Where is the British prime minister when it comes to priorities? As Britain continues to feel the force of a pandemic that is almost encouraged to hang around amidst continuing uncertainly about Europe, his methods still has most UK citizens in the dark as to where their country is going? John Gloster-Smith sheds some light in an effort to figure him out.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson attempted a relaunch last week, promising in typically grandiose language a “Rooseveltian” set of measures to “level up” depressed parts of the UK. His image has been dented by criticism of the handling of the pandemic and the threat of mass unemployment, at the same time as threatening to walk away empty-handed from a Brexit trade deal with the EU. His eminence grise in No. 10, Dominic Cummings, has effectively sacked the chief civil servant, Mark Sedwill, and a restructuring of the civil service is imminent. Far from focusing purely on seeking to unify the country and obtaining a single-handed focus on combating the pandemic, Johnson seems intent on carrying out a post-Brexit revolution in government which looks likely to boost his power. At such a delicate point, at the relaxation of the lockdown when Covid cases could surge, one must ask what it is that this regime is trying to do, since many might feel that it is taking too many risks at once.

A Brexit-and-build Britain beset by the pandemic

Johnson sees himself as having been elected with a big majority to “get Brexit done” and this has, despite the pandemic, remains the chief focus. One might say that this is an extraordinary situation for a Prime Minister (PM) who won a big election victory, ending a period of political division, and had set a clear new direction, that of Brexit and infrastructure improvement. He is a powerful PM, able to carry all before him. Yet his government has been hit almost immediately after by the pandemic and the government is struggling. His popularity has been declining in the polls and his opponent, Labor leader Keir Starmer, is better rated. He is trying to escape from what he may perceive as the trap of the pandemic by blaming it on Public Health England, the body theoretically responsible for public health, and the Health Department, and also deal with the fast-approaching car-crash of Brexit at end of December. Thus he has attempted to refloat the regime with a shiny new offering to the new “blue wall” post-industrial constituencies that voted Tory for the first time last December by presenting himself as a “Brexit-and-build” government, painting a positive sounding picture of the sunny uplands of post-Brexit “global” and “world-beating” Britain.

However, the handling of the pandemic has been terrible, despite protestations to the contrary. There have been a host of errors, U-turns, and confused messages. The underfunded NHS has been under huge pressure, and the UK has had the worst death rate in Europe. Britain was ill-prepared for the pandemic, having developed a previously much-praised organisation for an influenza pandemic.

Tory neoliberal policy since 2010 has been predicated on a small-state health infrastructure, an emasculated Public Health England, a poor stock provision of necessary equipment, and local authorities without sufficient power or finances, which is a serious lack of infrastructure on which to fight this pandemic. One might say that in part they were unfortunate to be in power when the pandemic struck and so have to get the stick any government might get in this situation. They are the government in power and would be liable to have to take responsibility. Taking responsibility is, however, not something Johnson does, though his government is fond of preaching it to others.

Cummings and centralisation

At the same time as fighting the pandemic and attempting to negotiate a trade deal with the EU, Johnson’s unelected side-kick at No. 10, Dominic Cummings, is busy planning a government revolution. When we examine what is being planned, it starts to make more sense as to why Johnson refused to part with him after he breached the lockdown with his flight to Durham. It’s got something to do with power.

Cummings has long been critical of the British Civil Service, which he sees as too dominated by a time-serving, irremovable, too London-centric, socially elitist, and change-resistant senior civil service. Such views are not unique to him and have long been expressed by critics of the civil service. Cummings, like these previous critics, would like to have more specialists at the expense of “generalists”, and Cummings speaks fondly of clever experts skilled at using data-analysis, AI and technology. He is more in favour of civil servants not being permanent and instead being able to bring in people from outside, raising concerns about the introduction of political appointees rather than impartial career civil servants. Soon after coming to power, he has had a hand in edging out the Cabinet Secretary Sedwill, and the Permanent Secretaries of the Home Office and Foreign Office have also been moved on, and a political appointee, Frost, is now to be the national security advisor. Cummings has also asserted control over special advisors (Spads), political appointments previously accountable to their ministers but now accountable to him. Cummings, with the minister responsible for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove, is thought to be about to restructure the lines of accountability of ministers, like the Spads, through the Cabinet Office and No 10. In effect, despite denials, this strongly smacks of centralisation of power.

