Sun 25 October 2020

The Prime Minister has no guiding ethos other than self-aggrandisement, a fact that has plunged the Government and the country into disarray, argues Sam Bright

Keir Starmer has called for a “two-week circuit break” to curtail the exponential spread of COVID-19 in England. This would involve closing all pubs, bars and restaurants; as well as imposing stricter restrictions on household mingling.

Starmer’s plan would help to suppress the virus for a few weeks, though the respite would surely only be temporary. A far more effective solution would be a circuit break from Boris Johnson.

Indeed the Government’s management of the pandemic shows that a two-week lockdown would merely delay, rather than prevent, the next calamity.

Eventually historians will log the litany of errors committed by Johnson’s Government during the pandemic, and it will stretch into several volumes. Repeatedly cocking up the country’s test, trace and isolate system; failing to stockpile personal protective equipment (PPE); discharging COVID-infected hospital patients to care homes; locking down too late, costing 25,000 lives; stoking a second wave through ‘Eat Out; Get COVID’ gimmicks; imposing lockdowns without local consensus; implementing an array of science-ignorant policies while claiming to be “following the science”.

This is the record of Boris Johnson, a few months into a pandemic that will most likely run for years, and not even 12 months after he was elected Prime Minister. Most leaders fortunate enough to achieve a landslide election victory enjoy a long honeymoon period during which they govern with ease. Rebels hunker down, stymied by the uncompromising focus and power that usually pulsates from a new administration.

Not so in the case of Johnson. A Conservative backbench rebellion is causing nerves in Government. Rather than a collection of harmless rogues, this looks more like an organised insurgency against the Prime Minister. Ministers and aides have been forced to walk among the rebels, offering compromises to temporarily buy their loyalty.

Two weeks ago, Matt Hancock was forced to promise House of Commons votes on any meaningful, national changes to lockdown rules, after a small infantry of Conservative backbenchers provoked jitters in Downing Street. Exasperated by Johnson’s decision to govern the North by diktat, ‘Red Wall’ Conservative MPs have even set up a new campaign group to put pressure on their own Prime Minister.

The pandemic has of course heightened the tension in Westminster and MPs’ appetite for rebellion, yet one reason the rebels are donning their berets with such excitement is their leader’s capacity for fluctuation. There is a popular video of Johnson during his days as Mayor of London, during which he lampoons assembly members for being “great supine protoplasmic invertebrate jellies”. A description he has ironically embodied as Prime Minister.

Johnson’s Absence

It is commonly believed that Downing Street chief aide Dominic Cummings controls the Prime Minister, but that is an over-simplification. Johnson is evidently buffeted by an array of people in Government. Chancellor Rishi Sunak, for example, successfully lobbied the Prime Minister to broadly ignore the scientists he was so dutifully following a few weeks earlier – resisting their current calls for a short national lockdown.

Boris Johnson doesn’t have a vision for Government; a guiding ethos that informs his decisions and moulds the curvature of his premiership. So he oscillates. He’s in favour of EU membership, until he sees a political opportunity in exploiting Brexit. He’s listening to science, until the Chancellor pulls on his ear. He’s in favour of strict lockdown rules, until his chief aide breaks them.

Insofar as Boris Johnson has a governing mission, it is to flog the idea of Boris Johnson. All politicians have this tendency, to promote their own brand, yet most of them are also servants to a cause; a future society they want to enact.

Take Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, the two dominant prime ministers of the modern era. Both were power-hungry; both arguably had an ego complex. Yet Thatcherism and Blairism, as ideological principles, are easy to define. One involved the aggressive liberalisation of the economy, while the other was defined by pro-European, economically moderate state-led social democracy.

Will there ever be such thing as Johnsonism, defined as anything other than one man’s roguish pursuit of celebrity, political status and sex?

This all stems back to the basis of Johnson’s current political power. Whereas Thatcher, Blair and all other previous British prime ministers were elected on a manifesto – a broad suite of policies cohered through an underlying ideology – Johnson was elected on three words: “Get Brexit Done”.

A good salesman can sell anything, including a duff product. Boris Johnson understands this fact and has built a career on it. Playing into an instinctive English deference towards well-educated posh people who act like they’ve swallowed a Thesaurus, Johnson has schemed his way to the top of Government.

But now he’s there, having blagged his way through auditions, it is starkly apparent that Johnson’s theatrics are not an expression of his substance and character as a politician, but a distraction from their absence. Meanwhile, we’re all unwilling participants in his stupid pantomime.

Become a Patron of Byline TV

More stories filed under Argument