A bargain-basement Churchill who is really the new Anthony Eden

For a long while Boris Johnson seemed to be playing a political blinder in tackling the corona virus pandemic.  Despite the manifest failures of government policy, the lockdown was being observed with little need for special bureaucracy or enforcement and he rode high in the opinion polls, while little attention was paid to Opposition voices.

But with tens of thousands now dead, criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis has grown and Sir Keir Starmer is winning media praise as the new leader of the Opposition.  The wonder is that Johnson scored so well in the early stages.  How did it happen?

The shifts of public opinion during the pandemic

Symbolically the high point might be seen in the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe on May 8th.  The celebrations (note: not ‘commemorations’) were tacitly permitted to break lockdown rules – just like the Thursday evening applause on Westminster Bridge, with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner present, a few days after Johnson was discharged from hospital nearby. Displays of loyalty, it seems, took priority over the need to save lives.

And Victory in Europe (VE) Day fitted seamlessly into the government’s programme for the virus, which used every means available to evoke that war and the state’s military role in it. The whole effort focused on the imagined New Churchill in Downing Street speaking directly to the nation.  It reflected Brexiteers’ twin obsessions with relations with the rest of Europe and the World War.

Little experience

The current Cabinet had come into office in July 2019 with very little experience of government.  The Prime Minister had held only one ministerial post, as a markedly unsuccessful Foreign Secretary from 2016-18, after eight years as Mayor of London.  His greatest prominence came in the Vote Leave campaign in the European Union referendum in 2016 (whose director was Dominic Cummings, appointed as his Chief Advisor when he became Prime Minister).

At the end of January 2020 the Vote Leave team duly saw its dream realised in the formal ending of British membership of the EU and they expected to thrive on political celebrations of this for at least another year.  However, that very day the UK’s first two cases of Covid-19 were confirmed.  Although Johnson had desperately wanted to be Prime Minister, he was singularly ill-prepared for the hard slog and adaptability the job requires: he did not seem to want to govern, merely to be at No. 10.  But suddenly he was faced with as serious and demanding a task of government as there can be.

The government reacted the only way that Johnson knew how: it procrastinated and then tackled the pandemic not as a complex and urgent requirement of administration but primarily as a campaigning opportunity. The aim was to advance its wider project and build up the government’s power and Johnson’s own political image.

Government by slogan and rhetoric

And so we had government by slogan, with rhetorical targets used to silence criticism.  I have just read a book about Russian revolutionaries in the run-up to 1917.  Whichever faction they belonged to, a major preoccupation was always to devise the right slogans to campaign with.  And so it is in Britain now.  After the three-word phrases of Take Back Control (June 2016) and Get Brexit Done (December 2019) we have tripartite slogans in Stay At Home – Protect the NHS – Save Lives and now Stay Alert – Control The Virus – Save Lives.  To these we must add an enduring motif of the campaign, which is really another three-word slogan meant to plant a certain idea in voters’ minds: Follow The Science.

Early on, the government resorted to daily televised press conferences instead of announcements in Parliament.  Then Parliament itself was sent on a needlessly extended Easter recess, placing the political focus on a handful of ministers and their scientific advisors.  They pushed this bold move through with the Opposition demoralised after the election defeat in December 2019 and the Labour Party preoccupied with electing a new leader.  Another needless recess of a fortnight has just started.

Not content with this, Johnson also made direct addresses to the nation, after which the broadcasters generally forgot the convention of inviting the Leader of the Opposition to reply.  The Queen was wheeled in too, and she duly obliged with a sentimental reference to Vera Lynn, the wartime ‘forces’ sweetheart.’  This was perfectly in tune with the government’s bellicose talk of ‘defeating’ the virus and the VE festivities to come.

The avoidance of Parliament matches a general imperviousness to criticism, in a novel, aggressive form that seems to have wrongfooted many critics.  Every time another extraordinary failure is pointed to, ministers respond with an incredible promise of something else two or three months later: for example, successive, ever more ambitious promises of virus tests to silence questions about how far the government has fallen behind previous schedules.  This promise is then dutifully reported instead of the failure to reply to the criticism.  It seems to be Cummings’ inventive way of burying bad news.

A new Anthony Eden?

The mood seems to be changing now, despite continuing government successes in presentation.  They cannot hide their unsought position in the world’s eyes as one of the maladroit villains of the pandemic, alongside Donald Trump’s USA, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil and, perhaps, Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  In early April a health research institute in Seattle had already forecast that the UK would have the largest number of deaths in Europe – despite early crowing that the country had the best epidemiologists, was one of the best prepared for a pandemic and so on.

So, far from the country’s heroic self-image of standing alone in 1940, this is turning into a national humiliation.  Governments are rarely appreciated if they bring humiliation down on their country, especially if it entails great, avoidable loss of lives from hunger or disease.  This spring’s ugly events in the hospitals and care homes of England must surely catch up with the administration, just as the fiasco of Suez in 1956 did with Sir Anthony Eden’s.  Boris Johnson will find no fridge to hide in then. 

