Boris Johnson’s first year as PM: incompetence and maliciousness

Johnson’s government shamelessly scapegoats to deflect blame for its own shortcomings.

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As we approach the first anniversary of the Johnson-Cummings premiership this Friday (24 July) let us pause to celebrate our Prime Minister’s many achievements.

He has united his parliamentary party, albeit by purging Remainers. He won a general election with a “stonking” majority, albeit against a deeply divided opposition and the most hopeless Labour leader in living memory. He kept his promise to take the UK out of the EU, albeit by accepting an Irish Sea border that he had previously rejected out of hand.

On a more personal level, our blond and virile leader has got engaged (after finally jettisoning the wife of 25 years to whom he had been serially unfaithful). He has become a father (for the sixth, seventh or eighth time – only he knows for certain). He narrowly escaped death from Covid-19 (unlike 45,000 of his compatriots, many of whom might have survived had his government been less incompetent).

Alas, not all of Johnson’s Downing Street record is as rosy.

It is true that the coronavirus pandemic was not his fault, and that it presented a challenge of an unprecedented scale and severity, but his government’s response was lamentable. 

It squandered two months when it should have been preparing the nation’s defences. It abandoned the test-and-trace programme when it should have been building it. It failed to provide adequate protection for front-line health workers. It seeded the nation’s care homes, and our most vulnerable citizens, with Covid-19. It imposed quarantine measures four months too late. Still it equivocates on whether and when the public should wear face masks.

The government may or may not have staved off depression-level unemployment, but at what cost? It is amassing a national debt unmatched since the Second World War. It has discovered not just a magic money tree, but a magic money forest. Much of the spending is necessary, but a million to paint the prime minister’s plane red, white and blue? Ninety-three million on yet another awareness campaign to prepare for the consequences of Brexit? Four-hundred million on buying a bankrupt satellite company? 

One day, there will be a terrible reckoning. We will be levelling down, not up.

Meanwhile, the government looks set to heap misery on misery by refusing to seek an extension to the Brexit transition period. Having so far failed to negotiate the “new and exciting partnership” with the EU that it promised, it believes we will not notice yet more pain and dislocation amid that of the pandemic. The Treasury still refuses to publish its analysis of Brexit’s economic impact.

And what of Johnson’s plan for a “global Britain”? Well, that’s going well. Never mind that our own internal Union is more strained than ever under Johnson. We have burned our bridges with Europe. Our relations with authoritarian China and Russia have imploded. The unspeakable President Trump remains a “friend” so long as we do his bidding, but may well be gone by November. 

Far from standing up for liberal democratic values, we stay silent as Trump fosters hatred, coddles dictators, snubs allies and dismantles the postwar international order. We have failed to take a lead on Syria, the Middle East, climate change, fighting coronavirus or any other pressing international issue. We are folding the Department for International Development, a powerful instrument of our soft diplomacy, into the Foreign Office. We recently sanctioned 49 human rights abusers around the world, but how much more effective would that step have been had we persuaded the EU to join us? As yet we have no discernible strategy for projecting British power and influence post-Brexit.

The Johnson-Cummings government is not just incompetent. It is nasty, cynical, vindictive, dishonest and secretive.

It sought to prorogue parliament to prevent it blocking a no-deal Brexit until the Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutional. It effectively expelled Tory MPs who backed Remain. It made subservience and fervour for Brexit conditions of cabinet membership, which is why that body is stuffed with mediocrities. Remember them all chanting, at Johnson’s behest, the number of nurses and policemen he planned to recruit?

Under this administration the bad prosper and the good are punished. Cummings survives in post despite his egregious breach of lockdown rules. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, survives despite multiple bullying allegations against her – and the Cabinet Office’s investigation of her conduct is being suppressed. Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, survives despite improperly facilitating a Tory donor’s £1bn housing development. David Frost becomes national security adviser despite his manifest lack of qualifications for that job. 

At the same time Sajjid Javid is ousted as chancellor for defending the Treasury’s independence. Mark Sedwill is ousted as cabinet secretary for displaying insufficient revolutionary zeal. Julian Lewis has the whip removed for thwarting Downing Street’s efforts to impose Chris “Failing” Grayling as chair of the intelligence committee – and to suppress that committee’s report on Russian interference in British democracy.

The media is likewise punished for being insufficiently supportive. First Cummings barred ministers from appearing on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme. Now the Sunday Times has been blacklisted for criticising the government’s performance.

The government is pursuing some legitimate reforms, notably of the civil service, but through aggression and belligerence, not cooperation. It lies. It briefs maliciously. It shamelessly scapegoats to deflect blame for its own shortcomings. It resents, and seeks to evade, scrutiny. It governs through slogans and soundbites, and seeks to divide rather than unite. But here, too, there will surely be a reckoning.

Johnson appears a shadow of his previous self – his ebullience punctured, his delivery flat, his humour worn thin. His trademark optimism and berating of “doomsters and gloomsters” seems vacuous, reckless even, in this time of crisis. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, exposes his bluster and obfuscation, his inability to master detail, in a way that Jeremy Corbyn never could. The Prime Minister is increasingly seen as Cummings’s puppet – a narrative that will be hard to reverse given how hard he fought to keep his aide post-Durham. Johnson’s net approval rating has plunged from plus-40 in April to minus-six now.

Conservative backbenchers are growing restive and uneasy. Previously sycophantic newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail are becoming markedly more critical. Thus, a mere year into Johnson’s premiership, there are already mutterings about Rishi Sunak, the able young Chancellor, replacing him before the next election.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times and a New Statesman magazine contributing writer and online columnist.

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