A lack of leadership will leave Britain on the rocks, writes Jonathan Lis
12 November 2021
Until recently there was a common joke in Washington that the only thing worse than a Trump administration would be something actually administered by Trump. It is easy to see the truth in it. The previous president transparently confined his interests to showing off, rallying adoring crowds and proving he was a winner. The notion that he concerned himself with the raw business of governing was self-evidently ludicrous. Against the disaster of his presidency, consider how it might have been if he had shown some aptitude or done any work. Johnson
The joke also applies in Britain. The last five years have been defined by political chaos and governmental negligence, and yet things have not stayed resolutely the same. There is a subtle but crucial difference between the premierships of Theresa May and Boris Johnson. One of May’s many faults was an obsession with oversight. Johnson is defined by his lack of it.
The inquiry here is both personal and philosophical. Johnson is manifestly unfit to meet the challenges of high office. But, like Trump, he is also uninterested in doing so. How do we account for the prospect that he is not, in any meaningful sense, actually leading – and that nobody else is either?
The foundation of a modern state is governance: the expectation that named individuals will be appointed to manage the polity, protect its people and be held to account. We have no precedent in which the designated individual doesn’t want to – a scenario in which decisions are made multiply or disjointedly, or not made at all. The key assessment is not whether this government is good: it is not. It is whether its driving force is malice or incompetence, and how much, in the end, it actually matters.
During the lockdowns the government focused on blaming the public – or getting the public to blame each other. Throughout, Johnson’s behaviour has suggested a principal concern not for public welfare but escaping responsibility
The case for incompetence is vast, and manifold. It is represented in its deadliest form by Covid. The last twenty months have been defined by mismanagement at almost every level. A recent parliamentary inquiry declared the pandemic “one of the [UK’s] most important public health failures… ever”. The government delayed lockdowns, failed to procure protective equipment and lethally exposed care homes. Even now, cases of the virus are the highest in Western Europe and our death toll one of the worst in the world.
In his evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee in May, Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings carefully described a government that didn’t know what it was doing. Ministerial complacency and error produced a situation in which thousands needlessly died. In this narration of events, bad decisions and no decisions amounted to the same thing.
And yet it is hard to eliminate the prospect of malice. We know the government hasn’t learnt the lessons of delayed restrictions because it has consistently repeated its mistakes. As of early November, Johnson refuses to implement the limited curbs of his Plan B, despite soaring cases and the pleas of scientific experts. Ministers recommend the use of masks in indoor public spaces but frequently decline to do so themselves. During the lockdowns the government focused on blaming the public – or getting the public to blame each other. Throughout, Johnson’s behaviour has suggested a principal concern not for public welfare but escaping responsibility.
What, then, of the government’s blockbuster global summit? Compared to the French hosting of COP in 2015, which consumed the attention of the French state, the build-up to Glasgow has appeared slapdash or farcical. Despite the Covid-mandated extra year to prepare, Johnson failed to appoint a full-time chair until January, and that was the almost anonymous Alok Sharma. For months the prime minister’s speeches on climate change have revolved around jokes. And days before the summit began, the government cut duty on domestic air travel while refusing to rule out a new coal mine.
None of this excludes the possibility of success at COP. And of course even competent, interested leadership could produce failure. But the problem is that success would be in spite of Britain’s prime minister, not because of him.
Consider the government’s global actions on the eve of COP. For months, ministers have threatened to upend its EU deal over Northern Ireland, now throwing in legal action against France over fishing. If this was deliberate strategy, it suggests the government was prepared to sabotage or derail its own international summit in order to win headlines. If it wasn’t, it implies a chaotic fusion of diplomatic illiteracy with nationalist incontinence.
The Brexit deal promises to fill headlines for the next few months. The government appears to relish the will-they-won’t-they intrigue over Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol – the trigger of which would almost certainly provoke a trade war with the EU. Beneath this lies the now familiar refrain: did Johnson not understand the deal, or did he sign and campaign for it in bad faith? Which of the situations would be worse?
The perceived absence of UK strategy has flummoxed EU leaders since 2016. Soon after the referendum, an idea even circulated in Brussels that the show of incompetence was an act. The notion that the British government (with its mythologised Rolls-Royce civil service) genuinely didn’t know what it was doing seemed almost too strange to believe. That concealed a deeper question. Was it better to negotiate with an opponent who actively sought to enact harm or one who simply didn’t understand the conversation?
Many suspect that the government is deliberately picking fights over Brexit as part of a grander narrative of culture war.
The Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, like her predecessor Oliver Dowden, is evidently pursuing such a campaign. Its targets of the BBC, National Trust and woke footballers have been clearly signposted, alongside bids to install government sympathisers into key regulatory roles. Even more serious are the Home Secretary’s attempts to curb protest and judicial review, and disenfranchise voters with a new demand for polling ID. Then, of course, we have the recent scandals over corruption and cronyism, most notably the debacle over Owen Paterson, where the prime minister attempted to abolish the committee that had just impugned his friend. Was this a cack-handed attempt to save a pal, take revenge on the regulator, save Johnson himself from investigation, or remove yet another layer of accountability from a government growing both bolder and greedier?
Johnson is a showman: the MC hired to inject pizazz into the boring detail of governing, then present it to a party and public craving reassurance or entertainment or both. He is not and never has been a leader
The paramount question in all cases is motivation. It is hard to discern the project’s initiators, goals or limits. Is it to give lefties a bloody nose, or to trash democratic oversight? Wanton damage for its own sake, or a plot to crystallise political impunity and cultural hegemony? Like the suspicion of fighting an armed baby, we don’t know our opponents or the rules of engagement
That is why many of Johnson’s most strident critics believe Michael Gove the more dangerous proposition: a man just as narcissistic and unscrupulous as the prime minister, but who knows what he’s talking about and, worse, believes it. And yet the question returns to who is in charge now. What would Britain look like if it was Johnson, and he took the role seriously? If he had taken an interest in Covid-19 in February 2020 and not skipped the five COBRA meetings? If he had understood the Irish border issue and actually wanted to implement the deal? If he diligently read climate papers and mastered the detail of what his government was now negotiating?
Johnson is a showman: the MC hired to inject pizazz into the boring detail of governing, then present it to a party and public craving reassurance or entertainment or both. He is not and never has been a leader.
And yet like all organisations, governments require leadership. It is how they function as machines. Right now we don’t know if the machine is failing because someone is deliberately misguiding it, or because they have never attempted to guide it to begin with. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that the British government is pushing the apparatus of the state from one press release and focus group to the next; that it knows no aims or ambitions beyond staying in front of the polls and surviving the next round of headlines in the Tory press.
Beneath all this is a terrible truth. It is, once again, the ultimate realisation of our childhood: that those entrusted with our protection don’t have the answers and can’t save us from life’s misfortune. That is to say, we are on our own. Perhaps in a way such a rudderless ship offers some comfort: if the named leaders are ineffective they cannot wreak the maximum damage. And yet, in the end, it makes little difference whether someone is driving it aground or abandoning it. The ship will not stay afloat for long.
Jonathan Lis is a political journalist and commentator. He has written for publications including the Guardian, Prospect and Washington Post, and regularly broadcasts on television and radio