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Boris Johnson’s crisis of statesmanship

How the Prime Minister blew his Churchillian moment.

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Britain will next year mark the 300th anniversary of the office of prime minister. It was on 3 April 1721 that Robert Walpole, as First Lord of the Treasury, began formally to act as George I’s first minister – such an arrangement, hitherto ad hoc, now had to be regularised because of the instability caused by the South Sea Bubble speculative boom. The king spoke hardly any English and was therefore unable to oversee the nation’s affairs at this critical time in the way his predecessor and second cousin once removed, Queen Anne, had attempted to do. It would once have been an interesting after-dinner game to discuss who had been the worst prime minister, and had the lowest-calibre cabinet, in those 300 years; but now the answer is so indisputable that the exercise would be pointless.

Even where administrations have in living memory been obvious failures – the sheer incompetence of Theresa May’s, for example, or the long road to oblivion of John Major’s, or the catastrophic sequence of wilful misjudgements and lies that brought about British participation in the second Gulf War under Tony Blair, or the debacles of both the Heath and Callaghan ministries in the 1970s – all who led them, with the exception of Blair, had reasonable to extensive experience in government. All surrounded themselves with people of high intellect and deliberative ability, or engaged with others at the highest level whose opinions were contrary to their own. None of this is true of Boris Johnson’s administration.

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On the evening of Saturday 31 October, with the air of a confidence trickster, Johnson sought to breeze his way through a statement about one of the greatest U-turns in our politics since the days of Ted Heath. All the bluster and the best-in-the-world boastfulness he had spouted in the preceding months had been exposed for the frauds they were: England was being locked down, again, and at enormous financial and human cost.

The decision was taken at a small and supposedly confidential ministerial meeting on 30 October, which inevitably leaked. The announcement, scheduled for Monday 2 November, had to be brought forward to the following day. A press conference was fixed for 4pm, then 5pm, then 6pm, then eventually 6.45pm. The script was still being written; as with the rest of the management of this crisis, policy was being made up as the government staggered along. Since it has been believed for weeks at Westminster that the running of the government now takes place in 70 Whitehall – the Cabinet Office – and is done by Michel Gove and Dominic Cummings, the extra time was presumably necessary for Johnson to try to work out what he was announcing.

The cabinet was apparently upset at not being consulted before the latest lockdown U-turn. But then the cabinet is treated with the contempt it has come to merit. Ministers hold their places not by decree of the Prime Minister, but by the consent of his unelected chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, who requires that appointees will do precisely what they are told by the special advisers he has decided they must have.

When Sajid Javid, a more traditionally minded minister (and a former banker with what Don Regan, Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, famously called “fuck you money”), was told he had to sack his own trusted adviser and appoint one of Cummings’s acolytes instead, he honourably resigned. He did so saying that no one with any self-respect would take the job on such terms; enter Rishi Sunak. Rumours have dripped from the cabinet in recent weeks that Sunak (who, like Javid, is independently wealthy) has had stand-offs with Johnson over the economic damage the mismanagement of Covid-19 is causing. Johnson is said to fear his walking out because of the public confidence Sunak is believed to enjoy.

Since the new English lockdown, with the devastation it will inevitably cause to the economy and the huge extra costs it will bring on the Treasury for years to come, was not enough to provoke this, one starts to wonder whether anything would. Javid may well have been right about Sunak’s self-respect, or lack of it; and other colleagues are astonished the Chancellor hasn’t resigned, because it might be one of the means of bringing Johnson down. Sunak would then be exceptionally well positioned to become prime minister (the general election is not until 2024). Complicity with the continuing debacle can only damage those chances.

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The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “statesman” as “one who takes a leading part in the affairs of a state or body politic”. But there is an important qualifier: “esp[ecially] one who is skilled in the management of public affairs”. The entry for “statesmanship” inevitably defines that as “the skilful management of public affairs”. For clarity, however, it is hard to beat Enoch Powell’s view, expressed in his 1968 conference speech, excoriating Tory immigration policy: “The supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils.”

