Incompetence personified

Published by The i paper (1st June, 2020)

Clearly Dominic Cummings has little respect for rules. So he must be delighted to have shattered one of the most oft-heard maxims in Westminster: when an adviser becomes the story, they must go. Never mind that he has been exposed as a fraud – the populist who believes he can behave differently to lesser folk; the data guru unaware changing a blog could be easily detected; the “superforecaster” who failed to see the furore. Nor indeed that the entire nation could observe the pomposity being pricked of a man who sneers at many other mortals, squirming to keep his job with an absurd story about driving to test his eyesight.

This diminished character stays in Downing Street to serve as a perpetual symbol of the political elite he claimed to despise. His behaviour has reinforced the most corrosive image for the Conservatives as a party out of touch with ordinary people. The furore could not have come at worse time for his boss as questions arise over the Government’s dire response to deadly pandemic. The big question is why was Boris Johnson so desperate to retain his toxic pal in defiance of much of his party and the public?

There are a slew of suggested answers. Johnson has long been a rule breaker in both his personal and professional life. He dislikes lockdown as someone intuitively sceptical about the state (almost certainly one reason Britain was fatally slow in its response to the virus). Like every incoming prime minister, he is determined not to be pushed around by the media. These are valid explanations. The key reason, however, was exposed when Johnson was forced to finally appear for a grilling by the Commons Liaison Committee.

We know the Prime Minister is a politician who tries to evade tough questioning. This 100-minute session showed the reason for his reluctance. From start to finish, Johnson was floundering – repeating mantras such as the need to “move on” from the Cummings farce, waffling almost incoherently, woefully sluggish in reply to tough questions, admitting he did not read scientific advice “except in exceptional circumstances”, and, most alarmingly, lacking grasp of basic political detail. The only sharp response came when he moved like a shark against Jeremy Hunt – his former leadership rival who spent seven years as health secretary – to claim that our pandemic response was hampered by failure to learn from previous epidemics.

Dodging questions over Cummings was demeaning but predictable. Johnson was also fortunate some interrogators sought to grandstand rather than probe. But when urged, for instance, to help hitherto overlooked self-employed workers reliant on dividend payments from their own firms – which the Tory MP Mel Stride rightly called a gaffe in the strong fiscal response to pandemic – Johnson ended up boasting about “a pretty awesome package”. Darren Jones then raised issues on the self-employed income support scheme, only to be met with blathering about “generous” universal credit. “Prime minister, universal credit is not generous,” the Labour MP replied acidly.

There were several more toe-curling moments. Caroline Nokes, chair of the equalities committee, fired off a series of strong questions on childcare and female representation in decision-making. First came some flannel about female advisers. Then Johnson patronisingly told a woman he fired from senior ministerial office that she might end up the third Tory prime minister. Finally he had to be reprimanded for laughing by the chair with a warning that gender equality was “not a joking matter”.

Mostly it was rather pitiful, like watching a talentless comedian wilt on stage. Yet one moment was terrible. Labour’s Stephen Timms raised the case of a struggling couple in his London consistency with leave to remain in the country but no recourse to public funds. “Hang on,” he replied. “Why aren’t they eligible for universal credit or employment support allowance or any of the other benefits?”

Bear in mind this is a politician who won highest office at the helm of a movement exploiting fear over foreign workers. He has given speeches about migrants treating Britain “as their own country”. He plans to reform the immigration system to make it “fairer”. Yet he was baffled when asked about a key plank of policy introduced in the last century, extended by the Tories and debated dozens of times in Parliament.

Alarmingly, Johnson claimed to have prepared. He was trying to be on his best behaviour. The questions were not even that tricky. Yet he ended up showing that while he can be an engaging and witty performer of set pieces, he lacks many skills demanded of a top politician – from verbal dexterity, beyond mumbling and bumbling, through to a firm grasp of detail and policy. Perhaps this should not be a surprise. The broadcaster Jeremy Vine revealed how much of his act is based on artifice after seeing two identical speeches with the same messed-up hair and gags. But it is depressing to witness in a prime minister, especially amid a pandemic.

For all his showboating success in winning elections, Johnson has a poor record in office. As mayor he rode the coat-tails of his predecessor, his landmark policy of a garden bridge turning into a costly flop. As foreign secretary, his inattention to detail was disastrous. As prime minister, he seems to have no driving cause beyond a hollow brand of patriotism and self-preservation. So it is obvious why he wants the comfort blanket of a trusted aide who poses as someone with bold solutions.

But Britain faces extremely challenging times. A pandemic is raging. People are dying. Flaws in society lie brutally exposed. We face a savage economic downturn, possibly the worst for three centuries. Now we have seen again, harshly exposed in the spotlight of parliamentary accountability, the person in charge of our country. It is not a reassuring image.

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