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4 May 2023

Plumbing the depths of Boris Johnson’s incompetence

Anthony Seldon’s account of Johnson’s time in Downing Street confirms he was hopelessly out of his depth.

By David Gauke

Boris Johnson has never made any secret of his admiration for Winston Churchill or discouraged comparisons between himself and his predecessor as prime minister. Yet a better parallel, argue Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell in their account of Johnson’s time in office, is David Lloyd George.

“They shared a willingness to take enormous risks with the constitution, as with their casual relationship with the truth and malleable principles,” state the authors in their introduction. “Their ferocious sexual and financial appetites led them into deep and repetitive trouble. Both thought nothing of using powers of patronage to make outrageous appointments which were nakedly to their own benefit. Both indeed rather enjoyed being outrageous.”

A reader hoping that Johnson at 10: The Inside Story will focus on Johnson’s resemblances to Lloyd George – the scandalous and salacious – will, however, be disappointed. There is an intriguing line about Johnson’s time as foreign secretary and how “he most certainly was interested in building a strong bond” with his female Canadian opposite number, and in the introduction we are told that “given his unconventional life, further revelations will emerge”. That, however, is not the main concern of this book.

Lloyd George was a rogue, as is Johnson. Lloyd George was also a capable and effective prime minister. Johnson, as Seldon and Newell emphatically make clear, was not.

It is tempting to focus on Johnson’s dishonesty (both personal and political) and his lack of principles – and, as a consequence, the damage he has done to our political institutions. And our international reputation. And the economy. What can be neglected and may be less obvious to those not close to Whitehall is quite how extraordinarily inept he was at performing some of the basic functions of being prime minister. Seldon and Newell have done a service to us all in setting out this reality in unsparing detail.

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Based on interviews with more than 200 witnesses of Johnson in office, his weaknesses are exposed again and again. His thinking is “shallow”, he lacked “focus and grasp” and had a “chronic inability to initiate difficult conversations”. Described as “woefully inadequate at governing”, he “would chair meetings chaotically” and had a “short attention span”; he was “biddable” and “often unserious… and lacking any kind of grip on the machine”. He was “hopeless at understanding how to convert his woolly dreams into substance” and “could not behave as a grown-up, nor trust other people to do so”. Johnson had little knowledge of Whitehall, policy, parliament or the Conservative Party. He was impossibly ill-equipped to perform adequately the role of junior minister for paperclips, let alone prime minister.

[See also: Boris Johnson’s resignation honours list will be the final insult]

The chapter on Covid is particularly damning. An official observed that it was “astonishing how hard he found it to grasp the finer points of Covid policy… he couldn’t process the volume of information”. Another official noted that “in one day he would have three meetings in which he would say three completely different things depending on who was present, and then deny that he had changed his position”. When he insisted he hadn’t made a decision, officials had to show him printouts of what he had agreed earlier that day.

When the official enquiry into the handling of Covid eventually concludes, the government’s approach taken in September 2020 in response to the second wave of infections is very likely to be viewed harshly. This will be an uncomfortable moment for Johnson and, to some extent, the lockdown sceptic Rishi Sunak. Yet it is all too apparent that throughout the first months of the crisis, earlier that year, the country was without a properly functioning head of government. “No 10, in the absence of a prime minister rising to the occasion, needed a figure with the intellectual capacity and influence to grasp the scale of the problem and focus activity,” write Seldon and Newell. “Step up Dominic Cummings.”

Ultimately, Johnson is little more than a bumbler. Cummings, however, is more complex and interesting. He provided “decisiveness and clarity where Johnson offered custard and frivolity” and was “evidence-driven, immensely industrious and got things done”. But he was also immensely destructive, at times unhinged, and ruthlessly removed alternative power bases within Whitehall. Johnson is viewed as being frightened of him, pathetically proclaiming that “I am the Führer, I am the King” in frustration at being sidelined by his adviser. Extraordinarily, Cummings was effectively able to remove both the chancellor (Sajid Javid) and the cabinet secretary (Mark Sedwill) and choose their successors. Cummings left both the cabinet and the civil service hollowed out and in a state of fear.

Johnson’s inadequacies meant that Cummings was perhaps a necessary evil. To the extent that Johnson had priorities, he could achieve little without Cummings’s support. The prime minister was incapable of determining what he wanted to achieve and how to achieve it and needed someone else to do the work. He did not understand the detail and could not be bothered to master it.

[See also: Rishi Sunak, not Keir Starmer, is now the leader under pressure]

Where Johnson does have a legacy is in “getting Brexit done”. Here he worked hand in glove with Cummings. Johnson campaigned for the Tory leadership promising to leave the EU by 31 October 2019, but did not have a clue how to do it. Cummings was the man with the plan. Some of us continue to view it as a thoroughly reckless plan that would have resulted in disaster but for parliament’s intervention, but ultimately the UK left the EU and Johnson won an 80-seat majority. The electorate appears to be regretting both outcomes, but there is no denying that the Johnson/Cummings partnership was at least consequential.

Seldon and Newell, however, expose how ill thought through Brexit was. The morning after the referendum result in 2016, they write, Johnson was shocked, exclaiming: “Oh shit, we’ve got no plan. We haven’t thought about it. I didn’t think it would happen. Holy crap, what will we do?” Years later, there was still no consensus among the Brexiteers on the purpose of leaving the EU and Johnson was at a loss to identify and deliver the supposed benefits of Brexit. Even Cummings appeared to be curiously detached from the topic when in government. For all the political instability and economic damage done, it is galling to realise how frivolous the thinking was among its principal protagonists.

Johnson at 10 is not a cheery read. There is little positive that can be said about Johnson’s time in office (though he is rightly praised for his approach to Ukraine). It is, by and large, a tawdry tale of opportunism and incompetence. The conclusion asks whether Johnson should be considered a great prime minister but the answer is evident in almost every one of the 582 pages.

There are at least two categories of person who should read the book – as penance, those who once backed Johnson; and those who aspire to ministerial office. If seeking instruction on how not to be a prime minister or, indeed, any kind of minister, this account should prove invaluable.

Johnson at 10: The Inside Story
Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell
Atlantic, 624pp, £25

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[See also: Brexit is slowly killing the Conservative Party]

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This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?