The schools debacle reveals what has gone wrong for a government that is rapidly losing authority

Boris Johnson now leads a cabinet and parliamentary party that understands that his political strengths come with incongruous liabilities.

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Whatever blame can or cannot reasonably be attributed to it for the comparatively high number of deaths in Britain from Covid-19, Boris Johnson’s government has, in part, unravelled over recent months.

Paradoxically, on the matter that for decades dominated British politics, namely the economy, the government has done quite well. Britain has not endured the fast-rising unemployment rates of the US. Universal Credit has been adapted with fewer mishaps than might have been expected from its pre crisis performance. The Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s “whatever it takes” message was effective both as policy and as rhetoric.

The furious criticism directed at the government from some quarters is also immoderate. A government elected on a promise “to get Brexit done” should have been preoccupied at the beginning of this year with the negotiations on the future trade and security relationship with the EU. Only those who think it matters not one whit that Britain’s departure from the EU has been democratically legitimated twice over – and assume that the supposed superiority of their individual views on the matter should, nonetheless, prevail – can suggest otherwise. Nor have ministers made errors because wanting Britain to leave the EU was a priori evidence of their cognitive incompetence. The very nature of this extraordinary political situation ensured that there were only bad choices that entailed escalating risks somewhere.

Yet the government has made what seem to be avoidable mistakes, and at times it has not offered leadership. When Johnson was ill with Covid-19, there appeared to be a decision-making void and, perhaps worse still, an expectation that nobody would notice. Even after he returned, the drift did not quite abate. The “Save the NHS” narrative initially provided a readily comprehensible justification for the lockdown. But when Johnson said in his televised address on 10 May that the government was persisting with the lockdown “until we have got it right” to “save lives” – at a point when the lockdown was palpably breaking down – he conveyed little more than governmental paralysis.

One part of this story stems from the misfortune of Johnson’s own near-death experience. Practically, the British system of governance runs through a prime ministerial court. Take the king from the court and chaos will be let loose. As this human and political drama was playing itself out, Labour elected as leader a plausible alternative prime minister, changing instantly the democratic political context in which the headless government had to operate.

But the crisis relentlessly exposes existing weaknesses and suppressed fractures, and those around this government are no exception. Johnson now leads a cabinet and parliamentary party that understands that his undoubted political strengths come with incongruous liabilities. A Prime Minister who in December won his party its first healthy majority for more than 30 years should not so fear his colleagues that in a time of emergency he would make Dominic Raab acting prime minister over the more obviously able Michael Gove or Rishi Sunak.

Later, Johnson could not seriously contemplate sacrificing Dominic Cummings because the court he has constructed around the administrative apparatus at No 10 simply could not function without his chief adviser. In judgement, Johnson is a pragmatist. But his character lacks the depth to adapt to circumstance by letting different facets of it come to the fore at different times.

The government’s deficiencies have been amplified by the long-term complacency towards what evidently does not work in this country. The constitutional arrangements for governing the Union are incoherent in relation to England, and lines of authority and responsibility between central and local government are dysfunctional. Social care, not least its relationship to the NHS, is a disaster. Often, political discourse across the spectrum of beliefs is detached from the substance of issues and the likely consequences of any particular political course of action. There is little sense that democratic politics in a pluralist society requires shared restraint.

On schools, the government’s failings and some of these bigger problems have lethally come together. On education and health matters, the government has had to act as an English government without there being a constitutional basis for one to exist. Its first educational policy – that all primary pupils in England should have some time at school before the summer holidays in socially distanced class sizes – seemed half made by the Prime Minister and half by the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, in conjunction with Public Health England. This commitment was then resisted by some local councils and teachers because they appeared not to accept the government’s authority to decide what risks should now be taken.

That the government could not understand it needed to prioritise either the educational risks generated by school closures or the health risks around the two-metre rule is witness to Johnson’s proclivity for sunny optimism as a leadership style, where limits are dismissed as aesthetically unseemly negativity. That, for some teachers, opposing the government has become an end in itself, and that ministers appear defeated by their recalcitrance, weakens the government’s credibility further.

What is now at stake for full reopening in September is whether the government can acquire sufficient decision-making competence around English schools to re-establish its authority to decide what happens in them.

Read more from this week's special issue: “Anatomy of a Crisis: How the government failed us over coronavirus”

Helen Thompson is professor of political economy at Cambridge University and a regular on the Talking Politics podcast. 

This article appears in the 03 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a crisis

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