The PM is hopelessly out of his depth

Published by The i paper (21st December, 2020)

Last week was another long one in Westminster. On Monday Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, warned us about an alarming new strain of Covid-19 that lay behind soaring infections in swathes of the country. On Wednesday his boss mocked Keir Starmer for wanting to “criminalise” the festive plans of citizens when the Labour leader sought a firmer response. “I want to be clear, we don’t want to ban Christmas, to cancel it. I think that would be frankly inhuman,” said Boris Johnson. 

Three days later the Prime Minister flipped and did precisely what he promised to avoid: he imposed strict lockdown on much of the south east and ditched his planned relaxation of rules across the rest of England. Johnson portrayed himself as a hapless victim of circumstances, saying that “when the science changes, we must change our response”. Certainly these are abnormal times and this pandemic presents unprecedented challenges for all leaders. 

Yet just as people are often shaped by trauma, so politicians are defined by their reaction to tough situations. The symbolism of that sombre Saturday press conference – led by a PM who not only reassured fellow citizens that they should carry on with festive planning days earlier, but previously stated we could hope for a “significant return to normality” in time for Christmas – could not have been sharper. Once again, it exposed the prime minister’s flaws with unforgiving clarity.

Johnson has proved beyond doubt he is out of his depth leading the country in this crisis, seen again in the calamitous events of last week. This is about the person, not just the policies.

This new strain with increased infectivity was first seen in late September, then detected more than 1,000 times in almost 60 local authority areas by the time Hancock spoke in Parliament. The Prime Minister must have known the threat from this disease had intensified – yet there was no hint of caution in his bombastic jibes at Starmer. Then he went on to deceive his own MPs at a meeting later that day before making another of his trademark U-turns on Saturday.

I have rarely heard such anger from all sides of the Tory party at the behaviour of a leader, inflamed by a deluge of emails from voters who made the mistake of trusting the Prime Minister before sorting their festive plans. But seething in private is not enough when lives, jobs and sanity are at stake. MPs must reflect over the coming days on the tumultuous events of 2020, which began with Johnson saying this would be “a fantastic year for Britain” and ends with the sort of headlines about a mutant virus cancelling Christmas that might be found in a science-fiction film.

Britain has some of the world’s worst death rates in this pandemic while suffering the most severe economic damage among richer nations. Now we are battening down hatches again and neighbouring countries are cutting us off before a long winter of discontent. If MPs care about their country and their constituents, they must replace Johnson with a leader better suited to the battle ahead.

I admit I have never been a fan of this man. I dislike his duplicity, his egotism, his selfishness and his casual embrace of prejudices. I believe Brexit is a bad move for Britain. But I also accept he won a big election victory partly on his popularity – albeit against terrible opponents – and there is an argument that in normal times his boisterous flag-waving, flexibility and optimism might have helped the nation set a new course. But, as Hancock warns millions of us that we face months of misery trapped in tier-four restrictions, these could not be less normal times.

Johnson is clearly a damaged individual, which is shown by the way he treats his family and colleagues, and now the wider country. We have seen that his bumbling exterior is a carefully contrived mask to hide the ambition corroding his soul. He is a fiercely competitive character driven by ego, fame and desire to win rather than ideas or injustice. Yet such is the insecurity and shallowness that he shies away from challenge, lies constantly, loathes confrontation, sacks critics and soaks up the views of the last person with whom he spoke. Despite his intellect, he does not interrogate evidence or drill down into data. In the words of one senior Tory figure, he is “uniquely ill-equipped for leadership”.

Perhaps it is entitlement that leads him to act in such cavalier style. One MP, relating the anger of a constituent who blew cash they could ill afford on turkey and trimmings for a now-abandoned family gathering, compared Johnson to a character in Brideshead Revisited, oblivious to how destructive actions affect less wealthy people. While I like politicians to have principles, I accept pragmatism is useful for technocratic operators. Just look at Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, who weighs up evidence in keeping with her scientific background before making decisions. But Johnson just blows with the prevailing winds while believing his boasts and hollow patriotism hide foolish mistakes. He believes in nothing beyond himself.

He sees himself as a latter-day Winston Churchill. Yet Johnson has been exposed, in the heat of battle, as a tragic figure closer to Neville Chamberlain. He is the wrong man in power when his nation faces existential threat. It was nine months into the Second World War when that decent man was replaced with someone more suitable. Now it is nine months since we first saw the scale of this epic new struggle. 

We need Tories to follow the lead of one of their predecessors in calling for a fresh government that is equal to its enemy. “You have sat here for too long for any good you are doing,” Leo Amery told Parliament in 1940. “Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

These famous words need to be heard again.

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