No one would claim that Covid-19 was a preventable evil; but it was a manageable one and, in that sense, the worst evils could have been prevented. All governments would have struggled with this crisis, even those with the sort of reputation for effectiveness that Thatcher’s administration had, or Asquith’s in handling its multitude of challenges before the First World War, or Gladstone’s great reforming ministry of 1868, or for that matter that of Pitt the Younger. But it is the absence of statesmanship, from the top down, that makes the Johnson administration so abysmal.

The case against Boris Johnson as a statesman barely requires making; the great lockdown U-turn more or less says it all, with supplementaries such as the boasts about the “world-class” test and trace system or his various preposterous lies, such as when he told the nation in early September that everyone was going back to work. His remarks were broadcast in the same news bulletins that showed the concourses of London’s great stations near deserted at rush hour. And, outside Covid-19, there was his appalling decision to threaten to repudiate a European treaty on which he had not only fought a general election, but which he himself had enthusiastically signed. (A statesman would have read it first.)

[see also: The biggest mistakes made by Boris Johnson’s government during the Covid-19 crisis]

That he saw no problem in breaking international law horrified even committed Brexiteers such as the former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard. But what is perhaps even worse is that when Johnson is in cabinet council he cannot even rely on the wisdom and experience of his colleagues to guide him, because so few of them have either. Worse still, some are proven failures and charlatans in his own image.

By what right does Gavin Williamson preside over the educational welfare of our children when, given months to prepare for a crisis in the examination system, he failed entirely, and almost denied many of our young people the university places they merited? Why is Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, still in office after the scandal of his association with the property developer and Tory party donor Richard Desmond, and whose handling of other planning applications suggests he regards that area of policy as a Conservative Party fundraising scheme? Why has Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, been largely silent in public about the terrible difficulties facing business because of the government’s Covid policy? Why does Priti Patel keep getting away with making Johnsonian boasts about the imminent solution of the immigration crisis in the English Channel, in which last month a young family of Iranian Kurds, including children, died, while she changes nothing at all?

What is Robert Buckland, the Lord Chancellor, doing about the chaos in the courts system because of Covid, with trials now being scheduled up to the early summer of 2022, and some senior judges talking among themselves about perhaps even having to resort to a system of amnesties to bring the numbers down? How can Matt Hancock, the man with perhaps the worst job in the government as steward of the National Health Service, possibly stay in post given his ultimate responsibility for test and trace, and his unequivocal support for its leader Dido Harding’s catastrophic failures? And who outside her family and close friends can even name the cabinet minister and co-chairman of the Tory party, who ought to have a responsibility in these confused times for getting her party’s message across?

One could go on: but that list should be enough to convince anyone that this government, which finally forfeited trust when Johnson U-turned on 31 October, had already forfeited credibility. And it is the absence of statesmanship, of experience, and of that ability to give deep consideration to what the public interest demands and painstakingly to try to achieve it, that has led to the betrayal of an electorate that only 11 months ago returned this government with a resounding majority.

In the great crises of the past century prime ministers not only gave their all and accepted properly the huge responsibilities of their office, but they were assisted in doing so by highly capable colleagues who took sensible, collective decisions. So it was in August 1914, when Asquith could call on men of the intellectual clout of Richard Haldane and John Morley, on the expertise of Edward Grey and John Simon, and on the communications skills of Lloyd George and Churchill; or when Attlee sought to fulfil his transformative mandate in 1945 with men to assist him such as Ernest Bevin, Nye Bevan, Stafford Cripps, Christopher Addison, Herbert Morrison and Hugh Dalton; or when Wilson, in his economic and social reform battles of the 1960s, could count on minds as challenging as Anthony Crosland, Richard Crossman, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn and Peter Shore, and highly adept political operators such as Barbara Castle and James Callaghan.

