The most memorable scene from the satirical TV comedy Spitting Image was of Margaret Thatcher dining with her cabinet. “And what about the vegetables?” the waitress asks when the prime minister orders steak. “Oh, they’ll have the same as me,” she replies.
If the likes of Willie Whitelaw, Michael Heseltine, Nigel Lawson, Geoffrey Howe and Norman Tebbit were considered vegetables, how would the programme makers characterise the 22 members of Boris Johnson’s callow cabinet, whose limitations were laid painfully bare during his three-week absence?
There is not a heavyweight among them – indeed there is not a “big beast” left in the Conservative Party now that Ken Clarke has retired. With the possible exception of Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, they are startlingly bereft of intellectual heft and governmental experience. Johnson’s two dismal years as foreign secretary make him a veteran compared to most of his colleagues.
Apart perhaps from Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, a former army officer who was mentioned in dispatches for catching an IRA bomb squad in Northern Ireland, none had distinguished themselves before entering politics. Making millions in the City does not count. Nor does being a newspaper columnist.
Though ethnically diverse, most had predictably conventional backgrounds in law, finance, journalism, public relations and political hackery. Save for Therese Coffey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, who earned a PhD in chemistry, none specialised in science or medicine.
It is not a cabinet of conspicuous high principle: a dozen of its members voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum, but now seem happy to deal beleaguered British industry a further crushing blow by letting the Brexit transition period expire without an EU trade agreement in December.
It is not a cabinet notable for its probity. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, was sacked as defence secretary by Theresa May last year for leaking confidential national security information. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, was sacked as international development secretary in 2017 for deceiving May over her clandestine meetings with top Israelis, and now faces allegations of serial bullying of her civil servants. Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, lost a ministerial job in 2015 for failing while Conservative chairman to address bullying allegations that led to a young man’s suicide.
There was a time when ordinary citizens could name most members of the cabinet, but no longer. This lot are largely faceless.
It is the cabinet of a party that purged any number of decent, thoughtful, independent-minded MPs last year for challenging the party’s Brexit extremism – the likes of Rory Stewart, Dominic Grieve, Philip Hammond, Justine Greening, David Gauke, Oliver Letwin, Sam Gyimah, Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston and Philip Lee. The last two, incidentally, were doctors whose insights would have been valuable in the present crisis.
It is a cabinet appointed to do what it is told, which is why there is no room for experienced but potentially awkward figures such Jeremy Hunt, the former health and foreign secretary who challenged Johnson for the party leadership last year; Greg Clark, the former business secretary; or Geoffrey Cox, the former attorney general.
At its first meeting Johnson conducted a bizarre call-and-response exercise in which cabinet members dutifully chanted the numbers of new hospitals, nurses, buses and police officers he planned to deliver. The subliminal message was that they were not there to question policy or use their own judgement. They were there simply to do the bidding of Johnson and his svengali, Dominic Cummings, who rammed the point home by co-opting their special advisers, imposing rigid controls over their dealings with journalists and – allegedly – recruiting spies in Westminster restaurants to check who was lunching with whom.
That sort of subservience is inimical to good government, but the Prime Minister’s absence has dramatically underscored the dangers of one-man rule. During the gravest peacetime crisis in memory the country has been left rudderless, with those nominally in charge constantly behind the curve and seemingly unable to make big decisions.
That is hardly surprising. Dominic Raab, Johnson’s designated stand-in, has served just 14 months in the cabinet – nine as foreign secretary and four as Brexit secretary, a stint memorable for his surprise at discovering the importance of the Dover-Calais crossing. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, has served barely ten weeks in the cabinet, though he has done well to date. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, has worked hard but appeared out of his depth. Gove, the fourth member of the coronavirus “quad”, has kept a low profile considering he is by far the most experienced.
The generation of political giants whose views were forged in the Second World War and who passionately believed in the concept of public duty has long passed. The days when politics attracted people of the highest calibre are long over. The public’s loss of respect for politicians, and the increasingly presidential style of modern prime ministers, has hastened a descent into mediocrity that has reached its nadir at the very moment that strong, imaginative government is most desperately needed.
A measure of that decline is that the return of Johnson, hopefully sobered and more serious, is almost a relief. Though duplicitous and dishonest, he can lead. The one thing worse than having him run the country at this time of acute national emergency is him not running it.