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23 May 2022

Boris Johnson hasn’t got the “big calls” right

Brexit, Covid and Ukraine all reveal further failures by the Prime Minister, not successes.

By Martin Fletcher

Here’s all I know about this week’s long-awaited, lamentably-delayed publication of the civil servant Sue Gray’s partygate report.

Firstly, it will be damning, because Gray’s heavily redacted initial report in January was damning (and it may well embarrass the pusillanimous Metropolitan Police).

Secondly, Boris Johnson will not resign, because he lacks any sense of shame or honour, though in characteristically cowardly fashion he may sacrifice the odd civil servant to save his own skin.

Thirdly, the gutless Tory parliamentary party will once again forgo the chance to remove its leader, not least because it cannot identify a single plausible successor among its 359 members.

Johnson’s apologists will instead argue that it is time to draw a line under “partygate” and move on. His allies will protest that there’s a war on, and a cost-of-living crisis that needs urgently addressing. They may, to judge by today’s Daily Mail, seek to discredit Gray by accusing her of playing politics.

Above all, they will argue that for all the Prime Minister’s manifest flaws he has “got the big things right”, and invoke Brexit, Covid and Ukraine in his defence. Let us pause for a moment before accepting that glib, seldom-challenged assertion. Is it true? Has he really?

Yes, Johnson “got Brexit done” in the sense that the UK has left the European Union. But he did so only by agreeing to the very Irish Sea border that he had vowed never to accept. He is now threatening to renege on the withdrawal deal he hailed, signed, ratified and exploited to win the 2019 general election; his allies even claim preposterously that he acted “under duress”. In the process Johnson has undermined the Good Friday Agreement, sullied Britain’s international reputation, soured relations with the EU and US, and increased the likelihood of eventual Irish reunification. That’s hardly a triumph.

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Yes, Johnson threw money at the search for a Covid vaccine, and his gamble paid off. But in almost every other regard his handling of the pandemic was grim. Recall, if you will, his failure to take Covid seriously for those vital first few weeks, the belated lockdowns and closure of Britain’s borders, the wholesale transfer of infected hospital patients into the nation’s care homes, and the squandering of tens of billions of pounds on PPE contracts for unqualified cronies, fraudulent business loans and a scarcely serviceable test and trace system. Considering our vaccine success, to come 52nd in the World Health Organisation’s deaths-per-capita performance table is nothing to brag about.

Yes, Johnson’s robust support for Ukraine since the Russian invasion has been commendable. But would any other prime minister have done differently? And don’t forget his protracted failure to stop all that dodgy Russian money flowing into London (and Tory party coffers). Or his government’s embarrassing reluctance to accept Ukrainian refugees.

There are other “big things” that prime ministers are expected to “get right”, but Johnson has emphatically failed to do so. The economy is a disaster. We now have the highest inflation and lowest level of benefits since the 1980s, the most business insolvencies since the 1960s, the highest tax burden since the 1940s and the steepest fall in living standards since records began. The government blames Covid and the war in Ukraine, but that doesn’t explain why Britain has the lowest growth and highest inflation of any G7 nation.

Any halfway decent prime minister would seek to unite and rally the nation in difficult times like these, but Johnson systematically demonises opponents, stokes culture wars and foments division for electoral gain. The United Kingdom has never been less united.

Every other prime minister in living memory has sought to uphold democratic norms, but Johnson has seemingly set out to destroy public confidence in democracy and its institutions. He has treated parliament with disdain, trashed the ministerial code, rubbished the civil service, sold peerages, rewarded cronies, neutered watchdogs, spurned accountability and moved to restrict the right to vote or protest. He has made a common currency of lies, half-truths and empty promises.

Prime ministers routinely strive to preserve or raise Britain’s standing in the world. Not Johnson. He has broken — or is threatening to break — solemn international treaties, picked fights with our former friends and allies in Europe to please his Brexiteer base, dismayed the Biden administration over Northern Ireland, cut foreign aid and coddled authoritarian figures such as Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán. Ukraine apart, his “Global Britain” has become an object of global bewilderment and derision.

Sue Gray’s report will make headlines for a day or two. Johnson will offer more insincere apologies and profess to accept full responsibility for partygate, but cling stubbornly to office. Tory MPs will defend him, chastise him or simply keep their heads down, but omit to remove a man they know to be spectacularly unfit to hold the nation’s highest office.

Thus a government of mediocrities, led by a conman, will stumble on for at least two more years, beset by sleaze and bereft of purpose beyond its own survival, as the economy crumbles, services deteriorate, dishonesty prevails over decency and our country sheds the mooring ropes that have kept it so stable for so long.  

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