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Johnson – flawed loner undermined by incompetents


I SPENT a large part of Christmas reading Tom Bower’s unauthorised biography of Boris Johnson. The Guardian‘s reviewer says it lets Johnson off the hook. I suggest you read it soon.

There is little new in the stories of Johnson’s early years – although I had not realised quite how loathsome his father is – but the coverage of his life since he was elected mayor of London is eye-opening. While Johnson emerges as a flawed, ambitious, opportunist loner with little ability to master detail (other than in his second term as mayor) the villain of the piece is, without doubt, the establishment: that is the civil service, the political system and most of the people in it, and the media. 

As is known, the overwhelming majority of the establishment were (and still are) anti-Brexit, but I had not realised quite how deeply this was (is) ingrained. Nor had I realised how debased the quality and integrity of the senior civil service has become. When Johnson, to his surprise, became Foreign Secretary (as he found, a poison chalice from the hopeless, hapless, helpless, spiteful, vengeful and self-serving thing that is Theresa May) his ‘unctuous’ permanent secretary Simon McDonald (the senior civil servant) was, according to his tweets, more concerned with increasing the number of BAME recruits and ‘placing gender equality at the heart of everything we do’ than British foreign policy. The FCO was largely to blame for David Cameron’s inability to get sufficient changes, let alone develop contacts with Donald Trump or policy on (say) Syria. The scale to which Johnson was undermined is shocking. Of course, his gaffes did not help, but the mandarins did little to save him. They saw him as the person who had destroyed the UK’s EU membership and they had their revenge.

If the FCO was evil, the health services emerge as a complete disaster area. The book covers the Covid crisis to July, and the incompetence is staggering. The failure of anyone to challenge numbers, data and methodology has led us to the mess that we’re in; it may yet prove to be the case that lockdown has killed more than it saved at an incalculable economic cost yet to be paid. Dominic Cummings had his sights on the MoD’s incompetence – it may well be that it’s one of the better-run departments.

For better or worse, our politicians are selected for their ability to win elections, not manage or analyse data. That is, supposedly, the role of the civil service. However it is not up to the job; rather the abundance of quangos and departments splits responsibility and removes accountability. Rather than running departments (on exalted salaries – the person who failed to procure and distribute PPE was on £200k) senior civil servants are playing a game of musical chairs, intriguing to their next position while tweeting self-promoting politically correct banalities and often undermining their political masters. In military parlance, the whole thing is a shitshow.

While we get the opportunity to sack our politicians once every five years or so, the role of the media is supposed to be to tell us what is going on and add comment. The immediacy of Twitter has driven the media to report first and fact-check later, if ever. The sorry tale of Plebgate shows just how dishonest and self-serving some of our public services (including the BBC) have become. Again, this is well illustrated in the book.

The question is, what is to be done? The establishment can’t reform itself; even if it could, it would not. The current crop of politicians does not have the skill sets required and the media has become a self-serving echo chamber. Laurence Fox and Richard Tice have organisations that might point the way, but it’s a very long road from new party to power. The answer may be closer at hand.

Conservative Party activists seem to believe that despite Covid, the UK establishment and Brussels, Johnson has pulled off an acceptable deal.

Some, along with the sycophantic Tory press, are touting it as a triumph.

Only time will tell whether they are right or wrong. Within the thousands of words that still require close scrutiny, John Ashworth finds that as far as our fisheries are concerned the deal is so bad that we’d be better off staying in the EU. However, if the British public and Parliament deem the deal acceptable and it goes through, Johnson is not just back from the brink but now has four years to sort out the civil service. He needs to find a team from outside the establishment and empower them. Hint: they won’t have studied PPE at Oxford. Whether he has the stomach he needs to have for it – well, that’s another matter. 

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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.

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