The serial incompetence of Boris Johnson’s government is not an accident. It may look like haplessness, but that is to mistake the symptom for the cause. Instead this government’s ineptitude is a function of both the character of the man at the top and the defining creed of his administration.
Reminders of our rulers’ clumsiness arrive with such regularity that it’s easy to become inured. This week we had the prime minister “misspeak” as he botched an attempt to explain the new regulations imposed by the government he leads. Perhaps that’s an easy mistake to make, considering the ever-shifting nature of the advice, best captured by that short video of Matt Lucas channelling the PM as he tells Britons, “Go to work, don’t go to work. Go outside, don’t go outside.”
But it hardly excuses the repeating pattern of errors that has blighted the government’s response to coronavirus from the start. You’ll recall the contact-tracing app that Matt Hancock hailed as a crucial weapon in the fight against the pandemic. It was scrapped in June after trials found it didn’t work, and relaunched last week – only for it to be exposed as carrying a pretty major bug. It turned out that users of the NHS Covid-19 app who had been tested in NHS hospitals couldn’t enter their results. An app with NHS branding all over it would only accept results done outside the NHS, by private, outsourced companies. That problem has been partially fixed now, but it was par for what has been a very bumpy course.
From those critical seven days that were wasted before a clearly inevitable national lockdown was imposed in March – a delay that Prof Neil Ferguson, then on the Sage committee, estimates to have cost 20,000 lives – to the multimillion-pound contracts handed to pals to supply PPE that turned out to be useless against Covid, Johnson and his team have blundered at every turn. The result is that the UK has managed to score a rare double: notching up the highest death toll in Europe along with the severest economic slump in the world.
But this is not just bad luck, an unfortunate coincidence that saw a global health crisis collide with a set of ministers sadly unsuited to the task. Governments don’t just happen to be incapable – or capable, for that matter. On the contrary, if you want competence, competence has to be prized. Take the last Labour government, particularly in its first term. Determined to rid the party of its historic association with economic failure, culminating in the IMF bailout and the “winter of discontent”, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown prized efficiency – sometimes to a fault – promoting the quiet and technocratic over the loud and inspiring. Brown apart, its longest-serving cabinet minister was Alistair Darling, never happier than when making no news. The mantra of the age was “what works”.
Johnson’s administration places no such premium on good governance. Why might that be? First, look to the top. All institutions ultimately reflect the personality and priorities of the person in charge, governments especially. Even the prime minister’s admirers don’t pretend that he’s a details man, across policy and process. One colleague says of Johnson’s earlier spell as the capital’s mayor: “He was basically chaotic, shagging his way around London, writing articles,” leaving the actual work to his staff. Recall last year’s revelation of a scribbled note referring to his predecessor as “girly swot Cameron”. Put aside the reflexive sexism and absorb a work ethic so lax it regards Notting Hill’s king of chillax as a relentless Stakhanovite.
Still, Johnson’s character surely matters less than the animating project of his government: Brexit. One only has to survey the cabinet to see that he rates fidelity to Brexit as a greater virtue than even rudimentary aptitude. That’s why this government has room for Gavin Williamson and Dominic Raab, but cast out the likes of David Gauke and Dominic Grieve. That’s why its choice to head parliament’s intelligence and security committee was Chris Grayling. (There can surely be no other explanation for that one.)
But Brexit plays a deeper role than mere loyalty test. For Dominic Cummings in particular always conceived this mission as less about breaking from the European Union than remaking the British state. Out would go the elitist experts – who, as Cummings’ first patron, Michael Gove, memorably remarked, the country had had enough of – and in would come a gang of anarchistic tech-wizards armed with supercomputers and reams of data.
For this is the defining ethos of the Cummings-Johnson, Brexit administration: to purge expertise and tear down what works. The proof is the six Whitehall permanent secretaries driven out this year, or the never-ending efforts to hobble the BBC. Instead of cherishing the experienced public servants the nation needs to get us through this crisis, it regards them as the “enemy within”, who will face a “hard rain”.
“At the heart of the project,” says one Conservative former minister, “is this insurgent, anti-government, anti-establishment zeal, but guess what: you can’t govern if you don’t believe in government.”
The result is not just incompetence but also a curious contradiction. Cummings poses as the great libertarian decentraliser, but because he trusts no one but himself and his handpicked circle, he centralises ever more power to himself and what one insider calls “his spad boys in No 10”. No wonder Britain has failed to get a functioning test-and-trace system in place while the data and decision-making is jealously hoarded at the centre, rather than allowed to sit with those on the spot.
So this government will keep messing up, of course it will. Covid has ripped the mask off the man who leads it and exposed its driving purpose. It has revealed both for what they are.
• Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist