Vol. 42 No. 13 · 2 July 2020

Superman Falls to Earth

Ferdinand Mount on Boris Johnson’s first year

4012 words

Precaution​ and continence, as we know, are not qualities that characterise Boris Johnson in any sphere of his life. On 3 February, as a prelude to the Brexit trade talks, he gave a speech in the Painted Hall at Greenwich. It was a hymn to the glories of free trade and the spirit of Adam Smith, almost as baroque as James Thornhill’s enormous ceiling with its allegories of Time Exposing Truth and other desirable outcomes. A fine piece of Boris bravura, if you overlooked the fact that, during the heyday he was hymning, Britain, like many rapidly industrialising countries, the US in the 19th century, China today, was ruthlessly protectionist when it suited it, which was just what Smith, a Customs officer, was complaining about.

Quite early in the speech there was a weird contorted paragraph with an even weirder bit in the middle. ‘We are starting,’ Johnson claimed,

to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.

‘Coronavirus … panic’? What is this interpolation, with its awkward syntax, doing there? We can, with a little imagination, reconstruct the scene in Number Ten. Johnson is cooking up the Greenwich speech, splashing on the saucy metaphors and sprinkling the demotic seasoning, when he is suddenly interrupted by a briefing from Public Health England or the chief medical officer: there is a nasty virus heading this way from China. So what does Superman do? Far from commissioning plans for an emergency response, he swirls his cape and takes the first available opportunity to denounce the doomsters even before they have said a word in public. No doubt his staff cast their eyes over the speech. Faced with a normal prime minister, they would have pointed out that the coronavirus reference a) conjured up a panic which did not currently exist, b) was entirely irrelevant to the theme of free trade, and c) deterred a speedy and rational response to a danger of as yet unknown proportions. A normal PM would have muttered, ‘Oh yes, I see what you mean,’ and cut it out. But this is not a normal prime minister.

A month later, Johnson was still boasting about shaking hands with all and sundry. It was seven weeks to the day from the Greenwich speech until lockdown was imposed. Seven weeks. The cost of that delay cannot be nicely calculated. But we know what wasn’t done, and when it wasn’t done, and we know the death toll. We know too of the hasty attempts to rig the record: the persistent denials, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that the government’s original policy was the unlovely ‘herd immunity’; Dominic Cummings’s unauthorised and unwarranted trip to Durham and his retrofitting of his blog on the night he returned to show that he had prophesied the dangers of a coronavirus all along; and so on, ad nauseam.

It has been painful to watch the steadiness and sombre dignity of the first ministers of the devolved parliaments – notably Nicola Sturgeon – and then turn to the slapdash boosterism of Johnson and his associates, many of whom seem to have caught his feckless tone as well as his frightful virus. It is jarring to hear ministers claim that they are ‘proud of our achievements’ in the middle of a pandemic which has cost, so far, more than fifty thousand lives. The world’s second highest death rate per capita – wow, that’s really something. Bolsonaro, Trump and Johnson: these are men you wouldn’t put in charge of containing an outbreak of acne.

There have been at least three key moments in the government’s handling of the pandemic when Johnson made the wrong decision in what looks like unbridled panic: the initial failure to lock down quickly, then the abandonment of any effort to track and trace, and finally the failure to quarantine travellers from abroad until long after the virus had passed its peak. There is nothing novel or obscure about the measures the government failed to take. They have been recommended for the containment of plagues since the Middle Ages.

Johnson’s insouciance goes hand in hand with his gargantuan self-confidence. So it’s not surprising that his reaction to these embarrassments has been to double down. Instead of standing back and letting better-qualified people make the decisions, Superman proposes, according to the Daily Telegraph of 3 June, to ‘take back control’ of the epidemic. What on earth was he doing before? More generally, we are given to understand that Cummings’s squads of special advisers will zoom into every ministerial department to get things done. ‘Hub and spokes’ is to be the new design for Whitehall, and the spokes can expect to be spoken to severely if they do not do as they are told. When some journalists first remarked on these overweening tendencies, we were told we were being hysterical; Number Ten has always behaved like that. The next week, the chancellor was told to sack all his advisers and accept Cummings’s nominees instead. It’s hard to recall a parallel in postwar British politics to the humiliation of Sajid Javid, just as it’s hard to recall a parallel to Johnson’s purging last year of the 21 liberal Tories who opposed his Brexit plans. Even Clement Attlee’s chucking out of the Bevanites in 1951 was only temporary.

The hideous irony is that the terrible failures of the past months are due, to quite a large extent, to earlier attempts by Whitehall to take back control, by launching brusque and thoughtless interventions into complex systems of health and welfare. The NHS as Labour left it in 2010 was working as well as it ever has: not perfectly, of course, and always in need of more cash to offer new medical technologies to an ageing and growing population, but still meeting people’s basic needs at a cost far below that of comparable health systems in Europe, let alone the US. The Regional and Area Health Authorities, set up in the dying days of the Heath government and tweaked by Blair to include representatives from local authorities, provided a fairly well-integrated service for social care and community health as well as for hospitals and GP practices, the set-up juiced by large increases in annual expenditure.

