s TV addresses caused as much confusion as they were designed to address, and in any event Cummings’ garden press conference, for all the wrong reasons, was a big moment likely to linger longer in the public mind.
8. Take the public with you – this should have been easy, as people tend to support the government in a full-blown crisis. They have blown it. The Cummings’ hypocrisy, and the cabinet’s defence of him, was the tipping point, but it had been a long time coming, because of basic failures on all of the above.
9. Empathy – ‘sadly, xxx have died, and our thoughts and prayers are with their friends and family.’ Like a bunch of robots, ministers have said it day after day, and it is not true. Could they even name any of the dead doctors, nurses, care home workers, bus drivers? I spent much of last week analysing letters sent by Tory MPs to their constituents who complained about Cummings. If you want to see organised lack of empathy, visit my blog. One of the worst offenders was Matt Hancock, whose response to someone who had lost a family member was to say how hard he was working, and how we should all ‘move on’ from Durham Dom.
10. Hope, not false hope – Johnson specialises in lies, so little surprise he specialises in false hope, and because he has a number of newspapers ready to publish any old crap, he can always be seen to be focusing on the next false hope, and have his friends in the media gloss over the last one that led nowhere.
So, all in all, a total failure. Yet still he could say, even as we finally overtook Spain and Italy in the deaths per million stakes, even as the official death toll topped 40,000, and the real one headed towards 70,000, how ‘proud’ he is of the government record on Covid. Still he can talk of apparent success, avoiding tragedy that befell others, blah blah effing blah. Talk about gaslighting.
His defenders might just about be able to make the case that Trump, and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil have been worse, but that’s about it. Angela Merkel in Germany beats Johnson on all 10. Emmanuel Macron in France has struggled on point eight, but the French are notoriously difficult to please, and he too has been better than Johnson on all 10. Italy gets closest in terms of bad outcome, but they were taken aback by the pace at which the virus hit. We had two weeks to learn from their mistakes, but failed to do so, made the same mistakes and more.
On Monday, on the other side of the world, prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who had a 1-4 alert system from the word go, and unlike our government has followed it, announced a move to Alert Level 1, the lowest. So a normality of sorts has returned for New Zealanders. Death toll – 22. That number could be fitted, socially distant, on the bottom deck of a bus. New Zealand’s biggest rugby stadium, Eden Park, at 50,000 capacity, would nowhere near accommodate the British Covid dead.
When I tweeted this Kiwi success story on Monday, after a friend in Christchurch texted me to say he was heading out to the pub, amid the many ‘wish she was our PM’ tweets were the usual voices saying I was comparing apples with pears. It is true New Zealand does not have our density of population. But Auckland is a city of two million. The population as a whole is the same as Scotland’s. And the point is they had to make exactly the same choices as every other country in the world. Close borders? They did, we didn’t. Early into lockdown? They did, we didn’t. Honesty with the public about the choices faced? Ardern was, Johnson is incapable of it.
To those who say, ‘it’s only New Zealand’, take a look at the State City of Singapore, 5.63 million people crammed together, death toll 25.
Or how about Japan, so close to the place where the virus first emerged – population 126.5 million (almost double ours), Covid deaths 916 (roughly 50 times more British deaths than Japanese.) South Korea, population 51.2 million, Covid deaths 273; or Taiwan, population 23.8 million, Covid deaths seven.
Countries all over the world have done better than the UK, is in so small part down to the fact so many of them have better leadership and a better cabinet.
Talking to another Kiwi pal, film-maker Steven O’Meagher, I asked why he felt Ardern had done so well. Here is a selection of the words and phrases he used in our chat: ‘hard-working… honest… serious… really smart… speaks like a human being… tells it like it is… doesn’t sugar-coat… doesn’t bulls**t… isn’t scared to spell out hard truths… masters the detail, explains the detail… sets out a journey, takes you with her… really gets the sacrifice people have to make… cares about them…’
Looking at that analysis, I see how special Ardern is, but I also see how many of those words can apply to other leaders around the world. Not one of them, however, applies to Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, by some distance the worst prime minister of my lifetime, and making a good claim to be the worst-performing Covid leader on the planet. It is a real tragedy for the country, that in his hands, Covid, Brexit and all, lies our present and our future.