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17 August 2020

The A-level fiasco shows why Boris Johnson is profoundly unfit to be Prime Minister

It is becoming daily more apparent that Johnson is weak, lazy, disorganised – and out of his depth. 

By Martin Fletcher

August is supposed to be the silly season, the month when newspapers fill their pages with trivia because politicians are all on holiday.

Not this year. Day after day our government generates news. It is the gift that keeps on giving – one fiasco after another, shambles piled on shambles.

Right now we have the A-levels debacle with Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, awarded an F-grade for wrecking the university prospects of thousands of teenagers – the majority from exactly the sort of less privileged families this government claimed to champion. Boris Johnson seems to have gone characteristically awol.

Last week the government gave 160,000 British holidaymakers just 30 hours to return from France or face quarantine, triggering a frantic exodus of furious vacationers by price-gouging plane, train, automobile and cross-Channel ferry.  

The day before that the Office for National Statistics revealed that Britain had entered the deepest recession in its history, and the worst of any advanced economy. That is not because the government acted boldly and decisively to counter Covid-19. On the contrary, Britain also has Europe’s highest excess death rate (with over 65,000 deaths between January and June). 

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And so the list goes on, with nobody ever sacked, nobody apologising, nobody accepting responsibility. The government’s delay in imposing the lockdown cost around 20,000 lives. It failed to provide frontline medical workers with enough personal protective equipment. It failed to protect the country’s oldest and most vulnerable citizens in care homes. Its attempts to set up any sort of track and trace system, let alone a “world-beating” one, have been woeful. 

Johnson squandered his authority by refusing to sack Dominic Cummings for breaching lockdown rules. His government’s subsequent relaxation of those rules has been so piecemeal that most people long ago lost track of what they can and cannot do. It was forced to perform humiliating U-turns on free school meals and the NHS surcharge for foreign health workers. It failed to get all pupils back in schools before the summer holidays.

Johnson has shamefully refused to suspend a former minister and Conservative MP accused of rape. He cannot nominate a bunch of new peers without causing a furore. His government bungled even its attempt to rig the election for the chair of the parliamentary intelligence and security committee. 

With the possible exception of Rishi Sunak’s emergency measures to counter the economic impact of the lockdown, it is hard to think of anything this government has done well, or of a single way in which the year-long Johnson-Cummings premiership has benefited the British people.

Johnson’s diminishing band of supporters will claim that he has delivered Brexit, but that hardly constitutes an achievement. Leave aside the fact that that crazed, delusional enterprise has sundered, impoverished and diminished our previously normal and relatively prosperous country. The Prime Minister secured the withdrawal agreement by meekly accepting a de facto customs border in the Irish Sea. A comprehensive accord on our future relationship with the EU remains as elusive as ever, and none of the promised trade deals with non-EU countries have yet materialised. Whatever Brexit’s final form, it will bear no resemblance to the utopian pledges made during the 2016 referendum.

The truth must surely now be dawning on those Conservative MPs and party members who elected Johnson as their leader, on the sycophantic Tory press which propelled him into No 10, and on those disgruntled blue-collar workers who were persuaded to vote for him in last December’s general election: they backed a dud

It is becoming daily more apparent that Johnson is weak, lazy and disorganised; that he would rather busk it, bluster and blame-shift than master briefs and do his homework; that he prefers slogans, soundbites and vacuous photo-ops to serious policy-making; that he relies overwhelmingly on Cummings to animate his government and has no real purpose or vision of his own; and that he is out of his depth and profoundly unfit to be Prime Minister.

And so the debacles will continue. The A-level fiasco will be repeated on Thursday when 600,000 16-year-olds receive their GCSE “results”. The Brexit transition period may very well end in December without any agreement on future trade with the EU, dealing another profound blow to British industry. Scottish independence and the break-up of the Union looks increasingly probable (Johnson’s net approval rating north of the border is minus 50, fully a hundred points behind that of Nicola Sturgeon). 

Unrestrained by a cabinet of fearful, spineless “yes” men and women, the one-man revolutionary that is Cummings will wreak havoc on the civil service, the judiciary, the BBC and our defence and security institutions when all most Britons want is basic competence.

President Trump may be even worse than Johnson, but it is hard not to look at the United States with a degree of envy. In less than 12 weeks the American people will have the chance to end their national nightmare by voting him out of office. We are stuck with Johnson and his uniquely inept, destructive government for another four years.