All this was swept away by the hectic and hopelessly confused Lansley reforms of 2012. Money was cut. Directors of public health were no longer required to be doctors. The Regional Health Authorities were disbanded, replaced by a new central body called Public Health England. The word ‘region’ became taboo. The resulting confusion has been made evident at the daily press conferences given during the epidemic. Exactly what do these panjandrums flanking the pygmy minister of the day do – the medical director of Public Health England, the chief medical officer of health, and the medical director of NHS England – and which of them does what? We don’t know, and it’s not always clear that they know either, judging from the muffled cries suggestive of turf wars that occasionally reach the outside world. Typically, Johnson has recently tossed in yet another national body he has dreamed up to make a nice headline – the Joint Biosecurity Centre – which has further tangled the web, even before it has properly come into existence.

One thing that’s clear is that, as part of the Lansley shake-up, responsibility for care homes was dumped on local authorities, with their already understaffed and underfunded public health departments. Soon afterwards, those local authorities were an easy target for George Osborne’s austerity programme. In the last decade, their central funding has been cut by an unthinkable 60 per cent, with little possibility of recouping more than a sliver of that loss from council tax, which the Tory government also decided to cap.*

Ever since Margaret Thatcher’s capping of the domestic rates in 1984 (something I had a small but culpable hand in at the Number Ten Policy Unit) and the abolition of the Metropolitan Counties and the Greater London Council in 1986, Tory governments have shown a flinty hostility to the power and independence of local government. In fact, the indictment dates back further, to the Tories’ abolition of the London County Council in 1963. Again and again, the party has sought to clip the wings of any rival centre of power, in the 1990s even dreaming of abolishing local government altogether. The present generation is just as centralist. Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse was always London-driven. It is interesting, also, to note that Cummings won his spurs in the successful 2004 campaign to block a regional assembly from being set up in the North-East of England. Yet amid the innumerable tragedies of the pandemic, it has been local authorities and their staff who have shown unremitting dedication and ingenuity, while central government has floundered and outsourced its wheezes – £1.7 billion’s worth – to private companies which have often proved equally clueless. The Tory manifesto promises a ‘new deal for devolution’. I’ll believe it when I see it.

What we have now is a public health service that is simultaneously starved, fragmented and centralised. That may seem a contradiction. Surely the point of centralising is to integrate. But this is not infrequently a perverse consequence of centrally imposed reforms: you can see the same effect in education and in the regulation of the City. To implement such reforms, a new quango has to be devised, which, it is then discovered, can’t cover everything, thus requiring more quangos, all of them soon finding themselves at odds with one another. The past decade should have taught governments to beware of hasty large-scale remodelling. But it seems only to have emboldened the Johnson apparat to go flat out for more of the same.

It may still seem somewhat mysterious that the British government, with all the expertise available to it, should have proved so spectacularly cackhanded. If it is a mystery, it is not hard to solve. I think that almost any other prime minister – let’s say Jeremy Hunt, or Keir Starmer, or even Theresa May – would have done better, all of them being both more level-headed and more modest. Any of them would have acted more decisively, being less worried about becoming unpopular. Instead of hogging the limelight they would have more soberly encouraged the proper authorities, central and local, to exercise all the powers and draw on all the cash they needed. The malign combination of an over-centralised system and a hopelessly narcissistic prime minister has been fatal.

The centralisation of power is integral to the Johnson government’s project to restore the old ‘elective dictatorship’, which I discussed in the LRB of 20 February. When and if coronavirus finally sinks into insignificance, it is to that project that Johnson and Cummings, battered but not in the least repentant, will return. Their arduous and far-reaching programme would test the stamina of a government in pristine health starting on day one after a general election triumph. This is not where we are now.

First up, of course, are the closing stages of the Brexit negotiations. Since Brexit Day in January, they have been managed by a new Task Force Europe, led by Johnson’s chief negotiator, David Frost, a burly, acerbic diplomat, one of the few in the Foreign Office who has always loathed the EU. Frost’s conversations with Michel Barnier have become openly bitter and recriminatory, in a way not seen before. Frost is backed up by contemptuous briefings from the Number Ten press office, again of an unprecedented rudeness, surpassing even the gruff Bernard Ingham under Thatcher and the venomous Alastair Campbell under Blair. For all Johnson’s protestations that he wishes to see warm and friendly relations with ‘our European friends’, he only has eyes and ears for the domestic Europhobes who raised him to his position. We have moved from ‘Get Brexit done’ to ‘Get shot of Europe’.

