Two years ago this month, as Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, he vowed: “We in this government will work flat out to give this country the leadership it deserves.” Does the country deserve the leadership of Mr Johnson?
Recent weeks have provided an apt demonstration of his failings. Having been ordered to self-isolate by the NHS Test and Trace system after coming into contact with the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, who tested positive for Covid-19, Mr Johnson initially sought to evade the rules through a pilot scheme that would allow him instead to take a daily test. Public outrage forced him to U-turn with comical haste on 18 July, but the damage was done. The day before England’s full unlocking, Mr Johnson needlessly undermined the legitimacy of the self-isolation system.
By this time, the UK had recorded the highest official daily rate of Covid-19 cases in the world – testimony to the unmanaged borders that allowed the Delta variant to arrive here from India, and thrive. The Johnson government can boast of the success of the vaccine roll-out – 68 per cent of adults have received two doses – which has dramatically reduced deaths and hospitalisations. But this achievement, a tribute to the entrepreneurial state, is undermined by a government that advertises daily its ineptitude.
Mr Johnson was elected Conservative leader with a crude mandate to “get Brexit done”. Contrary to many predictions, the UK left not only the EU but the single market and the customs union and signed a new trade deal with its former partners. Perhaps the most attractive argument for Brexit was that it could open the way for a democratic renaissance: decisions would be taken by elected British politicians, not unelected European commissioners. Governments would be forced to account for their own failures rather than blaming remote, unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels.
But far from advancing under Mr Johnson, British democracy has regressed. The UK was once a country admired by European liberals for its pragmatism and moderation, but it is now increasingly viewed with alarm and disdain. As Annette Dittert, the London bureau chief for the German public broadcaster ARD, writes in her essay on page 30: “Attacks on the justice system and the media are part of everyday life, with potentially fatal consequences for parliamentary democracy in the UK.”
Britain’s centralised political system, its unwritten constitution and its arcane, outdated electoral rules mean it is unusually vulnerable to authoritarians and demagogues. Mr Johnson has exploited this state of affairs for all it is worth. He has stuffed the House of Lords with party donors and stooges, he has broken the law by seeking to prorogue parliament for five weeks, and he has presided over rampant nepotism in the distribution of lucrative Covid-19 contracts.
By expelling many of the Conservative Party’s most distinguished MPs, such as former cabinet ministers Rory Stewart, David Gauke (who is a New Statesman online columnist) and Dominic Grieve, and promoting ministers based on blind loyalty rather than ability, Mr Johnson has marginalised his internal opponents.
The tragicomedy of Mr Johnson’s premiership is that, though he may have commanding executive power, he seems to have little idea of what to do with it – as his recent vacuous speech on levelling up demonstrated.
The Conservatives remain hegemonic at Westminster, yet they face forces beyond their control: in Northern Ireland, where the creation of an Irish Sea border has reanimated sectarian divides, and in Scotland, where the SNP is in power and is determined to secure a second independence referendum. There are also hints of a Labour revival. Keir Starmer, who writes a guest column on page 19, has reorganised his team of advisers and promoted Shabana Mahmood, an exceptionally able politician.
At this critical juncture in its history, the UK needs a prime minister of diligence, judiciousness, humility, strategic vision and moral integrity. We have Boris Johnson.
This article appears in the 21 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Chinese century