Five weeks with no checks on Johnson’s and Cummings’ behaviour

By Thomas Lines – September 8th, 2019

Yesterday I received an e-mail from my MP, Caroline Lucas, which says:

‘This week has seen politicians from all parties unite to block the Prime Minister’s plans for Britain to crash out of the EU with no deal.

‘It’s a huge achievement and Greens have played a leading role…

…we have called out his trap.’

This confident statement reflects the sense of buoyancy and even triumph on display among MPs on the rostrum and members of the crowd at last Wednesday’s rally in Parliament Square, which took place as the Commons vote on that bill was going through.

But hearing the news this morning I could not help thinking that, with Parliament about to close down, that mood is at odds with what is actually happening.  Today’s big story is Amber Rudd’s resignation, just as Friday’s was Jo Johnson’s.  Commentators are dismayed by the Prime Minister’s callousness and insincerity, and the devastating implications for the Conservative Party.

But I think this misses the point.  We need to consider what happens next, not look back on the latest outrage against the usual norms.  Here, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings remain one step ahead of their opponents.

Stories this morning from inside the government camp seem deeply sinister and worrying.  This should not surprise us, since it seems that both Johnson and Cummings are utterly ruthless and sinister men.

Sabotaging the EU’s business

Thus, it was reported that Johnson intends the government to do all that it can to sabotage the EU’s business over the next few weeks (since, after all, the UK is still a member), in order to provoke the other 27 into rejecting the request for an Article 50 extension.

Meanwhile, they will set about suborning the civil service as well as the Conservative Party to their own political diktats.  In this too, any resistance will be broadcast (I use the word advisedly) as acts of Remoaners and the metropolitan élite who are out to sabotage the People’s Will.

These reports came from behind the scenes and, of course, are impossible to verify.  But they are in keeping with the whole demeanour of the Brexit campaign since Johnson, Gove and Cummings collaborated in Vote Leave.

They are particularly sinister simply because Parliament will not be able to keep a check on them.  The means of achieving that were themselves instructive: Johnson manipulated a constitutional convention (that the Queen must always accept Prime Ministerial advice) to make her officially legitimise something that reminds me of nothing more than the fatal mistakes of her forebear, Charles I.  This is one of many signs that Britain’s antiquated institutions are not capable of constraining a man with Johnson’s character (see my blog of August 6th below).

Applauding the Leader

Inside the anti-Brexit bubble it is easy to ignore how well last week’s events – and Johnson’s personality in general – seem to have gone down with some of the public.  Many people are not holding up their hands in horror but applauding a Leader who is At Last Getting Things Done.  One man on Twitter on Friday said how much he was warming towards Mr Johnson with his ‘alpha-male’ character.

I am sure that is not a majority of the population.  I doubt strongly whether it is the 40 per cent or so that are usually required to get a British government elected (another outmoded mechanism in a situation of multi-party politics).

But to all appearances it is something like one-third of voters.  And as long as the opposing parties are electorally divided, while (conversely) the pro-Johnson media can continue to represent them all as playing to the evil Jeremy Corbyn’s tune, it is probably enough to win a good majority in a forthcoming election.

What leads to these reactions from people?  I think there are two sources.  The first is the cult of the Leader, which has been a factor in British politics since Mrs Thatcher’s time.  When people feel uncertain and insecure, many put their faith in a Strong Leader whose demagoguery seems to offer reassurance than in the tedious processes of democracy.  This is as true in Britain today as in Germany in the 1930s or, it seems, Russia nearly all the time.

Secondly, we cannot dismiss the real sense of grievance felt by many in the fact that, over three years on, the UK is still in the EU.  This cannot be as easily dismissed as the mostly specious arguments we’ve heard for leaving the EU itself.

Pro-European commentators tend to look on hardline Brexiteers as people from another planet – deluded, wild-eyed fantasists who want to have their unicorns and eat them.  But we must not forget that many Leave voters dismiss the alternative case just as firmly, as no more than diversionary tactics from Project Fear.

Wanting to see the back of us

Moreover, it is now looking entirely likely that the 27 other member states will reject the request for a further extension of Article 50 – with or without any further provocation from Johnson.  The week before last, there were reports that they were thinking of offering an extension without being asked, as a way of undermining Johnson’s cause.  But it did not happen.

Instead, in the last few days we have heard that some of them just want to see the back of this country.  France in particular is making noises to that effect.  This of course would play directly into Johnson’s hands.  But in their state of utter exasperation with it all – and contempt for what they already know of Johnson the politician – whoever could blame them for that?

We are about to enter something quite unknown in modern Britain: a month in which Parliament has been constitutionally debarred from scrutinising the government.  If indeed the UK crashes out without a deal, last week’s new law notwithstanding, the best hope might be now that the consequences of that event will finally reveal that all the warnings were not Project Fear but fully justified.  A mid-November election might then circle around how to repair the colossal damage wrought by three years of political hooliganism from the Brexit camp.  And that, perhaps, is the optimistic scenario.