London – An awkward question hangs over the COVID-19-shuttered world of Downing Street. At his daily morning meeting, Boris Johnson, back to full duties after suffering a serious bout of the virus, recently asked who was in charge of relaxing Britain’s lockdown plan, with all of the risks and uncertainties that entails for a government. “There was just silence,” an insider told the Sunday Times newspaper. “He looked over at Mark Sedwill (his top civil servant) and asked, ‘Is it you?’ The official replied, ‘No, I think it’s you, prime minister.’”
Sedwill was right. The United Kingdom’s leader enjoys some of the strongest centralized powers in Europe — and yet, paradoxically, the man who fought so hard to gain control of his party and Britain’s destiny is reluctant to take responsibility.
Before the crisis, Johnson ruled as a near-absolute monarch, often through his eccentric but effective adviser (and key Brexit strategist) Dominic Cummings. In a tale familiar to English court politics down the centuries, the arrogant outsider resented by lesser talents has himself become a hindrance to the man he serves. Cummings, one of the architects of Britain’s lockdown, bent the rules by driving his sick wife and child 400 km to his family’s northern home where he may or may not have breached self-isolation to walk in local beauty spots.
Hitherto, an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons and the trouncing of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the December election had boosted the prime minister’s natural self-confidence, and a Cabinet largely composed of inexperienced unequals reinforced his dominance.
The new coronavirus has changed everything. It has seen Johnson dither over using his executive power to lay down the law. True, most democratic leaders find life-and-death decisions unnerving, but the prime minister has made too many missteps for Britain’s emergence as the “the sick man of Europe” to be seen as mere bad luck.
The U.K. has an unwelcome lead in the continent’s league table of fatalities, in part due to its role as a transport and business hub. But Johnson’s administration bears the blame for failing to lock down as quickly as Germany, for prematurely terminating track and tracing of the infected in March, and for allowing hospital patients to be discharged untested into care homes for the elderly.
Voters have given Johnson the benefit of the doubt so far out of sympathy for his own near-death encounter with COVID-19. But the prime minister, while a convincing advocate for social distancing, still sounds uncertain on many big calls. No. 10 staffers and his chief ministers lack confidence. His acolytes are already looking over their shoulders at a likely public inquiry into their handling of the emergency.
An unfamiliar crisis that demands fast, big-state solutions plays more easily to the strengths of social democrats or even paternalist Conservatives. Johnson, a carefree libertarian by instinct, at first ignored the peril, expecting others to take responsibility for a threat that seemed more tangential than finalizing a post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union.
Personal foibles matter too. Johnson’s absence from five key meetings in the initial stages of the pandemic is a matter of record. There are crude metrics (still evolving) that suggest Scotland’s devolved government has performed even worse during the outbreak, but perceptions are otherwise and they matter. The left-leaning Scottish nationalist leader, Nicola Sturgeon, cuts a more commanding figure, happy to tell her fellow citizens what to do (or in the case of following Johnson’s lead in easing the lockdown, what not to do).
Britain’s muddled approach to immigration, a central policy area for the Conservatives, is equally perplexing. While the contagion was still spreading, the U.K. permitted free entry from China, Italy, Iran and other countries with high infection rates. Johnson’s Brexit vision is of an outward-looking Global Britain, not the protectionist Little England imagined by his enemies, and that rendered him reluctant to pull up the drawbridge. Now his government has lurched in the opposite direction, devising a draconian regime that will force all U.K. arrivals to self-isolate for 14 days. The policy looks unworkable.
Similarly, Johnson suggests that Brits wear masks while going about their business, but his inner libertarian makes him reluctant to give this guidance the force of law. Another area of confusion is his marriage of convenience with his frazzled health secretary, Matt Hancock, whose unhappy lot is to run a department that prepared for the wrong pandemic: influenza. The prime minister sometimes gives the appearance of “neither backing him nor sacking him” — as one senior Whitehall figure puts it. More cynical souls think the health secretary’s political life is being held in reserve to offer up for sacrifice after a punishing public inquiry.
What of the charge, leveled since the Brexit referendum campaign, that Johnson is averse to expertise? This is a cheap shot, since the prime minister is clearly deferential to SAGE, the committee of scientists advising government. If anything, he has listened lately to more cautious advisers on reopening the economy in an attempt to stave off a second spike of the virus. But fallible scientific opinion has to be balanced against economics and politics, and that’s a prime minister’s call. Jeremy Hunt, a former long-serving Conservative health secretary, claims that SAGE’s advice to end contact tracing back in March was “one of the biggest failures of scientific advice to ministers in our lifetimes.”
In the end, people will judge a leader’s competence by their impact on them and their families. It should be a priority to get children back to school by June 1, not least to allow their parents to return to work. But the teaching unions are obstructive, the devolved governments of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are going their own way and many parents are fearful. Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, needs louder support from his prime minister, a first-class salesman when he puts his mind to it.
And here is the Boris anomaly: The prime minister is a brilliant election campaigner but, as London’s mayor, he left it to his team — notably Edward Lister, now No. 10’s chief of staff — to do the heavy lifting while he took the credit, gave the speeches and swung gaily on a zip wire over the Thames. A mayor can wield personal power fitfully, but national government requires a consistent driving will to get things done. Overreliance on Cummings — personal and political — has damaged Johnson at a time of jeopardy. The lesson surely is to better develop and deploy his Cabinet talent rather than gamble so much on a single consigliere.
Today, the machinery of state needs a clarifying moment and clearer division of roles than the present buck passing. The modus operandi of the current government is that civil servants must be kept in check, lest a “blob” of resistance hobble Johnson’s and Cummings’s plans on Europe or anything else. That is no recipe for cohesion.
The prime minister’s character won’t change. While an aversion to nannying and a low boredom threshold are foibles, they also explain his personal appeal. But the COVID-19 crisis means the “PM” can be neither the one-man show of the Brexit wars, nor a figurehead, leaving the hard work to others. The job is prime minister and the clue to success is in that title.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.