Why Boris Johnson should now admit his government's failures over coronavirus

To earn the trust of all voters, the Prime Minister must stop the verbal obfuscation and statistical trickery.  

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Even as it has sickened, the nation has been healing. Though isolated in their homes, the UK’s people have pulled together. Inspired by Captain Tom, and through countless acts of sacrifice, kindness, generosity, altruism and support, they have united in the face of a common enemy and begun to put the ugliness and division of the past four years behind them.

That coming together has mostly been despite, not because of, Boris Johnson and his government. But the Prime Minister does now have an opportunity to establish himself as leader of more than just the 44 per cent of voters who delivered him victory in last December’s general election. 

The country is hungry for leadership at this time of national crisis. For all his faults, Johnson has the way with words required for that role. He exudes optimism, whether warranted or not. His affliction by coronavirus has won him a measure of sympathy, and he is certainly larger-than-life: it is hard to imagine any other prime minister cheating death and becoming a father in the space of a fortnight.

There are signs that the Prime Minister has been sobered by those experiences. He has resisted pressure to loosen with undue haste the tourniquet restricting our national life. He has restrained his trademark flippancy. He has shown a degree of empathy. His video statement thanking the hospital staff who saved his life – particularly two nurses from New Zealand and Portugal – appeared heartfelt and far removed from the sort of inflammatory, rabble-rousing, faintly xenophobic rhetoric that he used to deploy. 

In his statement outside No 10 last Monday (27 April) Johnson talked of the need to “build the biggest possible consensus across business, across industry, across all parts of the United Kingdom... bringing in opposition parties as far as we possibly can because I think that is no less than what the British people would expect”. In that, if he means it, he will be helped by Keir Starmer who, unlike Jeremy Corbyn, does not nurture a visceral hatred of all Conservatives.

But Johnson still has much to do to win over that substantial chunk of the population who have been treated so contemptuously by the Tory governments of the past four years – those “citizens of nowhere” whose advocates were purged from the party and from parliament, who were expected meekly to accept the hardest possible form of Brexit, and who were accused of treachery for opposing what they considered a disastrous course of action for the country that they loved.

He could start the process of building trust by admitting the blindingly obvious. Instead of boasting of “our apparent success” as Britain’s coronavirus death toll nears 30,000, he should stop the verbal obfuscation and statistical trickery. He should admit that his government was very slow to realise the magnitude of the looming pandemic; that he should have been attending those Cobra meetings in February instead of hunkering down at Chevening for 12 days with his fiancée Carrie Symonds. The public are not stupid. They realise that Covid-19 presents challenges of a complexity that no other postwar government has had to face. Were he honest, he might find people more forgiving than he thinks.

He should rein in his senior adviser Dominic Cummings and his absurd vendettas against the “state”, the civil service, the BBC and mainstream media – institutions that have generally proved their worth during the present crisis.

He should come clean and publish the long-suppressed report by parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee on Russian interference in British politics.

He should have no truck with Donald Trump, whose response to Covid-19 has proved beyond doubt that he is unfit to hold office and a danger to the world. The US president has used the pandemic to fight partisan battles, disseminate conspiracy theories, peddle quack medicine, support protests, foment xenophobia, shirk responsibility, demand praise, compete with allies and undermine multinational bodies such as the World Health Organisation at the very moment they are most needed. Despite the US’s 68,000 coronavirus deaths, Trump has failed to express sympathy for anyone but himself. That Johnson should have made one of his first two telephone calls after his hospital discharge to such a man is unfathomable.

Last, Johnson should stop treating our European friends and allies as enemies. His government’s refusal to join an EU ventilator acquisition scheme was unforgivable, and his ministers compounded matters by pretending that a communication error was to blame.

Even more reprehensible is Johnson’s refusal to seek an extension to the Brexit transition period without which the UK’s ravaged businesses will almost certainly begin 2021 without any trade agreement to protect their biggest markets and supply lines. 

At any time, let alone one of extreme economic distress, that is madness. It has little public support. It is completely unnecessary because even the most ardent Remainers accept that they have lost the battle to stay in the EU. It is an ideological legacy of a pre-coronavirus age stubbornly adhered to by a Tory government that has, by contrast, had no problem ditching its former aversion to state intervention and vast public expenditure. 

Rhetorically, at least, Johnson has reached out to his Brexit opponents. Following his election victory last December, he declared on the steps of No 10: “We in this ‘One Nation’ Conservative government will never ignore your good and positive feelings of warmth and sympathy towards the other nations of Europe.” He must now show that he means it.

Martin Fletcher is a New Statesman contributing writer and a former foreign editor of the Times

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