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Boris Johnson’s autumn of discontent

The Tories turned to Johnson, in spite of his flaws, because they knew he was a winner. But high office does not transform character: it reveals it – and the Prime Minister has been unveiled.

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They all knew. The legions of Tory MPs and activists who had seen Boris Johnson up close all knew what he was like. They all knew he couldn’t concentrate beyond the punchline of a gag. They knew he had no capacity for, or even any great interest in, the slow grind of government. They chose him in full sight of his defects because his virtue was greater. He reached parts of the country otherwise prohibited to Tories; he was, and is, a winner. Though, not necessarily for long.

The sorry spectacle of Boris Johnson in 10 Downing Street is a repeat of the lesson that Gordon Brown and Theresa May ought to have taught us. Nobody ever changes. Office does not transform character: it reveals it. Gordon Brown was, sadly, not liberated by his elevation to the premiership. He was exposed as a man who did not understand that, at some point in the endless call for more research, he had to make a decision. Neither did Theresa May suddenly cast aside a lifetime of caution and figuratively gambol across the cornfields. She became, though it seemed barely possible, even more reticent and inscrutable. It really should not come as any surprise that the Boris Johnson who is now cast as Prime Minister is exactly the man who auditioned for the job.

Over the past fortnight the Conservative Party has begun to notice that its chosen Prime Minister does not cut an especially impressive figure. It is a sign of the frantic acceleration of politics today that, just ten months after a notable 80-seat election victory, Tory MPs are speculating about replacing Johnson before the next general election. Some of those in parliament and in the right-wing press who loudly sponsored Johnson over the more stable and conservative Jeremy Hunt have worked out that Johnson, when he does anything at all, does not seem to know what he is doing.

The charge sheet runs as follows. Johnson did not even chair his first meeting of Cobra, the emergency committee, until 2 March – by which time Britain already had 39 confirmed cases of Covid-19. The government closed the borders too late and was too slow to lock down. It abandoned contact tracing too early, did not at first understand the urgency of increasing testing capacity, promised an app that never appeared and floundered in the search for protective equipment. Fear that the NHS would be overwhelmed led, between 17 March and 16 April, to the discharging of 25,000 patients from hospitals back into care homes, many of whom will have been carrying the virus. By the end of June, more than 19,000 people had died in care homes from Covid. Then, the government opened up society too early and too much. The grim consequence of this catalogue of misjudgements is that at the time of writing almost 42,000 British people are confirmed to have died of Covid, with an excess deaths tally more than double that of France and eight times higher than Germany.

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The past fortnight has been a masterclass in poor governance. On 11 September the infection rate or R number rose to between 1.0 and 1.2 for the first time since March. Five days later, the Prime Minister appeared before parliament’s liaison committee to say a second lockdown would have disastrous financial consequences and must be avoided. Since then the north-east and parts of the north-west of England have been locked down. The plan must be to impose lockdown in instalments and then, when all the lockdowns join up, hope nobody notices.

On 17 September, Dido Harding, the recently appointed chief executive of NHS Test and Trace, admitted the government had not foreseen the coughs and colds of autumn and another wave of Covid would lead to such a large increase in demand for the tests that did not, anywhere in the country, appear to be readily available. Undeterred by all the government’s unredeemed promises, she pledged that daily testing capacity would be half a million by October. When Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, told a Downing Street press conference on 21 September that there could be 50,000 cases a day by mid-October without any action, a return of restrictions was inevitable. The coronavirus alert level was raised to 4 and restrictions on assembly reintroduced.

Underneath these details lies a crisis of infrastructure for which Conservative governments of a decade standing need to take some responsibility. The NHS entered the pandemic with hardly any spare capacity. Centrally held data was poorly collected and connected and the system had no capacity to respond to the sudden need for mass testing. Then, to the extent that the British state had prepared at all for a health crisis, it had carried out exercises to combat a pandemic based on influenza rather than a respiratory illness such as Sars.

It is an impressive litany of failure and, slowly, it is starting to change the way the nation views Johnson. The public has more patience than the political class – it pays less attention to political trivia and takes longer to come to a verdict, which as a result tends to be, when it arrives, both judicious and settled. The obvious example is the judgement entered on Jeremy Corbyn. Political veterans were shrill in their denunciation of the hapless former Labour leader but, by the early election of 2017, the public’s longer, calmer look had not been completed. Corbyn was given a stay of execution and an opportunity to make his case at greater length. The case he made was then summarily dismissed in 2019.

In last December’s election the verdict of the electorate was a triumph for Johnson’s virtues. It would be complacent of Labour, and a disservice to the truth, to say that he has no virtues. An overall majority of 80 is an impressive victory and it was not all down to the negative capability of Jeremy Corbyn. Johnson’s optimistic embrace of Brexit was shared by the half of the electorate that voted for it. His vocabulary might be composed from the off-cuts discarded by PG Wodehouse as too obviously Woosterish to furnish one of the lesser Bertie stories, but at least he doesn’t talk like a politician. He doesn’t look like one, either. He’s a “character”, is Boris Johnson, and having a character is worth a lot of votes. In particular, “Boris” – like “Maggie” Thatcher often referred to by his first name alone – brought in the vote in parts of England that had not voted Tory in a long while. December 2019 was a victory for Brexit, to be sure, but it was also a victory for Boris.

However, the man who does not look or sound like a politician is incapable of acting like one, too, and this is not a compliment. The December election saw him at his best; Covid-19 finds him out at his worst. At no point has Johnson settled on a strategic objective. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a politician less likely to have one. Is he trying to beat the virus, to suppress it pending a vaccine, or is he preparing us to live with it in our midst for the duration? We don’t know. Probably he doesn’t know himself.

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All the while, Johnson has been the prisoner of his own tendency to exaggerate. Faced with an administrative problem he wibbles his way out of it. Promising “Operation Moonshot”, for mass testing, no longer sounds like optimism; it sounds incredible. He sounds like a man without a rocket vowing to meet us on the moon. Seduced by his ability to change the argument, Johnson will be frustrated by the fact that he has no ability to change the world.

In office, even without a virus to contend with, government can be a hard grind. Interesting events can be boring to deal with on a daily basis. “Not Covid again? But we did that yesterday.” Before the virus took all the attention in government that had previously been taken by Brexit, Johnson showed alarming signs of having nothing much to say. In one sense, he has been saved from all his own emptiness by a crisis, rather like Gordon Brown in 2008. The difference, of course, is that Brown responded to the financial crash with dedication and no little finesse. Boris Johnson has withered in the face of the crisis.

This is not yet the settled public verdict on the Prime Minister but it is slowly coming in. Johnson trails Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, when people are asked who would make the better prime minister. The government’s approval rating is now -25, its lowest since the election. And that is before the new restrictions come into force, before a second wave of the virus and before the rise of unemployment in the autumn, let alone the full economic damage.

Johnson’s next move will be to fire scattergun shots of blame. It has already been the fault of Public Health England, and we can expect NHS England to be in the dock soon enough. The Cabinet Office will be blamed for being unready, the experts for having given the wrong advice at the wrong time. The public has alternatively been told it either did not listen or listened too well. When Brexit went awry it was anyone’s fault but the Brexiteers.

When the government lost control of the pandemic it had to be someone else’s fault but, eventually, the public locates the culprit. So it will here. This is the slow unveiling of Boris Johnson: the can-do man who can’t do anything. 

Philip Collins is a New Statesman columnist and contributing writer. 

This article appears in the 25 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The autumn of discontent