Johnson’s policy has always included leaving the single market and the customs union and saying goodbye to the European Court of Justice. But, as far as I can see, it was only in the Painted Hall on 3 February that he fully spelled out what ‘deal’ means and does not mean to him. On trade, on fisheries, on science and culture, on anything, these are to be transient transactions, to be terminated when either side fancies. ‘I see no need to bind ourselves to an agreement with the EU.’ Any fisheries agreement is to be negotiated annually. What delicious cod wars, what herring hassles, what scallop spats we have to look forward to. As for the fears of business, Johnson blathers on about the marvellous no-quota, no-tariff deals that are just around the corner. But when it comes down to it, to use his patent mot de Cambronne, ‘fuck business.’ National sovereignty trumps commerce every time. ‘While we will always co-operate with our European friends … whenever our interests converge – as they often if not always will – this will not in my view necessarily require any new treaty or institutions because we will not need them.’ No membership of any European institution, then. No alignment, no entrenchment, no permanence. To re-quote de Gaulle: ‘Treaties are like roses and young girls; they last as long as they last.’ Or Palmerston: ‘We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual.’ The folding of the Department of International Development into the Foreign Office is an explicit attempt to focus the aid budget on national interest. The projection of British power is to come before the relief of poverty, as shown by Johnson’s telling the House of Commons that he wanted to switch resources from Zambia to Ukraine. So goodbye Europe, and, more or less, goodbye world. Johnson has been prime minister for nearly a year now, and I struggle to recall any significant conversation he has had with a foreign head of government. Some leaders end up in their bunker. Trump has recently paid a trial visit to his. Johnson has been in one from the start.

What will be the net effect, even assuming a tolerable outcome on trade in goods, if not in services? An anxious nation still convalescing from the virus and the consequent economic damage, unable to distinguish between these ill-effects and the effects of leaving the EU; across the Channel a no less anxious EU, bruised by Brexit and British abuse as well as by the pandemic, disinclined, to put it mildly, to do us any favours. And this will be the result of a freely chosen policy. We were not driven to the cliff edge by accident or incompetence, though this is sometimes the impression given. It was always the Brexiteers’ destination of choice. It’s a chilly place.

And what is to be the first outing for Britain in its new role as ‘an independent actor and catalyst for free trade across the world’, to quote the Greenwich speech? Apparently our debut act is to pick a fight with China, which Johnson, egged on by fractious backbenchers in search of a cause, seems to be gagging for. I’m not sure which is the more impractical: expelling Huawei from our telecoms system or saving Hong Kong. In this, Johnson seems increasingly inclined to copy the prickly isolationism of Trump. The US has long been leery of international organisations, from the League of Nations in the 1920s to the International Criminal Court more recently. Trump never saw an international organisation he didn’t want to resign from – flouncing out of the World Health Organisation being his latest act. Johnson seems to be heading in the same direction. Already that desire to be beholden to nobody has meant shying away from European initiatives for the speedy supply of vaccines and face masks. ‘World-beating’? ‘World-shunning’ might be nearer the mark.

Meanwhile, Johnson shows a keen interest in shoring up his power at home. The Tory manifesto contained a commitment to repeal the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. The Act is said to be widely unpopular, and at the last election the Labour Party also promised to do away with it. But do we really want to go back to the old days of the prime minister pumping up an election boom and jumping through the window of opportunity when he’s ahead in the polls? Fixed-term parliaments work perfectly well elsewhere, and enforce a much needed discipline on governments basking in big majorities.

Less well publicised has been the commitment to ‘introducing identification to vote at polling stations’. The ostensible reason is to prevent voter fraud, but this hasn’t been a serious problem in the UK for years. The real intention – as it is for US Republicans – is to deter poorer, less organised voters from turning out to vote for the other side. The government is also pushing through a bill to make the redrawing of constituency boundaries automatic, and not subject to parliamentary scrutiny. In present circumstances, this redistricting will benefit the Conservative Party. One wonders whether the Tories would be so mustard-keen if it was likely to benefit Labour (vide Jim Callaghan’s instruction to his MPs to vote down proposed new boundaries in 1969).

In theory​ at least, Johnson’s hold on his own party ought to be secure. He managed to compel all 650 of his parliamentary candidates to sign up to his Brexit policy: a piece of strong-arming unprecedented even in the murky world of whipping. He came to power after conducting a ruthless purge of his own MPs, including ministers he had only just promoted: an unmistakeable warning to anyone thinking of serious rebellion. Meanwhile, the centralised selection and deselection of candidates in both major parties is a continuing scandal. See, for example, the skulduggery that led to the insertion of Johnson’s henchman Danny Kruger in Devizes and the last-minute deselection of Sally Gimson as the Labour candidate for Bassetlaw. At least Starmer has removed the principal malefactors. Johnson, by contrast, shows no visible interest in broadening his party in the country. Its present shrunken and lopsided membership suits him fine.

