John Gloster-Smith issues a first year report card for the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and the news is not good.
A little over one year on from Johnson’s accession to power in the UK, one is perhaps in a better position to assess his way of governing, especially as he has now had to deal with a massive crisis, the pandemic. His way has become paradoxically both strong and yet curiously incompetent. At one level he has to a much greater degree than most prime ministers centralised power in No 10 and the adjoining Cabinet Office and yet at another his government is proving confused, accident-prone and exposed to mishaps.
Johnson likes to put on a good show and he will talk a good talk. Yet many say it is all “bluff and bluster”, signifying very little. He seems not to like challenging situations and has a tendency to hide when the going is hard, leaving his ministers to tough it out. It is as though he is “winging it”, making policy – and changing it – as he goes. There thus does not appear to be much of a sense of strategic direction. It is as though he always wanted to be Prime Minister but doesn’t know how to do it, like a little boy who wanted a train-set but having got his toy doesn’t know how to work it.
The blame game
He is very reliant on his “eminence grise”, Dominic Cummings, which helps explain why Cummings was not sacked when his implausible explanation for evading the lockdown in March was laughed out of court. Yet the Cummings debacle has seriously damaged trust in government. At the same time, Cummings’ failure to take responsibility for his behaviour, even to argue that he was right, has underlined a crucial feature of this government, that it is in government but is not responsible, or we might say, not accountable.
This is a very serious state of affairs. We’ve now had several instances where things have gone wrong in government and ministers have refused to be accountable but passed the buck to civil servants who have had to resign. The most recent was the schools’ national exams fiasco where the results were altered by computer during the pandemic and then abandoned as unfair. The minister, Gavin Williamson, remains in place but his most senior official has resigned as has also the head of the exams regulatory body, OFQUAL. There is a fundamental constitutional convention that when there is a serious governmental failure the minister responsible resigns. The civil service, being non-political, is seen as impartial and permanent, being deemed able to serve each government with equal enthusiasm. To not resign in such a serious failure weakens government because it undermines trust and cooperation within it. It is more likely that civil servants will be more hesitant, avoid making firm recommendations but pass them to ministers, and avoid exposing themselves to attack. So serious matters may get missed or not be addressed. The cynical might say that this is what Cummings and others have wanted all along since they have argued in favour of political appointments to the top of the civil service as in the USA.
The issue is also serious in another way, which speaks to the nature of the Johnson regime, which is that government believes it can do what it wants and get away with it. It is not accountable because it refuses to act that way, to take responsibility. If one recalls how Johnson assumed power last summer, there was a crisis over Parliament’s insistence on discussing the government’s Brexit plans. Johnson prorogued Parliament to drastically cut time before Britain was due to leave the EU and limit its influence on what he wanted to do. This action was ruled in effect unconstitutional by the British Supreme Court in a celebrated, or for Brexiters infamous, ruling on 24 September 2019. Johnson was, it could be argued, evading accountability to the legislature which as the ruling affirmed is the sovereign body in the realm. He subsequently engineered a general election and gained an 80-seat majority, a majority which had been missing since May’s ill-fated attempt to get a mandate for her Brexit in 2017, which enabled him to quickly “get Brexit done” without further interference from Parliament. Thereafter, Johnson has proceeded to ignore Parliament as much as he can, secure in his majority, operating the notorious, or celebrated, “elective dictatorship” as Lord Hailsham called the British system in 1976.
Instead, he operates through a very subservient Cabinet full of what many people regard as mediocrities, very inexperienced people and chiefly noted for their loyalty to Johnson. They are in fact the Vote Leave Referendum team in power, which again speaks volumes to the nature of the Johnsonian regime, that a hard right Brexiter faction has taken over the Tory Party and government. Johnson ruthlessly disposed of opponents when he came to power, expelling a number of pro-EU Tories and receiving the surrender and confirmed obedience of others. For a while his potential opponents have been quiet on the backbenches but with the Cummings Affair, the catalogue of mishaps and U-turns in the management of the pandemic and just now the big fall of the Tories in the polls to be level-pegging with Labour, criticism has re-emerged.
