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4 March 2020

The Covid-19 epidemic could be laboratory-designed to test Boris Johnson’s leadership style

Will the Prime Minister’s style of delegating to a talented cadre of underlings work?

By Stephen Bush

The coronavirus outbreak means that many Britons will have to search for flexible ways of working, but some Conservative MPs fear that Downing Street has already taken the experiment too far. Among British prime ministers, Boris Johnson is unique in that despite being only a few months into his first term he already has eight years’ experience of governance, from his two terms in office as the mayor of London.

Johnson’s Downing Street heavily bears the imprimatur of his time as mayor. Both Munira Mirza, his head of policy, and Andrew Gilligan, his transport adviser and the architect of many of the cycling routes that opened during Johnson’s mayoralty, are City Hall alumni, as is his chief of staff, Edward Lister. 

But the most important continuity is not of staff but of style. His opponents at City Hall used to grumble that Johnson was a “part-time” mayor who dodged scrutiny and was congenitally lazy. His allies had a different analysis, feeling that he hired well and had excellent judgement for when to involve himself in something or make an appearance before the media. There is, though, one thing on which all who closely observed him as mayor agree: be it HS2 or the cable car over the Thames, Johnson has seldom encountered a costly infrastructure project that he didn’t like.

Johnson’s governing style worked well enough during his mayoralty – for him, at least. He was comfortably re-elected in 2012, a year in which Conservatives lost to Labour candidates in local and mayoral contests almost everywhere else. He has now brought the City Hall model to Downing Street. His public appearances are few and far between and his preferred solution to a tricky problem is to create a designated minister to handle all the work. This is how he managed back-bench angst over HS2 last month, though it took a great deal of persuasion to find someone willing to take it on.

Johnson’s approach has admirers at Westminster, and not just among Conservatives. Some veterans of the last Labour government are impressed by the Prime Minister’s ability to weather rows and to avoid being sucked into every passing cultural fad or daily debate. But the political and economic conditions of life in Downing Street are different to those in City Hall. As London’s mayor, Johnson’s dodging of the spotlight meant that the capital’s local newspaper, the Evening Standard, which in any case leans to the right, would simply focus on national issues instead. However, avoiding the media at a nationwide level means giving more air-time to Johnson’s direct opponents.

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As far as policy is concerned, Johnson benefited from taking over as mayor from Ken Livingstone – who had lobbied for and secured financial support for the programmes that bore fruit under Johnson, such as the so-called Boris bikes cycle hire scheme – and after a Labour government had won the Olympics for London. By contrast, Johnson became Prime Minister after three years of stagnation at No 10, with a predecessor in Theresa May who left behind no long-term plans for her showman successor to take ownership of.

May did leave, however, what one civil servant glumly described to me as “unexploded devices” all across government, the biggest and most dangerous being the condition of the National Health Service. The winter is flu season, which is always a tough time for the NHS, as the number of hospital admissions spikes. Combined with the country’s ageing population and the UK’s degraded local government services, the health service has in recent years acquired a new and acute problem: great and growing numbers of elderly people who are admitted to hospital and cannot be discharged. 

Among NHS England’s targets are that 95 per cent of people arriving at Accident and Emergency should be seen within four hours and that ambulances should arrive within eight minutes in the most urgent cases. These indicators have been flashing red since at least the winter of 2017. 

While Johnson’s successful election campaign last year was focused on fixing these problems, and others, within the NHS, many Conservatives fear that his solution is straight out of his City Hall playbook. A big cash injection for the core NHS is an eye-catching announcement, but won’t solve the underlying problems. They fear that without a willingness to put more cash into local government and health services outside the NHS, particularly social care, the extra funding is good money after bad.

Covid-19 may have originated in a Chinese market, but it could be laboratory-designed to stress-test the Johnson approach. The government has a three-step plan for the virus. Initially, it hopes to contain the outbreak or, if this isn’t possible, to delay its spread until after the flu season, when the NHS will be better placed to combat it. If the virus can’t be delayed either, then the government’s final fallback is mitigation – through tactics such as recalling recently retired public sector workers in order to tackle extra demand.

The epidemic is a test of whether Johnson’s style of delegating to a talented cadre of underlings works. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, is considered both to have successfully handled a tricky media role in the general election and to run his department well. That impression will be strongly tested over the coming months. 

The coronavirus is also a test of whether putting more money into the NHS while neglecting local government and social care can achieve the necessary improvements in the health service’s performance. If Johnson’s methods aren’t able to cope with this crisis, the consequences for Britain could be disastrous.

This article appears in the 04 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Inside No 10