Boris Johnson’s biggest problem is not lack of competence – it’s an absence of conviction

Officials and aides struggle to work out what Downing Street wants – especially when there's no “people-pleasing” option.

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A change of nuisances, David Lloyd George once remarked, is as good as a holiday. Which only goes to show how much British politics has changed in the intervening century: these days, that the prime minister goes on holiday is itself something of a nuisance.

Under David Cameron, it was a nuisance for telecommunication giants – more than one of which faced Downing Street complaints about Cornwall’s poor mobile coverage. Under Theresa May, the secret services suffered. She and her husband Philip are keen walkers, and like all good ramblers will occasionally stop to peer over a cliff or to exchange a brief wave and a few tips about the coming terrain with someone travelling in the opposite direction. Securely vetting people who came into contact with the prime minister was not so much difficult as impossible. 

Under Boris Johnson, the nuisance is political. His decision to spend part of the summer in a posh yurt in Scotland might have been a relief for both the phone companies and security services, but he has been sharply criticised for holidaying while his government blundered into a crisis over exam results and while efforts to successfully reopen schools are still under way.

Johnson’s Downing Street takes pride and pleasure in ignoring what it sees as the ephemeral and harmless grumbling of the newspapers, but that view isn’t universally shared within the Conservative Party. Nervous MPs believe that while one row about the government’s competence – or lack thereof – can be shrugged off, repeated accusations of ineptitude will have an effect on the party’s standing in the country.

Keir Starmer’s short-term mission is to demonstrate the government’s incompetence first, and move to substantial points of disagreement later. There is, for example, already an unflattering cross-party consensus about the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson. That he went on holiday to Scarborough the week before the A-level results row erupted only adds to Tory anxiety – despite Williamson’s protestations that he remained in contact with his department throughout – and the sense among optimistic Labourites that they are targeting the Conservatives’ most vulnerable spot.

The reality, however, is that the recent schools crisis did not occur because the Prime Minister and the Education Secretary went on their summer breaks – but because of mistakes both men made in the spring. The decision to cancel exams and have results set by an algorithm, using inadequate and patchy information about pupils, was made in April. The failure to reopen schools, which could have allowed a measure of assessment to take place, happened in May. And it is still unclear if the government has genuinely fixed the logistical problems involved in successfully opening schools and observing social distancing – it is possible, perhaps likely, that schools may be forced to shut only a few weeks into the autumn term.

But the government’s biggest mistake may concern the summer’s only feel-good political story: Eat Out to Help Out, the subsidised dining scheme offering discounted meals three days a week in August. It has been a success: the number of diners in restaurants from Monday-Wednesday is higher than this time last year, according to OpenTable. But loosening restrictions in one part of the economy increases the risk across society. The UK’s daily number of reported new coronavirus cases has been gradually rising since the beginning of July, and is now back to levels last seen in June (though there remains some debate over whether this is due to increased testing). This may prove to be too much for the country to handle when schools, which will also add to the risk of a new outbreak, begin lessons in the autumn.

The real problem isn’t the government’s competence, but its ideology – or rather, the lack of it. The case for restarting education has always been overwhelming. Schooling is the major tool to close the gap between the rich and the poor, to allow children to socialise. It provides childcare to working parents and skills to the next generation. It’s the single biggest economic and social stimulus package available to the government. But how you reopen schools – which year groups you prioritise, how you handle exams – is a central part of whether you gain those rewards. In the spring, the government couldn’t decide what it wanted to achieve. It prioritised none of the possible benefits and, as a result, achieved none of them either.

To the extent that Johnson’s Downing Street has an ideology, it is people-pleasing. This irritates both civil servants and special advisers. When asked to provide direction, the Prime Minister will nod along with whatever bumper-sticker idea is available. Take “levelling up”, for instance: does it mean cutting taxes, or spending more? The answer ends up being “both” – taxes must be as low as possible, and the NHS and other public services must be fully funded – which, in practice, means “neither”. Meetings end with no one sure what the priority is. And when it comes to restarting society in general and schools in particular, there is no people-pleasing option: to keep schools open, some businesses may have to shut, or even fail.

The lack of political direction means that officials and aides struggle to work out what Downing Street wants. Everyone has a pretty good idea of, say, Michael Gove or Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to big issues such as education or criminal justice. But beyond Johnson’s latest enthusiasms, he provides little guidance. This explains why official business slows considerably when the Prime Minister is on holiday. But the void that really matters in this government is not the one that Johnson leaves when he goes away, but the one he brings back with him. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 28 August 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Covid

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