A YEAR into office and Boris Johnson’s premiership is testing his closest allies’ loyalty and his own credibility to breaking point. He must be hoping that his (on his own terms) friendly Sunday Telegraph interview will be enough to keep his diminishing band of cheerleaders onside. It does not deserve to.
Only they can still believe he is the man for the moment. A month ago the gentlemanly Charles Moore cast him as a man of good intentions who’s lost his way. Other Telegraph commentators were less generous. Sherelle Jacobs wrote that something felt very, very wrong. ‘The momentum is robotic. No 10’s demeanour is steely but the eyes are dead,’ in condemnation of both his Covid policy and his revival strategy.
Disregarding his Covid shambles, some still keep faith with him over Brexit. Briefings for Britain’s last subscriber newsletter opines Brexit to be in a better place than where Theresa May left it. We think the jury is still out and fear worse. Meanwhile the ever-loyalist Conservative Home focused on what some would interpret as a sign of desperation – plans for a new Prime Minister’s Department. The next day its editor penned a careful encomium – ‘whatever else Johnson may be, he is a winner’ – to mark the PM’s year in office.
That’s not how he’s seen by the Spectator’s veteran political columnist Bruce Anderson, whose questioning of his leadership skills reflects a collapse of confidence in Johnson’s currency amongst those who know him.
From another long-term conservative analyst and commentator who has no ‘skin in the game’ came an even more excoriating account of the Johnson premiership and of the weakness that his government’s response to the Covid crisis has revealed. In last month’s Critic magazine, Simon Heffer’s description of ‘an indolent, blustering prime minister surrounded by supine, vacuous incompetents’ was just the start of his assessment of Johnson’s ‘corona catastrophe’.
While not unsympathetic to the crisis the PM has faced, he goes straight for the jugular. Our elected leaders did not have the courage to resist the public’s risk-averse desire, he writes; they lacked the necessary ‘intellectual self-confidence’ with no ‘deep reservoir of statesmanship’. No wonder then that Boris Johnson ‘bottled it’, as I observed a while back. Heffer points however to the consequences of poor decisions taken by the PM’s predecessors, leaving an NHS unfit for purpose that compounded the crisis he faced.
Not that this lets off a PM whom he describes as ‘an indolent man for whom the exercise of power is a recreation or an indulgence rather than a duty [and whose] ministers with few exceptions lack the wit and the experience to exercise judgment and common sense satisfactorily’.
Surrounded by, and the product of, a political class ‘for whom ambition outweighs a sense of public service in almost every case, dealing with this already highly taxing problem’ became nearly impossible, Heffer deduces.
Damningly, he details the PM’s 38 days of inaction from the moment when the gravity of the impending pandemic became clear until ministers actually did anything concrete about it – a complacency followed by indecisiveness that we again were early to highlight on TCW. He takes him to task him for his cowardice in avoiding being put through the wringer of an Andrew Neil interview that the public were owed.
He asks, too, why Johnson was absent from five Cobra meetings at the start of the crisis. ‘Given what Johnson later claimed to be the gravity of the crisis, it was an appalling dereliction for him to take a 12-day holiday at Chevening, apparently – and versions of the real reason are legion – to try to manage uncomfortable aspects of his increasingly surreal private life.’
In the very period in which all sensible precautionary measures needed to be put in place rapidly – as we recorded here – they were not.
He goes on to expose the conceit that Johnson could possibly be the right man for the job: ‘Those who knew Johnson from his life as a journalist, and as a mayor of London who needed eight deputy mayors to do his job adequately, knew he lacked attention to detail, and had a modus vivendi of bluster and braggadocio designed to conceal the fact that he was lazy, selfish in the extreme and capable of a breathtaking lack of professionalism. Such people were told that none of this mattered because Johnson, in Downing Street, would surround himself with brilliant and capable people who could do his job for him.’
The problem, he argues, is that the British constitution ‘does not allow for a puppet prime minister who acts as a figurehead while others do his job for him’. Nor was the main substitute in this instance either accountable or available in the allegedly brilliant and capable person of Dominic Cummings.
When all fell ill it was left to an out-of-depth Dominic Raab to fill the vacuum, selected from a Cabinet which Heffer describes as one of the least credible, least experienced and least capable ever to have held office; one that Cummings ensured only the compliant were appointed to, whose special advisers served him, not their Ministers. Heffer tracks the crisis with its increasingly embarrassing briefings which served only to showcase the inadequacies of Johnson’s yes men. If Robert Jenrick, Grant Shapps and Priti Patel ‘were the best the government could put forward to soothe the public, [then] the remaining depths of talentlessness must be shocking’.
Nor, Heffer continues, has the PM during this period had the courage or the acuity to take an ‘unsentimental look at the NHS’. In fact, as we’ve noted on TCW, he did the reverse – cynically pouring millions into a blatantly populist and sentimental propaganda campaign, ‘Stay at Home, Save our NHS’, using the reassuringly bass tones of the actor Mark Strong.
Is it ever sensible for a prime minister ‘to pack a Cabinet with people who so supinely agree with him and his all-powerful adviser, and who are so personally weak and motivated by ambition that they struggle to put the needs of the country before their own?’ Heffer asks.
No, he answers, it is the mark of a weak man. Who can disagree or claim Boris Johnson has proved to be the man for the hour?
Citing his bumble and bluster at Prime Minister’s Questions against Sir Keir Starmer, most devastatingly when he misled the House about care homes, Heffer paints a man most certainly unfit for either role or responsibility. He predicts that what is now to come, like the pandemic, will tax even the finest statesmen. That’s not what we have in Boris Johnson.
You can read Simon Heffer’s full article here.