Pond Life

A Cabinet of catastrophes

Regular readers will be unsurprised by the government’s double-debacle in the Tiverton and Wakefield by-elections last month. One happy consequence for sensible Conservatives – those agreeing with the 148 MPs who opposed Boris Johnson in the vote of confidence last month – is that the results knocked another fistful of nails into the coffin of a leader whose mental state appears to be transitioning from depraved to delusional.

At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda, 4,000 miles from where his parliamentary colleagues are sharply focused on their P45s, Johnson refused to accept personal responsibility for the disaster and claimed he was thinking about his third term in office. This kind of verbal sewage is merely theatrical and has all the conviction of his staged “jog” outside a Manchester hotel, caught on a resurfaced video that’s recently been widely mocked on social media.

We all know what’s wrong with Johnson – his pathological lies, his virulent disloyalty, his ruthless sacrifice of others for his own mistakes. Given that every statement he’s made since the by-election defeats has made his party hate him more, there’s an outside chance that by the time you read this, humiliated and angry ministers will have followed Oliver Dowden’s example and resigned. If enough did so, the edifice holding him up would collapse. That is probably the only way Johnson will go, as it was for the much less deserving Margaret Thatcher in 1990. But perhaps we shouldn’t put too much faith in his ministers. One aspect beyond Johnson’s miserable personal conduct that gets too little attention when the charge sheet is drawn up is his appalling choice of colleagues, and their sheer inability to act as competent ministers of the Crown.

Solely to make himself look good Johnson chose a cabinet insufficiently described by the appendage “mediocrities”. There are men and women running serious departments of state without a clue of how to do so properly, or of how – to use Johnson’s own noxious term – to “deliver” to the British people. Deliver is a transitive verb, but you will have noticed already that we’re never told exactly what it is for which we’re awaiting delivery. The metaphysical concept of delivery is something past which we never seem to travel. It’s easy to shrug our shoulders and observe that this is all part of the manifesto of bullshit that Johnson enlists to justify his continuance in office. However, with the country in a worsening mess – exemplified by the economic stresses being inflicted daily on the British public – shrugging our shoulders is simply no longer an option.

Sadly, there is no one in Johnson’s group of cronies with a clue of how to do the job properly

Let’s look, for a moment, at what is not being “delivered”, for that too has played a significant part in the government’s electoral decline. Rishi Sunak, cast into darkness because of apparent disagreements with Johnson, seems to have no real command of the economy, nor any idea how to improve it. Having promised a high-wage economy, Johnson now maintains the Heathite fiction that militant trade unionists such as the railway workers are causing inflation by demanding pay rises. He ignores the fact that inflation is caused by one thing only, and that is the unreasonable growth of the money supply – too much money chasing too few goods. You can solve that by whacking up interest rates, but that has the unpleasant side-effect of penalising businesses which borrow to fund investment and expansion just when we need them more than ever to do well. Rate rises also stuff voters without fixed-rate mortgages and the millions who live off credit card borrowing.

One answer is to cut taxes and public spending, and that is most effectively achieved by cutting the public payroll. There are worse times to do that than when there are more vacancies than unemployed. The government dreads such an outcome in case it puts state workers on the dole, and it is certainly not to be considered lightly. But the alternative – of vast numbers unable to afford to eat or heat their homes properly as inflation rips and taxes remain high – could well be worse. Sadly, there is no one in Johnson’s group of cronies with a clue of how to do the job properly. A serious chancellor is another of those many-splendoured things that must await a change of leader.

Just to run through the list of the other important problems the government is failing to address is to take a crash course in the causes of depression. The inhumane, expensive, and so far illusory, export of asylum seekers to Rwanda is a tribute to the genius of Priti Patel, who displays all the nuance and understanding one would expect of one of nature’s traffic wardens. Meanwhile, Britain’s illegal immigration problem remains practically untreated, providing a field day for people traffickers and putting a terrible strain on the country’s already buckling finances and housing.

There have been brave words from Liz Truss about altering the Northern Ireland Protocol of our Brexit agreement, but nothing she’s uttered would come close to rectifying a problem caused solely by the prime minister signing a treaty he hadn’t read, didn’t understand and now wishes to repudiate. Such a breach of international law will only serve to prove our bona fides as a banana republic. Truss might not be as incompetent as Johnson or Patel, but her pretence that this approach to the Protocol can be pursued without creating massive reputational damage for the country is nonsense.

Elsewhere, Sajid Javid, who once had a reputation for competence and honesty, presides over a National Health Service where it seems impossible to see a doctor, where sick and injured people wait nine hours for an ambulance, and whose overmanned bureaucracy demands an audit of non-medical staff. Meanwhile, courts are routinely scheduling cases for early 2024 because of a backlog caused by Covid, which will worsen as absurdly underpaid lawyers go on strike. Dominic Raab, the justice secretary who also rejoices in the titles of Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Chancellor and Keeper of the Queen’s Conscience (how relieved Her Majesty must be), appears clueless about either the existence of the problem or of the need to treat it. His absence from the scene replicates the disregard he exhibited when not interrupting his summer holidays last year to sort out the farrago of our withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is a rare minister to have impressed since Russia invaded Ukraine. But he too appears to have achieved nothing by way of boosting Britain’s military capabilities since that ugly event made our world infinitely less stable. He’d better not hang around. Nadhim Zahawi, just about the only minster with a relatively recent record of achievement (he ran the vaccine programme), also has his work cut out if he is to tackle the hijacking of higher education by hard-leftist zealots more interested in ideological self-regard than genuine teaching.

Michael Gove – who judged Johnson correctly when he stopped supporting him in 2016, and should revert – finds himself in charge of “levelling up” without the means to do anything of the sort. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, known chiefly for his cringey videos promoting cut-price train journeys, leads a department that has regularly interfered in running the railways over recent years, only to fail to intervene the moment strikes were announced in June. And let’s not even start on Nadine Dorries, a culture secretary whose comprehension of that subject can be gauged by reading a single page of one of her celebrated novels.

We have had prime ministers at the Westminster parliament since 1721. Anyone with a reasonable grasp of political history combing the list of them would struggle to find one worse than Johnson, whether in terms of honesty, dutifulness or competence. Perhaps worse still, it would be just as difficult to find a cabinet worse than his on those terms either. Are we being governed worse than at any time in the past 301 years? I fear we are. When the contemptible clown in Downing Street boasts of the record-breaking way our country is proceeding, I doubt that is quite what he has in mind.

Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for the Telegraph and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham

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