Johnson’s style of government

As ever with politics, one is drawn to speculate on the nature of power exercised by those entrusted with the role of leadership. So too with Johnson. How powerful is he? And how powerful could he become? As ever too, power is dependent on the context in which it is exercised. At present Johnson is beset with difficulties and is attempting to steer clear of the lockdown with a fresh presentation of direction. Yet this is a new government with a big majority, and thus a lot of freedom of manoeuvre, which is establishing itself and asserting a style. If successful, this could set the trend for the next few years.

Johnson has focused very considerable power in No 10, in himself, Cummings and Gove, what one pundit called “The Gang of Three”. It is striking that the Cabinet is much less influential than under May, with most energy directed elsewhere. Ministerial appointees owe their position to Johnson after his purge of opponents in autumn 2019, unlike other cabinets in the past where ministers were chosen to reflect different wings and tendencies within the party. He demands loyalty and those seen as disloyal are removed. Thus he pushed out his Chancellor Javiid over Cummings’ control of his Spads, and Sedwill, a May appointment, was similarly thought to be too unsympathetic to the changes in government. There is also a tendency to give jobs to friends. Thus Dido Harding, a Tory peer, was given the job of running the test and trace regime. Johnson’s team is the Vote Leave team now in power, an effective take-over of the Parliamentary party by its Brexiter wing. This centralisation of power in No 10 is not unusual with strong Prime Ministers, although some would say this is more centralised than usual. The drawback with centralisation however is that when things go wrong, the criticism, rather than shared, gets too quickly focused at the top.

Johnson’s style is often described as a jovial, casual “bluff and bluster”. The scruffy hair and the jokes are disarming. Yet it’s false. Underneath the easy witticisms lies a cold calculation. Johnson is ruthless and determined on gaining and holding power, and is quite capable of changing policies and people when it suits. He’s attached himself to the Brexiter cause, in part because that gave him his opportunity. Yet he’s capable of change and there is frequent speculation as to how much he is a free marketeer or an interventionist. Latterly, in order to be seen to be rewarding “blue wall” MPs, and through them the former Labour votes from the “left behind” post-industrial areas, he has sign-posted infrastructure spending, changes to facilitate house building and hints at the creation of FDR-style agencies. At the same time his negotiators are discussing a free trade treaty with the USA and playing hard-to-get with the EU over a trade deal, while regulations are being removed and threats made against human rights constraints. It is not clear how much he is a neoliberal and how much an interventionist, despite the recent “Rooseveltian” rhetoric. Johnson easily and freely lies. Truth and honesty are hard to find. Thus he is discomforted when the “forensic” Starmer tellingly and accurately pursues him on the detail of the failings of his government in the pandemic despite his airy bluster and spin. There is more than a touch of chaos and missteps about this government, but such idiosyncrasies should not distract the attention of the sceptical observer from the steely resolve of the apparently lazy head of government.

There are those who look to politics for purpose, principle, belief, direction and focus. Then there are others who are sceptical and see scheming, subterfuge and sleight of hand in the actions of politicians. A close attention to Johnson’s eyes as well as his actions, rather than his words, can be revealing as to which of these predominate in the mind of Britain’s effective ruler.

John Gloster-Smith
John Gloster-Smith is a graduate of Oxford University, a former Director of History and Politics at Mill Hill School, London, and a facilitator and coach in professional and personal development, working often at the heart of UK government. He is now largely retired, lives in South-west France and writes on politics and personal development. John's personal blog is https://johngspoliticsblog.org/about/

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