Saturday 19 September 2020

Boris Johnson’s zing has well and truly zung: Matthew Parris

Like sheep without a shepherd, voters who trusted the PM have grown confused and resentful at his lack of leadership, says Matthew Parris.

This may be another shot in the early Murdoch campaign to replace Johnson with Oiky Gove but it's quite accurate in its criticisms.

Article text below:

"Like a rotten mackerel by moonlight," said the 19th-century American congressman John Randolph of another politician, "he shines and stinks." With Boris Johnson the shine has gone.

Yet it was for the shine that we elevated him. I remember the 2019 general election campaign, and that sense of slightly unfocused excitement. It wasn’t about what Boris would actually do (except not be Jeremy Corbyn and "get Brexit done"): it was all about zing, about whizz-bang, sparkle, fizz, gusto, passion — and fun. Well zing is as zing does and Johnson’s zing has well and truly zung. The fun has gone and with it the shine. We are left with the stink.

Like their politicians, electorates need ladders to climb down; and this prime minister is ultimately our fault. So we excuse our mistake by saying he’s lost that punchy effervescence for which we chose him. But effervescence is a highfalutin word for gas. And gaiters. And talk and trousers will only get you so far. Now comes the void, a void into which nobody stares more mournfully than he.

Face it: there was never any reason for confidence in Boris Johnson’s diligence, his honesty, his directness, his mastery of debate, his people-skills with colleagues, his executive ability or his policy grip. We’d seen no early demonstration of any of these qualities but we just blanked that out. We looked hopefully into the crystal ball when we should have read the book.

Fish rot from the head down, so let me run you quickly through the huge stumbles that can only finally point back up to the boss.

First, Covid. Though I do think our government panicked at the start, I accept that a reasonably cogent case can be made for its first response. Why, then, are we in such a mess now when other countries are facing similar problems with (for instance) testing? There’s no ducking the answer. We’ve lacked any feeling of overall direction or leadership and so, like sheep without a shepherd, we’ve grown confused, divided, frightened, irritable and resentful.

Then there’s the repeated over-promising, "moonshots" and all that. Over-promising invites the law of diminishing returns and slides finally into public contempt. You can over-promise to one woman, then over-promise to another, but in this case there’s only one lady involved, and that’s us. Boris can’t move on to a new electorate.

It would help if our PM, who admitted yesterday that we are in a second wave, would tell us where we’re trying to get to in this pandemic. "Conquering" the virus? Suppressing it until a vaccine comes along? Or learning to live with it? The health secretary and perhaps his medical advisers seem to imply the first, sometimes the second. Some medical/scientific opinion (see the recent discussion by Peter Doshi in the latest edition of The BMJ) seems at least to contemplate the third.

Which, then? The public need to know before we can trust. If all we’re aiming for is to slow down transmission then the case for patchy and sometimes random and even inconsistent prohibitions can be understood, but if we’re trying to "beat" a virus then the measures look ragged, scattergun, and capricious. What and which, then, is Johnson’s overall aim? He’s in charge. As Queen Victoria’s first prime minister, Viscount Melbourne, remarked to his cabinet: "Is it to lower the price of corn or isn’t it? It is not much matter which we say, but mind, we must all say the same."

Criticisms of leadership all risk stumbling at the final fence, in this case "if not Boris, who?" Could David Cameron, Tony Blair or John Major have proved better at taking the public with them on Covid-19? Better at explaining, at showing humility where there is uncertainty or error, at admitting failures? At persuading?

You have only to imagine any of these three in the chair at press conferences or in the Commons chamber to know the answer: an emphatic, unqualified yes.

Be it PPE, Ofqual, or (now) test-and-trace, with Johnson and his team it’s always somebody else’s fault — in the latest instance, ours, the public’s, whose anxiety to know if we’re infected is entirely natural given the government’s scare campaign. The problem with Johnson is that he so often doesn’t appear to know his own mind and struggles to take a position and stick to it. This is a mind (and I borrow the phrase) "not so much open as vulnerable to a succession of opposing certainties".

As someone who, like me, has watched him for years and seen him at close quarters put it yesterday: "I don’t think Johnson has any clear view as to what is intended. I think he often speaks without having any really serious intent as to outcome." Any tribe finds this unsettling in the chief.

And who, anyway, is the chief? Johnson has allowed the impression to arise that Dominic Cummings is his Svengali. Cummings has a usefully sharp intelligence but people hate the whole idea of Svengalis. Cummings’s Barnard Castle episode, with Johnson apparently in thrall to his adviser, was a political catastrophe.

If it were just over Covid, where uncertainty is the norm, some would sympathise with our PM: some still do. But take this summer’s row about A-levels and Ofqual. It’s fashionable to sneer at Gavin Williamson and mock his accent, but if the education secretary should have seen this coming, so should the prime minister. What steer, what support, did Johnson give? My guess is that he will have whistled and looked the other way. And how could a PM who knew or cared about the quality of his cabinet have shrugged shoulders at the rank inadequacy of his home secretary, Priti Patel? People do get the message. Like many weak bosses, Johnson is frightened of competition or discord.

Finally, the Internal Market Bill. Posturing is common enough in politics but to attempt a David-and-Goliath confrontation with Brussels and then sling-shoot yourself in the foot is a fiasco. The whole shaming episode was entirely predictable, as is its conclusion. The bill will sink.

And so we end up with this rancid shambles of a government. The confusion is inseparable from the character of its leader. Is it, then, too late for Johnson? Could he yet wind back and start again? I end as I began, with the words of John Randolph, reflecting on his own career, and how ". . . time misspent and faculties mis-employed, and senses jaded by labour, or impaired by excess, cannot be recalled any more than that freshness of the heart, before it has become aware of the deceits of others, and of its own."


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