Many have criticised Johnson’s government for being unable to transition from a victorious campaign team into a working government but instead to continue in effect as a campaign. This is relevant also if one considers the Johnson regime as populist. Populism is about a dichotomy between “government”, which is perceived to be in the hands of a remote, self-serving “political class” or elite, and the virtuous “people”. As with populists elsewhere, it has been about storming the citadel of power in the name of “the people” and destroying the power nexus, instead in some cases operating through direct democracy by referendum as opposed to representative democracy through a Parliament, the former being virtuous and the latter corrupt. In the case of Trump (remember the phrase, “Drain the swamp”), this has seemed like a version of a permanent revolution, a constant attack on the nexus of power and a claim as a “strongman” to have a special relationship with “the people”. In Johnson’s case, perhaps a pale imitation of populism as it might be, nevertheless there is this quality of conducting a campaign, in this case to “get Brexit done”, and setting about the destruction of the citadel of power as traditionally operated, ousting suspect “Remainers”, “lefties” and “liberals”, rather than getting on with competently governing. Thus Johnson could follow the path of previous populists, great at self-promotion, but a failure at the practical art of doing the job.
Division of administration
Under Cummings and the other advisors at No 10, power has been centralised in No 10 and the Cabinet Office. Again we hear rumours of a possible Prime Minister’s Department being created, although in the past such ideas have quietly gone when the government has lost popularity. Cummings has insisted that the political advisors or “Spads” to ministers are responsible to him and not to their ministers. Cummings has been very critical of the quality of the current civil service leadership and it seems he is getting his way in that the heads of the Home Office, the Justice department, the Education department, the Foreign Office and the Cabinet Secretary have all been moved on and the Health Department restructured. The risk with this centralisation and control, which is ironic coming from a campaign team that argued for democracy and “taking back control” for Parliament from the EU, is that when things go wrong, as they have done badly with the pandemic, criticism is focused in on No 10 and the PM.
Thus, it is very problematic for Johnson to evade responsibility and to blame others, as has happened with Health and Education very recently. It is well-known in organisations that when the boss keeps making excuses and blaming others for repeated failures, people eventually turn around and point the finger back at the boss. “You made the appointments. This is your government. You carry the can”. One can hear the words, or some less polite.
In turn this brings us back to Johnson and his style, bluff and bluster, a show but no substance, a fig leaf over a fundamental incompetence in that most crucial of skills of a leader, simply the ability to lead and to manage. No wonder MPs in his party are yet again talking in coded language as they do about a possible change at the top. The Conservative Party are famously ruthless at disposing of their leaders. As we reach the start of a new Parliamentary meeting, it is said that Johnson has a particular meeting coming up, one he has shown in the past to be very reluctant to have, with representatives of Tory backbenchers, the 1922 Committee, which is interesting since communication with MPs, conversation, spending time listening, and building rapport are not his forte.
Johnson has a serious weakness in that he does not come with a significant following among MPs built up over time, as potential leaders often do. He was a maverick MP who went away to be Mayor of London and then came back to help undermine Cameron with an expressed interest, usually then denied, of being leader. He was popular with party members but much less so with MPs. He got the job when the Tories were in a hole, Parliament was paralysed over the Withdrawal Agreement and they were faced with a possible Parliamentary coalition against them and a second referendum. He was seen as a vote-winner, which he was. Many warned however before he took over last summer of his many weaknesses, such as being a serial womaniser, a sexist and racist, an habitual liar, a joker who used humour as a disguise, untrustworthy, unprincipled, inconsistent and with no tangible ideology or plan that could not be abandoned at a moment’s notice to suit his interests.
His former boss at the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings, wrote a damming critique of him in the Guardian on 24 June 2019. He concluded, “I have a hunch that Johnson will come to regret securing the prize for which he has struggled so long, because the experience of the premiership will lay bare his absolute unfitness for it”. He went on to say, “the Conservative party…is about to foist a tasteless joke upon the British people – who will not find it funny for long”.
The risk one runs by playing with power without responsibility is that it is a child’s game, and eventually the adults come along, call time on the game, and take the power away.