London – Inside Boris Johnson’s government, senior officials are exhausted, demoralized and starting to despair.
Their dreams of reshaping Britain for a bright post-Brexit world have been blown off course by coronavirus. With more than 41,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.K., Johnson has presided over one of the worst records in the world after the U.S. and Brazil.
Now Britain faces among the heaviest financial tolls from the pandemic of any major economy, and the deepest recession in 300 years. In the background is the specter of compounding the pain by failing to reach a trade deal with the European Union, with Johnson next week set to try to rescue talks that are going nowhere.
Fears are growing among officials in London that there’s little or no trust in the leadership anymore. They worry a disillusioned public will simply ignore any future lockdown should a second wave of the virus take hold in the winter. Support for the government’s virus strategy was already undermined after Johnson’s closest adviser caused a scandal by allegedly flouting the rules.
As the Conservatives suffer a slump in the polls just six months after an emphatic election win, critically some within the party are also losing faith.
"I don’t know why we are doing what we are doing any more,” one Tory confided. Johnson’s team inside Downing Street are "running on empty,” said another. "There is a lot of unhappiness in the party,” said a third. "People are less and less impressed with No. 10.”
A spokesman for Johnson’s office declined to comment.
With a fresh parliamentary majority, Johnson has time on his side. He isn’t due to face voters again until 2024 and his party’s MPs, scarred by years of infighting over Brexit, are not so far aiming to topple their leader. But the pandemic is transforming political fortunes around the world and the full cost to Johnson’s standing, and the fate of his Conservatives, is not yet clear.
This week, the crisis of confidence that has been brewing in Westminster finally burst into the open. Senior Tory colleagues demanded Johnson ditch the 2-meter social distancing rule, while others said the government had failed to reopen schools and is moving too slowly to restart other businesses.
But Johnson’s politically independent scientific advisers, who for months had given his strategy its credibility worry the lockdown is being lifted too quickly, and warn restrictions may need to be tightened again. On Wednesday, the scientists finally went public. In defiance of Johnson, they pointed to a catalog of errors his administration made in handling the pandemic.
It didn’t need to end up this way.
On March 14, Johnson gathered his most senior aides around him for a crisis meeting inside his Downing Street office. Fresh data showed the pandemic was running out of control and the government needed to take far tougher action — and fast.
As aides discussed the disaster movie scenario of sealing-off London, Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, was vocal in his support for lockdown measures. For the first time, the prime minister himself was receptive to the idea.
Yet it took another nine days before Johnson announced sweeping restrictions to close swaths of the economy and banish people across the country to their homes. Now, senior officials look back on that delay as a disastrous failure that has cost thousands of lives.
"Had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier we would have reduced the final death toll by at least a half,” Neil Ferguson, one of the academic experts advising ministers at the time, said on Wednesday. "Had we introduced them earlier we would have seen many fewer deaths.”
Standing next to Johnson on live television a few hours later, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said there was a "long list” of potentially flawed decisions, the biggest being the failure to run widespread testing.
Johnson insisted it was "simply too early to judge ourselves.” But the scientists’ verdicts are shared by others running the government’s pandemic response, including some inside No. 10.
If Cummings, whose writ held sway, had been so keen on a lockdown in mid-March, the person responsible for the hold-up was likely to be Johnson himself, according to two well-connected people familiar with the situation.
At the time the prime minister made no secret of his reluctance to impose lockdown restrictions across the country. Four days after they were implemented, Johnson himself tested positive for coronavirus. Soon after that he was taken into intensive care, fighting for his life.
At that time, in early April, the entire country seemed to be willing the prime minister on, hoping he would pull through. Some 50 percent of the country approved of the government’s record, with just 29 percent disapproving, according to YouGov PLC. But by June 8, the government’s fortunes had been reversed, with 49 percent disapproving, and only 32 percent saying they approve.
At all levels of the government, there are now fears that the premier and his team catastrophically lost their grip on the virus, and with it forfeited the trust of the public.
One name keeps coming up as the reason why the Tories are now struggling: Cummings, the all-powerful aide who has shaped Johnson’s mission in government, and was the mastermind of the Brexit campaign of 2016. Government ministers, advisers and parliamentarians are privately furious that Johnson spent so much political capital saving his chief adviser over claims he’d broken lockdown rules.
Johnson decided to stand by Cummings and repeatedly defended his aide’s decision to drive 420 km (260 miles) out of London when the public was being told to stay at home.
Conservative ministers are still angry with Cummings, whose actions dented public trust in the government’s handling of the pandemic. Johnson is said to have had harsh words with his adviser and warned that he cannot afford to cause further problems, according to one person familiar with the matter.
YouGov polling found one in five people in Britain said they’d followed lockdown rules less strictly in the week after the Cummings story broke, with a third of this group citing the controversy over the aide as a reason.
Cummings, meanwhile, tells friends he’s only working in government on a temporary basis, though exactly when Johnson and his aide will part company is not clear. Dismayed Tories hope Cummings will be around to help put the government back on course and prove his worth by guiding a path through the economic crisis that voters will accept. Figures released on Friday showed the economy plunged 20 percent in April.
Officials now realize that a major inquiry into what went wrong with the British response is inevitable. With one eye on the future questions they will face, the protagonists are already preparing their defenses.
Some allies of Cummings blame the government machine, Britain’s permanent civil service establishment, which they believe let Johnson and his team down.
For weeks before the virus hit, civil servants were telling the premier that Britain was the best prepared country in the world for a pandemic — but the disease it was ready for was influenza, not a coronavirus.
With Johnson’s team turning on the scientists, and the scientists speaking out to contradict Johnson, the prime minister will find it hard to argue during a second wave that the public should follow his orders because he is guided by the science. As trust gives way to blame and suspicion inside the administration, the ramifications for the country may be severe.
Later this month, Johnson is planning a major speech to relaunch his political mission of "leveling up” forgotten parts of the country post Brexit. He will need his famous powers of charm and persuasion more than ever.