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Boris Johnson will soon be back full time as Prime Minister, we are told. How long will it be before Downing Street get him to do what he does best – a stunt? Maybe driving a bulldozer through a polystyrene wall with a slogan “Get Covid Gone.” Sadly, the JCB factory where Johnson performed that General Election stunt has its workers on furlough.
Johnson’s shortcomings as a leader are, of course, no joke. They have been underlined by a devastating Sunday Times report headed “Coronavirus: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster.” It reveals “Boris Johnson skipped five Cobra meetings on the virus, calls to order protective gear were ignored and scientists’ warnings fell on deaf ears. Failings in February may have cost thousands of lives.”
A senior adviser to Downing Street is quoted: “He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends ... There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.”
Michael Gove was put out to rebut the story. He simply said “the idea that the Prime Minister skipped meetings that were vital to our response to the coronavirus is grotesque”, but failed to deny that Johnson had been absent.
Grotesque is probably the apt word for reports that Rupert Murdoch wants Johnson replaced by Gove.
Gove and Johnson were co-leaders of the Brexit campaign and according to another Sunday Times source preparations for a no-deal Brexit “sucked all the blood out of pandemic planning”.
A 2016 exercise predicted the health service would collapse and highlighted a long list of shortcomings — including, presciently, a lack of PPE and intensive care ventilators. Recommendations to address the deficiencies were never implemented.
While their boss is away, the troop of ministers at the Downing Street briefings has served to emphasise that they were chosen for their loyalty to the cause, not their competence.
Tory grandee Nicholas Soames remarked that a recent briefing was “very close to a near death experience. Really pointless frankly.”
Johnson’s absence and Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s struggle to explain away the shortage of protection equipment, has given Chancellor Rishi Sunak the chance to shine. There’s no doubt that after 10 years of Tory austerity, his willingness to splash the cash, to keep firms afloat and subsidise their employees has been impressive.
But there have been complaints about the slow implementation of the schemes and the gaps through which many workers are falling.
James Butler of Novara media, writing in London Review of Books, makes an interesting point. “The closer Sunak’s measures are examined, the more deliberately they seem designed to be temporary rather than efficient.”
“He has so far resisted calls for universal payments of any kind, preferring caps and means-tested controls, citing the need for fairness and for prudence with taxpayers’ money.”
Butler says: “universal benefits are the hardest kind to withdraw, and their use would place the Treasury on a more interventionist path. There are many ways to achieve fairness, if that is truly the main criterion – reform of the tax base to recoup payments from the already wealthy would be one obvious option, though a cardinal sin for a neophyte Tory chancellor. Should the economic shock worsen, however, it will become inevitable.”
The Tory government is likely to be judged by how it deals with the economic consequences of the pandemic. This will require a broad vision and an attention to detail. The idea that Boris Johnson is the right person for the job is laughable.