The government’s embarrassment over its handling of Covid-19 is clear from the desperation of its so-called rebuttal of the Sunday Times Insight report about failures of leadership as the virus approached. The key claim of this prolix defence was that “it is ridiculous to suggest that coronavirus only reached the UK because the health secretary and not the prime minister chaired a Cobra meeting”. The report suggested nothing of the sort; it stated that Boris Johnson found better things to do than attend the first five meetings about the pandemic, and appeared only once it had reached the UK. One of the oldest refuges of the political scoundrel is to try to neutralise your opponent by attacking him for something he hasn’t done, and hope people are too stupid to notice. Sadly for the government, they aren’t.
Johnson, still absent recuperating from illness, had Michael Gove harrumph on his behalf at the “grotesque” suggestion that the Prime Minister is unequal to his job. “I think,” said Gove, like a less articulate version of the late Lord Hailsham rebuking an interviewer for insolence, “that anyone who considered what happened to the Prime Minister not long ago – nobody can say the Prime Minister isn’t throwing heart and soul into fighting this virus.” Johnson may now be “throwing heart and soul” into tackling the crisis – or at least once he has recovered – but Gove, too, was attacking Johnson’s accusers for claims they had not made. It wasn’t about Johnson’s conduct now; it was about how he behaved when the crisis was still mounting, and when he might have taken its containment rather more seriously.
To have snaffled two weeks’ holiday during what has been branded “38 days of inaction” was by any measure shocking. According to briefings, his absence was to deal with issues in his baroque private life, which some Tories used to find amusing but which are not so funny now. A former senior cabinet minister, who supported Johnson’s leadership campaign, admitted his conduct had been inadequate. “We have to have a full public inquiry after this. And it is going to be damaging.” The Sunday Times quoted a Downing Street adviser on Johnson’s limitations in office: “He didn’t chair any meetings… He didn’t work weekends… It was exactly like people feared he would be.” But when those who knew him – including in these pages – said it would be like this, his backers said Johnson would surround himself with ministers who would do aspects of the job for him (as if that were satisfactory). Instead, he has Dominic Cummings.
“His cabinet is full of yes-men. There is no room for anyone with a mind of their own,” the former minister told me. Whatever mistakes were made early on, “the biggest mistake of all has been leaving Dominic Raab in charge but without any authority. Gove has been on manoeuvres, conspiring with Cummings to ensure Raab can’t assert himself.”
To some Tory MPs, the sheer inexperience of the cabinet has been glaringly obvious, and a further embarrassment. Performances at the daily press conferences or during TV interviews have often been excruciating, and Tories are starting to worry about the government’s ability to command public confidence. Matt Hancock, the Health Minister, has seemed at times a man on the edge of self-control, such as in his ill-considered threat to restrict further the public’s right to leave home should a minority insist on sunbathing or sitting on benches. His suggestion that social care workers receive a badge for their contribution brought the response that they would prefer protective equipment. His petulant performance in some interviews has been cringe-making. “Hancock is shitting himself,” another Tory told me. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” Another said that Hancock “was brilliant at doing what he’s told, but can’t take a decision”.
Nobody believes any government would have found it easy to deal with the pandemic; but plenty of governments have confronted grave crises and coped better than this one. Robert Jenrick, the Communities Minister, is another prime example of allowing inexperience and entitlement to trump reality and sap public confidence. Having already humiliated himself by breaking lockdown rules and driving to his taxpayer-subsidised country house – something for which a man of honour, once rumbled, would have resigned – he then promised next-day delivery of much-needed protective equipment, which did not arrive because it reportedly had not even been ordered.
On 19 April the government appointed Lord Deighton, CEO of the London 2012 Olympics, to be the “Lord Beaverbrook” of this crisis, and ensure supplies of protective equipment. It was, however, as if Churchill had appointed Beaverbrook as Minister of Supply in 1943, not 1941. A prime minister who had attended those Cobra meetings might have addressed the supply problem before NHS staff started to die of Covid-19.
What has happened is shocking and depressing proof of Johnson’s inability to take a serious job seriously. The lack of professionalism that characterised his career in journalism and his conduct as mayor of London and at the Foreign Office is now lethally evident. Johnson, Hancock and other ministers found wanting by this crisis can protest, rightly, that it is out of the ordinary. But Johnson, in missing those five meetings, proved he was not even trying to take control. “What really worries me,” the former Tory minister observed, “is that the economic problems piling up because of this require really serious people to deal with them and lead us out of them. And this cabinet has very few really serious people.” That economic maelstrom will be the context of the inevitable public inquiry. If it is conducted with the necessary thoroughness, the Conservative Party will have to brace itself for a maelstrom of its own.
This article appears in the 22 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The coronavirus timebomb