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1 March 2021

Why is Boris Johnson getting away with failure?

Johnson’s premiership has been disastrous by any measure, but Keir Starmer is tying himself in knots.

By Martin Fletcher

The Conservatives have opened a 7-point lead over Labour in a new poll. A column in yesterday’s Observer was headlined: “I hate to say it, but Britain’s doing OK.” The front page of Bild, the German tabloid, proclaimed last week: “Britain – We Envy you!” All of a sudden Boris Johnson is resurgent. How can this be? 

Although I was an ardent Remainer, I wish post-Brexit Britain well. I want it to succeed. I would love to think that the country is bouncing back and that I’ve been wrong all along about our Dear Great Leader. But is that really the case?

The Downing Street operation has certainly improved in recent months. That rabid revolutionary Dominic Cummings and his Vote Leave fanatics have been replaced by grown-ups – Dan Rosenfield, Simon Case, Allegra Stratton – who have imposed discipline on the Prime Minister. Johnson has presided over a very successful roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine programme. He has finally ceased overpromising and underdelivering. He is using his newfound concern about climate change to soften his image and woo President Biden. The crocuses are out, spring approaches and an end to the lockdown is in sight.

But at the risk of sounding like a gloomster and a doomster, or the proverbial broken record, or even a terminal victim of Boris Derangement Syndrome, I would contend that by almost any measure his premiership has been calamitous.

[See also: Philip Collins: Why Boris Johnson’s “have cake, eat cake” strategy is yielding results

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Clearly he could not have averted the Covid-19 pandemic but his inattention, profligacy and congenital inability to take hard decisions means Britain has fared far worse than it had to. It has suffered one of the world’s highest death tolls and its greatest loss of civilians in peace or war in more than a century. It has suffered its worst economic contraction in 300 years and one of the worst of any large economy. The £300bn bill will hamper the country for a generation.

So will Brexit, the ideological craziness that Johnson championed in a shameless act of political opportunism. He has now delivered it, but the sunlit uplands that he promised turn out to be a muddy quagmire. We have regained our precious sovereignty but at the very real risk of the UK breaking up. We have liberated our businesses from the EU’s suffocating embrace, only to sever them from their largest market with a far more onerous regulatory regime. We have surrendered our right to live, travel and study anywhere in Europe for… what? I have yet to see a single significant benefit to offset the huge disruption that Brexit has caused. Far from taking back control, we have lost it to the extent that we can no longer send flowers from Britain to Belfast.

As for the general tenor of this government, I struggle to remember one that smelled quite so rank. It is an ethical black hole. Cronyism is rife. Donors and friends are rewarded with lucrative contracts and peerages. Ministers bully civil servants, bend planning rules for supporters and channel public funds to their constituencies, but they are never sacked and lack the decency to resign. The government openly threatens to break the law and has twice been deemed by courts to have done so.

Which brings me back to the question of how or why Johnson is managing to defy political gravity. 

[See also: Why Keir Starmer must break his silence on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal

He certainly possesses some rare skills for a politician. He is larger than life. He has the common touch. He is colourful, charismatic and has a compelling turn of phrase. He is a political chameleon who effortlessly sheds past positions and adopts new ones as the need arises. He is cunning, ruthless and evasive, but he also enjoys what is arguably the single greatest attribute of a successful politician: luck.

He has been able to conceal the dire impact of Brexit behind the even worse consequences of the pandemic and its lockdowns, though economists believe the long-term damage of Brexit will be greater. He took a bold decision to back the search for a Covid-19 vaccine early on but had the good fortune to have brilliant scientists deliver one in record time. When it has mattered, he has enjoyed the support of a sycophantic press that abandoned its duty to hold governments to account.

Above all, he has been blessed by a weak and divided opposition. Jeremy Corbyn was not just a closet Brexiteer but the perfect left-wing foil for Johnson at the last general election. Keir Starmer is a good and honest man, but he dares not mention Brexit and ties himself in policy knots in his desperation to win back “Red Wall” seats. I doubt one in ten voters could even name the Liberal Democrats’ leader, while Johnson could yet be spared the ignominy of losing Scotland by the vicious feuding that has erupted within the SNP.

In my view Sylvie Bermann, the former French ambassador to Britain and self-confessed Anglophile, offers a much more realistic view of Johnson’s Britain than Germany’s Bild. In weekend interviews with the Times and the Guardian to mark her new book, Goodbye Britannia, she called Brexit “a disastrous act of self-sabotage”, said the UK had “sacrificed everything to a mythical idea of sovereignty”, and dismissed the idea of “Global Britain” as a myth. 

The London she was posted to in 2014 was a city of “dynamism and optimism”, she recalled. Britain “was a country that was more open than ours, more free, more optimistic”, she lamented. “It’s different now.” 

[See also: Why Boris Johnson must now announce a public inquiry into the UK’s Covid-19 catastrophe]