It might seem, then, that he has plenty of scope to ride out the distrust and mockery that have dogged him through the pandemic. And yet. The Conservative Party has always struggled to prove that it has a heart and isn’t solely motivated by profit. Johnson’s reluctance to start the lockdown and his eagerness to end it, seemingly at the urging of big business, hasn’t helped to dispel that distrust. Many of the MPs who pledged to follow him blindly were only keeping their heads down. For the hardliners, his dedication to Brexit is his trump card, but once he has played it, how much will he have to offer? The last prime minister who came to power with a specific mission – to win the war – was Churchill. 1940 is a parallel which certainly appeals to Johnson’s star-lust; 1945, when voters’ minds turned to other things, not so much.

For all the size of its majority, the Tory leadership seems remarkably short on self-confidence. No prime minister has ever received the drooling adulation that Johnson enjoys from the Telegraph, the Mail, the Sun and the Express. Yet his hatchet men do their best to cut out the remaining media, and unleash Johnson to address the nation on TV at every opportunity, which – to judge by his recent riffs – may be a diminishing asset, though he might charitably be excused on the grounds of ill-health. Long before the pandemic, the Tories cherished an ambition to sideline the BBC by removing the licence fee and reducing it to a subscription channel. Here they have an ally in Rupert Murdoch: age has not withered his loathing for the corporation. The new Times Radio may not be intended to be our own Fox News, but it is intended to reduce the national prominence of the BBC. Unfortunately for Johnson, however, one of the by-products of the pandemic, as of other national crises before it, has been an enhanced public appreciation for the BBC. The reports from the front line by Hugh Pym, Fergus Walsh and Mark Easton have conveyed the impression that the BBC knows what’s going on and will tell you plainly, even if the government doesn’t and won’t. How eagerly, by contrast, the Tory lackeys seized on an intemperate intro by Emily Maitlis on Newsnight. The best guess is that, for now, the virus has saved the BBC.

The final source of irritation and perceived resistance to the regime is the law. Leading Tories are horrified by the thought that the UK’s newish Supreme Court might develop into anything resembling the US Supreme Court. After Lady Hale’s disembowelling of Johnson’s illegitimate attempt to prorogue Parliament, they yearn for the days when the lord chancellor really did embody the law and did pretty much what his cabinet colleagues asked him to; a clubbable chap like Michael Havers was ideal. The immediate instrument of this yearning is the proposal in the manifesto to restrict the right of judicial review in the name of ‘our vital national security and effective government’. This goes hand in hand with the long-held Tory ambition to repeal the Human Rights Act and, if possible, to leave the European Convention on Human Rights altogether (despite the fact that it was largely devised by British lawyers). Any such proposal to reduce the legal rights of ordinary people ought to be easy meat for Starmer’s prosecutorial skills.

These trying months have shown us a government and a prime minister of unique incompetence, deceitful and panicky, often inattentive to essential business (remember those five Cobra meetings that Johnson bunked), and incapable of pursuing a steady policy for more than five minutes. Yet when we emerge from the epidemic, we will be faced with the same government and the same prime minister and the same government demanding more powers, more central control. Every other day we will see headlines braying: BORIS BOUNCES BACK.

But is this really plausible? Doesn’t it seem far more likely that the virus, apart from killing tens of thousands of people, has also killed off large parts of the Johnson project? So much of it would have required the moral authority of a fresh government unsullied by experience. The castration of the Supreme Court, the whacking of the BBC, the production of ID at polling stations: these and much else will have to be marked ‘dead on arrival’ when they are taken out of the storage crates. Today, Johnson is in a position not unlike that of Harold Macmillan after the Profumo affair – when, as Nigel Birch acidly put it, quoting Browning, it was ‘never glad, confident morning again’. Back then the Tories tried to rally support by a populist policy of splashing cash and embarking on massive infrastructure projects, much as Johnson and his new chancellor are contemplating doing today. For the QE2, Concorde and the Channel Tunnel in the 1960s, read HS2, the Stonehenge bypass and a Boris Bridge to somewhere or other. When it came to an election in 1964, this nearly worked, but by then the party had a different leader. Ill-health provided a convenient pretext for the change, and any kind of repeat performance may still be some way off. But we should never underestimate the Conservative Party’s capacity for premature panic.

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Vol. 42 No. 14 · 16 July 2020

In Ferdinand Mount’s piece about Boris Johnson’s first year, we introduced the misinformation that Michael Havers was lord chancellor between 1979 and 1987 (LRB, 2 July). Those are the dates for Lord Hailsham’s tenure, during which time
Havers was attorney general. Havers followed Hailsham as lord chancellor, but was in post for just four months, between June and October 1987.

Editor, 'London Review'

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