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Statesmanship and leadership are not quite the same – leadership can become demagogic and narcissistic (Hitler was a leader but obviously not a statesman), whereas statesmanship does suggest a concern for the practical and constitutional welfare of the nation. True statesmanship must include an element of leadership. Leadership can, as Donald Trump and – in so far as he is a leader other than in name only – Johnson prove, be utterly lacking in statesmanship. It is a tragedy for Britain that a problem so serious as Covid-19 should come upon the country at a time when both these qualities are so scarce among its senior ministers.

There were always doubts about Johnson’s moral character, but now he appears to be preoccupied with personal issues, which gives him no chance of mastering the complexities of the decision-making demanded by the crisis. Having a more extended family than most people (though he refuses to answer the question about how many children he has), Johnson is obsessed with money, but can’t make enough in Downing Street even to pay for a nanny for his latest child, it is reported. His last wife has apparently cleaned him out in her richly deserved divorce settlement. He may still be suffering from the effects of his own struggle with Covid-19 last spring.

[see also: From a young age Boris Johnson longed to be World King – but the gods are mocking him]

When editor of the Spectator he had a brilliant deputy who did the actual editing for him. As mayor of London he had at least six deputies who did all the work. As a narcissist and showman Johnson loves being a figurehead. Now he has Cummings and Gove, a match made in heaven some years ago, to be prime minister for him. Cummings is good at laying down the law; Gove, who as a Times leader writer years ago would write with the utmost conviction whatever line he was told, is good at going on television and protesting that an abominable state of affairs is actually quite acceptable, and sounding as though he believes it.


First in line: the first prime minister Robert Walpole (right) with his secretary, Henry Bilson-Legge. Credit: GL Archive/Alamy

Sadly, the job that Robert Walpole and 53 others before Johnson have discharged does not work like that. When the absence of statesmanship in the individual asked by the Queen to form her government becomes an inability to lead, his or her position starts to become untenable, and the country starts to totter. Johnson’s colleagues have not forgotten that in February, when Covid-19 was heading towards these shores precipitately, Johnson disappeared for 12 days and missed five Cobra meetings at which the threat, and how to deal with it, were discussed. That strange absence alone ought to have alerted his colleagues that something was wrong, not least because the reasons for his absence, which are said to be to do with his baroque private life, have never been explained.

Then as day after day statistics suggested the rates of infection, hospitalisation and death were increasing and new measures might be needed, Johnson disappeared again. On Monday 2 November, afraid to face his patrons at the CBI conference, he sent the hapless Sharma to try to placate them instead. When real leadership is required – the cohering of a nation, the bringing together of a people to face a common problem that threatens them all – he simply goes off the map. It is as if Ramsay MacDonald had walked away as the pound collapsed in August 1931, or Churchill had vanished for a week in August 1940. Johnson had raised his head briefly on 29 October after the terrorist murders in France, which were beyond question shocking and required an expression of Britain’s sympathy. But to his own people threatened (according to the government’s own scientific advisers) by a hecatomb of death if action were not taken, he had nothing to say until unceremoniously bounced into it at a hastily arranged press conference on 31 October.

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This humiliation may not be enough to remove him from office. A senior Tory told me the other day that if the 1922 Committee executive were to march into Downing Street, tell Johnson he had lost the confidence of the party and that he should find a way to leave without loss of face – possibly citing his post-Covid health – he, or rather Cummings, would tell them to “fuck off”. But the reports of groups of Tory MPs being “in meltdown” since the new lockdown decision was taken are, I know, true. Buyers’ remorse is everywhere.

[see also: Tory MPs dislike Boris Johnson’s Covid-19 strategy, but they don’t have an alternative]

Yet, more to the point, Johnson is plainly not enjoying himself, and the country is becoming tired of him. So are his colleagues, who in the summer of 2019 justified putting him in the highest office with the fatuous justification that “He’s a winner.” The election victory of last December looks increasingly hollow, and the Red Wall seats “borrowed” from Labour to achieve it are likely to be swiftly returned unless the leadership, and the message, change. For years, one of Johnson’s more ridiculous fantasies was that he was some sort of reincarnation of Winston Churchill, about whom he wrote a book. Well, he has just had the chance for his Churchillian moment, and he blew it.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 06 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos