After two years as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s unfitness for office has never been clearer

Rarely has a rich, sophisticated Western country fallen as far and as fast as the United Kingdom has under Johnson.

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Two years ago this Saturday, 24 July, Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. Speaking outside No 10, he mocked “the doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters” and declared that “the people who bet against Britain are going to lose their shirts”. If only they had.

Yes, he got Brexit done, sort of, but it was a wretched, joyless Brexit that has sundered the country; a Brexit secured on a false prospectus, and by betraying Northern Ireland; a Brexit with many losers but not a single clear beneficiary.

Yes, he gambled on a Covid-19 vaccine and won, but that must be weighed against his initial refusal to take the pandemic seriously; his catastrophic failure to order preemptive lockdowns or border closures, and his scandalous neglect of care homes. 

Even as the pandemic’s second wave erupted last winter he wanted to reopen the country over Christmas. He is taking the reckless risk of reopening it today (19 July) despite a soaring infection rate and the desperate pleas of global health experts. He kept Matt Hancock on as health secretary despite privately admitting he was “totally fucking hopeless”. He is draconian on Monday, libertarian on Tuesday and wavering on Wednesday. Dominic Cummings has described his handling of the crisis as a “disaster” and “madness”, adding: “Tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die”.

But Johnson has arguably caused even greater damage to this country through his systematic trashing of democratic norms, degradation of public life and debasing of politics.

He is a Prime Minister who routinely misleads the public – about everything from the benefits of Brexit to the need for an Irish Sea border and whether he sacked Hancock.

He is a Prime Minister who has destroyed the principle of cabinet government by packing his with mediocrities, non-entities and reprobates – men and women who were promoted for their loyalty alone, and whom he refuses to sack no matter how egregious their transgressions or incompetence.

He claims to have restored sovereignty to the British parliament, but treats it with contempt. He whipped up hostility against it for thwarting the “will of the people”. He has used his large Commons majority to secure draconian emergency powers, and approval of his Brexit deals, with insultingly little debate. He makes major announcements outside the chamber, to the fury of Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker. As Betty Boothroyd, a former speaker, noted last week, he scarcely bothers to answer parliamentary questions.

The Prime Minister shows similar contempt for the other independent institutions of a healthy democracy. He seeks to curb the judiciary, muzzle the BBC, politicise the civil service, defang the Election Commission and put Paul Dacre in charge of Ofcom. He wants to curtail the right to protest, and impose ten-year sentences for defacing statues. 

He is not interested in substance or serious government. He shies from hard decisions. He practices the politics of trite slogans, headline-grabbing soundbites and empty promises. Exhibit one: last week’s shockingly vacuous speech on what is supposedly his flagship policy – levelling up.

His policies are determined by the morning’s opinion polls or Daily Telegraph leader column, or by the latest demand of a small cabal of right-wing Tory MPs. He has no overarching strategy, no grand plan beyond the retention of power, no principles or convictions that he will not jettison if expedience demands it. As Cummings now admits, he is “like a shopping trolley smashing from one side of the aisle to the other”.

He is willing to break the law by proroguing parliament, or reneging on a Northern Ireland protocol which he solemnly negotiated, ratified and signed. He would deny justice to the victims of the Troubles to appease right-wing tabloids and Tories determined to protect trigger-happy British soldiers. He condones ministerial actions that are borderline corrupt –  the awarding of huge, tender-free Covid contracts to unqualified cronies, for example, or Robert Jenrick’s approval of Richard Desmond’s £1bn property development in Tower Hamlets in east London. He rewards friends and donors with jobs and peerages, but purges the moderate and decent.

He is a past master at avoiding accountability. He ducks and weaves at Prime Minister’s Questions. He hardly ever gives full-blown press conferences at which journalists can develop proper lines of questioning. He has not given an in-depth television interview since January. He punts an independent inquiry into his handling of the Covid pandemic into the political long grass. He evades questions about his luxury holiday in Mustique, or his redecoration of the Downing Street flat, or his funnelling of public funds to his former lover, Jennifer Arcuri.

He instead peddles the illusion of openness and transparency by posting video clips on Twitter, or through daily photo-ops of stunning banality, or by delivering carefully-honed soundbites to a local television crew.

Johnson's Tory apologists in parliament and the press know all of this is true, but they publicly defend him because he wins elections. He has been aided by a weak and fractured opposition, of course, but he is a shameless populist who does what populists do. He promises the earth. He spends money like water (except on nurses, school meals and educational catch-up programmes). He panders to the people’s baser instincts, exploiting their grievances, resentments and xenophobia. He inflames his base with a deliberate policy of division, pitting north against south, the common man against the metropolitan elite, progressives against conservatives, Leavers against Remainers. He scapegoats immigrants, asylum seekers, lefty lawyers and the EU. He subverts true, understated patriotism with the ugly, aggressive, flag-waving jingoism of the English football thug.

In that inaugural Downing Street speech, Johnson declared that “the buck stops here”, that the Union flag “stands for freedom and free speech and the rule of law”, that he would “create a new partnership with our European friends – as warm and close and affectionate as possible”. He promised that the UK would “recover our natural role as an enterprising, outward-looking and truly global Britain, generous in temper and engaged with the world”. He spoke of “uniting” the country and the “awesome foursome that are incarnated in that red, white and blue flag”.

The speech was so much verbal flatulence. The precise opposite has happened. The UK is a diminished country – economically, diplomatically and geopolitically. It is socially fractured, and struggling to prevent Scottish secession. It has shamefully cut foreign aid. It has breached international agreements. It treats refugees as criminals. It has courted authoritarian figures such as Donald Trump and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. It has forfeited Brussels’ goodwill, strained the so-called “special relationship” and squandered its international reputation for decency and common sense. “Global Britain” may no longer be trusted even to host the 2030 World Cup. It has lost control, not regained it.

Seldom has a rich, sophisticated Western country fallen so far, so fast. In May, Cummings described Johnson as “unfit for the job”. He was right, but what a crying shame he did not say so back in 2019 instead of propelling him to power.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times and a New Statesman magazine contributing writer and online columnist.

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