Last week, Julia Hartley-Brewer tweeted a much-mocked defence of the man caught urinating on the plaque dedicated to P.C. Keith Palmer, who died in the Westminster terrorist attack in 2017. It is tempting to laugh at her stupidity and move on. But does that really get to the core of the matter? Hartley-Brewer is a journalist, radio host and professional provocateur with a right-wing, pro-Brexit bent. She said what she said because her natural instinct was that anti-racism protests are bad, and that defending the statues was good. And so the anti-anti-racism protestor (there must be a pithier way of saying that) wasn’t urinating on the plaque, he was urinating beside it. As one journalist on Twitter put it, when you spend your time saying ever more outrageous things, eventually you go too far.
Which brings us to Boris Johnson and his government. Boris Johnson isn’t stupid. Or, he is, but to taunt him for it is to take the lowest-hanging of the fruit. It’s borne, I think, out of the same misguided belief that drives people like Johnson: that we live in a meritocracy, and I am at the top; therefore, I must be the best. But when applied from the other direction, it is more like: we live in a meritocracy, and Boris Johnson is at the top; ergo, if we only had a competent Prime Minister, everything would be fine. All of the problems derive from Johnson (or Matt Hancock, or Priti Patel, or Dominic Raab)’s stupidity, and if they just did their jobs competently, the UK would not be staring down the barrel of the worst possible COVID-19 response on all fronts.
The truth, of course, is more complicated. Boris Johnson has a certain level of intelligence. I have to believe that; he got the same degree as I did (a 2.1 in Classics). The idea that Johnson is incompetent, that he is a puppet of Putin, or Dominic Cummings, or whoever, strips him of his agency and his own shortcomings. (It’s also irrelevant in the grand scheme of things; Johnson is the Prime Minister and we need to react accordingly, rather than screaming to invisible referees that he is illegitimate). His public persona is crafted to maximise his appearance as a “character”, one of the reasons he carved out electoral success in December against the comparatively bland Jeremy Corbyn despite the latter polling higher for “being in touch with ordinary people’s concerns”.
Of Johnson’s cabinet, three of the most prominent figures (Raab, Hancock and Gove) ran against him in the Conservative leadership contest; it would be four but Sajid Javid refused to be humiliated by Dominic Cummings. Raab got a trial run at being Prime Minister himself when Johnson was in hospital with COVID-19, it did not magically result in a vastly improved British response. All of which is to say, the government is not the way it is because Johnson has surrounded himself with idiots. The government is this way because Johnson has surrounded himself with true believers, even down to current liberal favourite Rishi Sunak, who was originally appointed as Treasury Secretary as “Boris’ inside man” to keep an eye on Javid, before being thrust into the spotlight this year by Javid’s resignation.
The Johnson administration is two different things: the government in Whitehall, run by Cummings and Michael Gove, and the government who announce policy changes on the front of the Telegraph, which is run on instinct. Johnson’s recent political career (since his re-election as an MP) has been based on running a “government of id”, similar to Trump in the USA and Bolsonaro in Brazil. He first became a leadership contender by leading the Leave campaign; then he attempted to stick two fingers up to the EU’s “divorce bill” in Parliament; he defeated Jeremy Hunt in the Conservative leadership election by pledging to get Brexit done; he defeated his second Jeremy of 2019 in the exact same way. The vindictiveness is the point; it’s why amid the COVID-19 pandemic Johnson’s cabinet can find time to shutter the Department of International Development and reject an extension to the Brexit transition period.
The reason that Britain was not locked down early was spelled out quite clearly: not to spook the markets. (The equivocation of “the markets” with “the economy” is still the most damaging economic decision of the last 50 years). It is very sobering to look back and see what Johnson said before Britain was locked down, to hear him boast of shaking hands with coronavirus patients, to hear the scientists reject the measures introduced by Italy as populist and not likely to work. The belief — put forward by Johnson, and by the scientists he chose to put his trust in — was that locking down too early would damage the economy too greatly. But this wasn’t based in any sort of science, just as Hartley-Brewer’s tweet wasn’t based on any sort of fact. Johnson believed, instinctively, that COVID-19 was not a big deal, and that the people telling the government to lock down were hysterical leftists, and so he acted accordingly, dismissing the concerns until even his preferred scientists (who have themselves come in for criticism in some quarters) came round to the side of lockdown.
