Keep being wrong and carry on (June 2020)

The Boris in Blunderland headlines will keep writing themselves
Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed June 2020

It is less than one year since Theresa May was UK prime minister. Even before the pandemic, it was already seeming much longer ago.

Boris Johnson is hoping some midsummer feel good amnesia will gloss over his government’s catalogue of errors in managing the virus since December’s election triumph.

Around 43,000 people in the UK have died from Covid-19 since March and estimates for the total number of “excess deaths” this year exceed 65,000.

While the story of this virus is far from over, it is clear that slowness to take it seriously was merely the start of a long litany of failures by the UK government which have needlessly cost lives. From being slow to procure protective equipment to not safeguarding the vulnerable and old in care homes, Johnson’s government has repeatedly been exposed playing catch-up without any coherent strategy.

With the UK and Europe now tentatively easing lockdown, Johnson is hoping a return of shopping and attempts to revive the economy might divert attention from the grim death totals.

A commanding majority means he is not unduly concerned by new Leader of Opposition Sir Keir Starmer winning plaudits during prime ministers’ questions. Johnson’s teflon personality ratings flourished as he spent half this year seemingly either in convalescence himself or on paternity leave and only recently started being negatively affected after he began actively defending the breaking of lockdown rules by his close aide and key adviser Dominic Cummings.

Apart from its “one metric to rule them all” policy of making sure the NHS has ICU beds available, the government’s key policy decision in lockdown was to opt for a huge injection of cash to keep credit flowing which has led to it paying the salaries of over 10 million people via an unprecedented for the UK private sector furlough scheme.

In the light of a global depression with no end date yet in sight, this seems like a no-brainer as economies everywhere have been and will be hit by a domino effect regardless of how their governments fare on managing coronavirus.

For a pro-Brexit Conservative government to adopt such a European/FDR style rather than Trumpian policy speaks volumes.

Inequality, the importance of the NHS and the need to pay essential frontline workers and carers fairly have become foremost in the public mind, only likely to be topped by mass unemployment should the depression deepen in winter. Covid has made fear of the magic money tree a thing of the past.

To some extent, a mixture of the spending promises which helped win seats in traditional northern Labour heartlands and fear of Brexit worst case scenarios, meant that Johnson was always probably going to increase public spending a bit, but nobody expected so much so quickly.

Nor can anyone have any confidence in him keeping on any such clear, let alone, Keynesian path.

Johnson’s majority may come from many pro-Brexit Invest in the red wall northern Conservative MPs, but it was largely pro-Brexit free market fundamentalist “slash the state” deep right MPs of the Rees-Mogg variety who were instrumental in getting him the top job in the first place.

Recent moves to talk about cutting increases to state pensions, fold DFID back inside the Foreign Office, blow hot and cold on China, soften objections to American chlorinated chicken, and exchange hardball trade negotiation deadlines with the EU and Japan, all signal red meat to the latter.

Of course, Johnson is happy to do U-turns and ultimately is loyal only to himself, so even those right wing Brexiteers scheming for a fire sale of public assets cannot be sure what Johnson will do next.

The now suspended daily Downing Street corona briefings proved to Johnson he has no serious rivals in his own ranks, as he watched the likes of hapless Health Secretary Matt Hancock constantly mix up messages and trip up on numbers while making unfounded promises.

Among senior Tories, only Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak was able to naturally display empathy when reading out death totals making him a bit of a Boy Wonder in a cabinet full of bargain basement Batman villains. Given he reportedly only gained the No 2 post after acceding to demands for influence by Dominic Cummings which caused former chancellor Sajid Javed, to resign within two months of December’s election, Sunak’s authority is somewhat limited.

While delegation is a useful quality in principle, the fact Johnson entrusts some details to the likes of Dominic Cummings bodes poorly for any centrist Conservatives hoping Johnson lives up to his purported self-image a one nation PM.

In May during Cummings-gate, Johnson’s top aide had a potentially plausible loophole justification for breaching lockdown guidance to dampen down the criticism he understandably received after not following rules he had helped to set.

By first covering up his actions and then failing to properly apologize, Cummings showed he clearly does not care what the public thinks.

And Johnson has backed him even after Cummings kicked sand in the faces of voters by adding an assertion that he drove 30 miles “to test his eyesight,” the type of transparently preposterous claim normally only made by cult leaders seeking to test their followers.

With no election due for four years, there is little sign then of Johnson changing dramatically.

After a lifetime of a confident facade helping him get away with no accountability for mistakes and still rising to the top, why does anyone believe he is likely to change now?

Grandiose but mainly not met promises, a grim Covid death tally and great British hubris might be his only legacy as PM.

The “Boris in Blunderland” headlines will keep writing themselves.