The Tory dilemma

THE TABLET Comment 11 June 2022

When does incompetence become a moral issue? Britain’s prime minister must bear responsibility as the head of an administration under which a culture of mediocrity and dysfunction has led to things falling apart in virtually all departments – because this state of anomie reflects his chaotic personality. This is the fundamental moral issue raised by Boris Johnson’s prime ministership.

So he bears responsibility for the mounting congestion at hospital A&E departments, for the long queues of trucks on the road to Dover, for the ruined holiday plans of those whose flights were cancelled, for the bureaucratic delays in admitting Ukrainian refugees, for the failure to extract opponents of the Taliban from Afghanistan last summer, even for the soaring price of fuel at petrol pumps across the land. And, most seriously, for the tardy and insufficient help available to poor families who cannot afford to feed their own children.

For he appointed the ministers responsible, and they did too little, too late. Sometimes the emergency measures they put in place helped, sometimes they make things worse. Often they were irrelevant, and there are always outside circumstances beyond the government’s control that can be blamed, honestly or not. Johnson did not always deal the cards, but he played them badly. And those ministers knew, under Johnson, there would be no price to pay for failure. They are chosen, by and large, for their mediocrity, so that they represent no challenge to his leadership. Indeed, the most likely reason why the vote of no confidence fell short of the 180 required to win was the lack of an obvious successor. This was simply about replacing Boris with “anybody but Boris”. The lack of unity in the Tory party could have turned – and eventually will turn – choosing the next Tory leader into a civil war between bitterly opposed factions. Johnson’s lack of principle and dearth of values is the one thing that has enabled him to hold this fractious party together.

These traits are evident in the latest crisis engulfing his leadership. It was triggered by an attitude to rule-breaking in 10 Downing Street that was lackadaisical at best and criminally negligent at worse, at a time when tight Covid restrictions made social gatherings illegal, amounting to misconduct in public office. Johnson’s response to the fact that 148 of his own MPs, more than four out of ten, voted to say they did not have confidence in him and wanted him to resign, was to call the result “convincing” and “decisive”.

This is so far from reality as to amount to a lie, but perhaps one he told to himself before he uttered it to others. The Daily Telegraph, his old newspaper before he became prime minister, clearly inhabits a different world. “Boris Johnson wins confidence vote but hollow victory could tear the Tories apart,” it declared. This outcome, its commentators unanimously agreed, was the worst possible for him, for his party and for the country. The Daily Mail, another voice of the Tory right wing, referred to a “brutal confidence vote that saw more than 40 per cent of his MPs try to oust him”. Both papers agreed that further attempts to remove him were inevitable, as many Tory MPs, perhaps most, were desperate not to see their political careers brought to a painful conclusion at the next general election. That now looks increasingly likely. Whatever they may say about it, this was a good result for Labour.

Boris Johnson is a very intelligent man and a superb politician, loaded with telegenic charisma but without scruple. His approach, which also now defines his government, is to ignore problems until they turn into a crisis, then to rush into place ill-conceived measures that give the impression of government action, until the problems resolve themselves in the natural course of events. The people concerned die, for instance. This was the story of the government’s initial reaction to the Covid crisis, when hospitals were ordered to clear out elderly patients, who were transferred into unhygienic residential care without protective equipment to make room for the expected tidal wave of younger Covid victims. This policy cost many lives. The government had neglected repeated warnings that the UK was ill-prepared for an epidemic.

This is also part of the Johnson method. He is frequently exposed by the forensic questioning of Sir Keir Starmer in the House of Commons. His tactic is like that legendary solicitor who desperately instructs his counsel, as the trial looks increasingly hopeless: “No case: abuse opponent’s attorney.” So Starmer’s character is routinely assaulted with whatever fanciful calumny comes to Johnson’s mind. It is all sound and fury, signifying nothing. It is rarely truthful. Johnson is the epitome of the schoolboy who, asked why he has not handed in his essay, replies: “The dog ate my homework.”

But this is the essence of a chaotic personality, who not only escapes from crises of his own making time and again, but even enjoys the sport of it. He surrounds himself with people with similar tastes. As one senior Downing Street official gloatingly said to another, after a particularly egregious breach of the Covid rules: “We seem to have got away with it.” Former prime minister David Cameron described Johnson as a “greased piglet” who could slither free from the farmer’s grip no matter how tightly he is held.

The Tory MPs who voted to keep him in office have to share responsibility for the consequences – frankly, just more of the same old chaos. There will be other Johnsonian feats of maladministration to excuse, other scandals and setbacks. There are two by-elections imminent which Johnson seems fated to lose; a Parliamentary inquiry into whether he lied to the House of Commons concerning his knowledge of the “Partygate” affair is under way; and meanwhile ordinary life for ordinary people becomes ever more inconvenient or harsh, depending on their circumstances, as the very fabric of society is stretched to breaking point.

Good government is about competence – a culture of anticipation and prevention – not crisis management, though that is sometimes inescapable. It is about facing up to the truth, not dodging it.

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