Even before Covid-19 has finished wreaking havoc across the world, commentators and politicians have started to point fingers and apportion blame for the crisis. So far in the dock we have the Government (primarily Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock), China, the World Health Organisation, the NHS, No 10 political advisors (particularly Dominic Cummins) and the scientists on whom many of the policy decisions depended. Yet, nowhere in the list of ‘defendants yet to be called to the witness box’ is the electorate and their role in putting into power a Government that appears to be singularly ill-equipped to deal with the crisis.
The inadequacies of the current administration are not in doubt: preventive action was late and indecisive, there were insufficient testing kits, ventilators, nurses, doctors, hospital beds, care home places and protective equipment, and communication and guidance has been confusing. In spite of WHO warnings that a pandemic was due, and its No 1 spot on the Government’s risk register, little work had been undertaken to ensure the country was better prepared. Coronavirus is a crisis for almost every country. With a new disease in a fast moving situation it’s inevitable that mistakes will be made and unexpected events will occur. But by any measure, the UK Government has performed badly.
The first duty of government is to protect its people and at a time of a national emergency, a competent government is essential. In the 2008 financial crash the prime minister, Gordon Brown, led the UK and the rest of the world. He not only attended every Cobra meeting but chaired them. He recognised the dangers in real time and took immediate action to shore up the pound and the banking system. Without his strong intervention, credibility with world leaders, and detailed understanding of the issues at hand, the banking system would have collapsed and with it the global economy if newspapers at the time were to be believed.
Whatever our views on bailing out the banking sector and however we feel about the lessons those institutions may or may not have learned, Brown’s actions in those early days were pivotal in averting an immediate catastrophe.
We do not have Brown today, we have Johnson. But before we move to lay blame at Johnson or the Government’s feet, we need first to consider the role the electorate has played in this crisis. In December 2019 this country elected a man known to be frivolous, who had been repeatedly sacked for lying, was uninterested in detail, and who cheated on or abandoned his intimates when it suited him. We knew his private life would be more interesting and diverting than his political views, and expensive colourful projects would appeal to him more than the boring drudge of daily governance.
Before the election, we watched Johnson deride and oust his careful and practical predecessor, Theresa May. We observed him remove the brightest and ablest politicians in his cull of those who did not support him. Going into the election it was very evident that he lacked a cohort of people from which to choose a cabinet capable of effective government. Johnson had made it very clear that the only essential criteria for ministerial office would be adherence to Brexit ideology and competence was very much an optional extra. In this he was urged on by the ‘get Brexit done’ public who decried caution and questioning as traitorous characteristics for ministers.
We also knew that Johnson had no Brexit plan. Although he lied to us about the £350m for the NHS and the ‘oven ready’ deal, by the time of the election we knew these were lies. We had heard from more sober heads (the civil service, Conservative ministers, economists, business leaders, trade unionist and academics) who had taken the time to undertake some analysis and work out what needed to be done. These experts thought Brexit was a complex, long-term project that had barely started. Yet still people chanted ‘get Brexit done’, knowing that it was a meaningless charade.
During the election campaign Johnson’s suppressed the Russia report, was uncooperative with enquiries into his relationship with Jennifer Arcuri while Mayor of London, hid from press scrutiny in a fridge and in supporters’ homes, and refused to be interviewed by challenging journalists or engage in public debates with leaders of other parties. The electorate knew that Johnson would continue to suppress unfavourable information, avoid scrutiny and run away when challenged if he was to become PM.
Johnson is an open book. There is nothing that we are seeing in his behaviour that was not seen and understood before the election. There were no secrets known only to close aids, waiting to be discovered by the media or the public. His behaviour over the years was well publicised and according to newspaper reports the public was in no doubt about Johnson. They did not trust him, did not believe him and did not think he was particularly capable; yet enough people still voted for him. Some said it was because he was funny, that he made them laugh; others simply liked him or were (oddly) attracted by his flaws. They might as well have voted for a kitten.
Clearly the public never envisioned a time when they would need proper leadership: boring, stable, thoughtful, moral leadership. It may be that many voters thought both the two main candidates were equally poor and that neither candidate offered the potential for competent leadership. Had we know what was or the horizon, would people have voted differently? Ultimately, Johnson is what this country voted for and the poor management of the coronavirus crisis is a direct outcome of the UK’s collective foolishness.