Instead, by locking down too late, we are now finding it more difficult to exit lockdown even compared to countries like Italy, because the infection spread too widely before the lockdown and consequently the number of cases is still too high. Britain is currently engaged in a game of trying not to fall behind the rest of Europe, changing the alert status set by a committee that doesn’t exist and generally pretending that the case numbers are better than they are. It has to do this because to do otherwise is to admit that Britain has failed. It has failed to protect its people, it has failed to protect its economy. It has, in fact, failed to protect anything except Dominic Cummings’ job. But that isn’t because of stupidity. The government is run on things which have been found wanting in recent months — British exceptionalism and “common sense”.
Let’s look at someone who isn’t Johnson. Matt Hancock is the Health Secretary and ran against Johnson in the Conservative leadership election, withdrawing after the first ballot made it clear he lacked the necessary support. He has overseen a testing programme reliant on outsourcing (often with disastrous and expensive results) and the development of an app that relied on Apple making an exception to their privacy rules. It is not difficult to see why: for the former, Hancock believes that the NHS is inefficient and that the private sector is needed to take up the slack (that and a lot of the mechanisms that would help the NHS cope with a pandemic have been hollowed out). For the latter, Hancock ignored what happened to the Australian government, because he believes in British exceptionalism, that Apple would back down where they had previously not done so. Hancock is not stupid, having formerly served as a senior economist at the Bank of England. He is just wrong, and his worldview blinds him to the solutions that other countries have used successfully. Do we think that Hancock being in charge would solve Britain’s problems?
On a day when Johnson’s leadership contest nemesis (and Hancock’s predecessor) Jeremy Hunt — the man who oversaw the junior doctors’ strike and the very destruction of the NHS that has weakened its ability to respond — is linked with a return to the Cabinet, it is a good time to make a choice. Some will look at a government reshuffle as a positive sign: they will cheer the return of “moderate voices” to the cabinet, hope that the likes of Hunt will act as a good influence on Johnson. Others will point out Hunt’s own record in charge of the health service, and see it not as tempering Johnson’s influence but merely tolerating Johnson’s presence for ideological reasons. We know this because that is how the playbook has worked out in America, where many supposed moderates have failed to stem the Trump government’s impulses, while the administration has turned the government into a project of ideological zealotry.
We’ve been here before: Johnson himself was seen by some as a more liberal Conservative, with pledges of public spending to combat the reputation left by years of austerity. And yet just this week the government was forced — by a footballer — into a u-turn on free school meals, a tiny figure of mere millions compared to the billions already spent on the COVID-19 response. The government was prepared to cut the funding because they saw a problem of too much government spending, and a potential saving — not a problem of children going hungry. The UK government is based, as it has been for the last decade, on the idea that too much money is given to the wrong people: the Department of Work and Pensions exists to clamp down on benefit fraud; the Home Office exists to try and stop people from coming to the country. When all you have is a hammer, pretty soon everything looks like a nail.
This is why it is so crucial to drill down and find the true problem with these decisions. It is true that Johnson and the government have made things worse with the way they have handled them, antagonising backbenchers and party grandees, but the stupidity has merely amplified the original wrong decision. Those backbenchers will not save us. (They already failed to get Dominic Cummings fired.) We must emphasise that it is not Johnson’s stupidity that has got us into this mess — though it has definitely exacerbated it — but that his beliefs have done more than anything else to render the country incapable of responding to this crisis, and we must do everything we can to prevent all of his ilk from ever getting their hands on the levers of power again. That way out of the ashes of Johnson’s failure we can build a new Britain that works for everyone.