Sunday, June 23, 2024
HomeCOVID-19A lesson for Johnson in the art of war

A lesson for Johnson in the art of war


THANKS to the Prime Minister’s wooden, confused and uninspiring broadcast on Sunday night, I’m worried about Covid-19 for the first time.

I’m not worried about catching it: either I will or I won’t. If I do, I’ll either survive or I won’t, which is beyond my control and therefore not worth worrying about.

No, my worry is that the country lacks a leader and it lacks a commander. In my youth I taught people how to be both – they are different skills, both of which are vital at all levels in the armed forces. Command is the art of making timely and correct decisions and then monitoring the resulting actions to ensure that they achieve the desired effects. Leadership is the art of communicating those decisions in such a manner as to ensure that everyone accepts the necessity, understands the plan and is prepared to die trying to achieve it. The Prime Minister’s broadcast failed on both counts.

This is not entirely Mr Johnson’s fault; he has had no training in command or leadership, and neither has anyone else in his cabinet. Neither have most of the civil and public servants supporting him (the exceptions being the ones with military experience – who have also had drilled into them that they are the vassals of the political leadership). And of course, he has had Covid-19 and I hear anecdotally that full recovery of one’s faculties takes much longer than physical recovery. And, make no mistake, he is under unimaginable pressure (which is exhausting).

When commanding any action in the military, one of the key considerations (in a necessarily highly disciplined thought process) is ‘Has anything significant changed?’ If it has, one must reconsider whether one’s aim (or the constraints on achieving it) remains correct. If it is not, develop a new one – sharpish. In military thought the Master Principle of War is the selection and maintenance of the aim. (This is so in any country with capable armed forces.) The aim leads to a mission statement, phrased as (for example) ‘To capture the Tamar Bridge in order to drive the enemy out of Cornwall’. Missions are so important that they are repeated in orders and everyone is expected to know it. If they know the mission, they know what to do in any circumstance without further reference to their commander.

In this respect the first slogan, ‘Stay homeprotect the NHSsave liveswas pretty good. However the circumstances have now changed: the NHS is obviously not swamped (some 40 per cent of beds are empty). The overwhelming majority of those dying have pre-existing serious conditions. On the downside the costs are huge and out of control, those with other serious health conditions are not being treated and many businesses face destitution unless the lockdown is eased quickly.

The new slogan, ‘Stay alert, control the virus, save lives’, is idiotic.  Alert to what? We can’t see a virus (although we can detect bullsh*t). Save whose lives? From the published data the chances of dying from Covid for those aged under 45 are near zero. It’s only really killing people over pension age. Which we all knew a month ago.

People under pressure grasp at straws. The cabinet seem to have grasped at ‘science’. This is unfortunate – the science of a new virus is complicated, which means the scientific method is leading to debate. Worse, as there are so few cases (as at yesterday, some 220,000 in a population of 65million – one in 300) the data has to be extrapolated by statistical manipulation, which introduces errors and complexity. An ability to test 100,000 per day is only 1 in 650; even before you add in the effects of false positives and negatives this will feed in only weak data to the models. There is one certainty in all modelling: garbage in, garbage out.

This GIGO is reflected in the government’s latest target (after ventilators, ICU beds, PPE, and a flat sombrero of death rates), the R number (in effect, the number of people infected and developing symptoms by someone suffering from Covid). The last estimate is that R is in the range 0.5 to 0.9. While that is below 1 the wide spread means that the government does not know. The R number is computed from models that are already suffering from poor data.

There is one programme that is sampling more than 3million people (one in 22 of the population) by the simple expedient of asking them if they have symptoms. It’s the King’s College London study and you should join it. Its figures suggest that there are currently just 250,000 people with the infection, down from over 2.1million at the end of April. Ludicrously, it is now having to seek funding from the public. Why is the government ignoring it?

The worst part of the Prime Minister’s broadcast was when he informed us that the fines for breaching the lockdown rules will increase. A government does not lead by cracking the whip, rather it needs to clarify its message and win support. Instead we get confused messages – sometimes contradictory – and targets that have a surreal, Soviet style to them.

It is, of course, easy to criticise. So here are some suggestions.

Firstly the Prime Minister clearly needs more support than he is getting. He needs rest, which may mean he needs new accommodation – sharing a flat with a new mother and a newborn child is unlikely to help his sleep.

Secondly he needs a clear, authoritative, and experienced deputy with a track record of command and leadership in extreme circumstances. He won’t find one in Westminster or Whitehall so he should look to industry, commerce or the armed forces. That person can then bring the cabinet to heel and control the media engagement. Why have a press conference daily when there is little new to say? Why dance to Laura Kuenssberg’s tune?

Thirdly he needs to look at previous briefings in times of peril. The obvious example of how not to do it is Ian McDonald in the Falklands War.

A good example of the right technique is General Norman Schwarzkopf in the first Gulf War. 

Fourthly he and his team need to produce a clear statement of the aim. I suggest that it should be something like returning the country to the status quo ante (healthy, wealthy and growing) as soon as possible in order to be able to afford our lifestyle.

Finally, he needs to get a grip politically. The cabinet must either be silent or unanimous. Wee Nicola needs to be reminded that it is the UK that pays the Scottish piper and she can bloody well dance to the UK’s tune. He may need to bring Sir Keir Starmer into the cabinet.  One thing is certain, Boris Johnson is the only person in Westminster capable of being Prime Minister in these circumstances. We have a health problem, a failing government and a looming economic disaster. The only thing that could make it worse is a political upheaval.

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here. He is the Reform Parliamentary Candidate for Swansea West.

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