Boris Johnson is, frankly, very ill-suited to dealing with this pandemic. He is the epitome of a good-time Prime Minister, but has proven incapable of effectively leading the ship through this most troubling of storms. At some point in every government, positive character traits become negative ones, off-the-cuff becomes indecisive, strong-willed becomes inflexible. For Johnson, this seems to be happening sooner than expected, accelerated by a shopping list of COVID failures that have led to confusion, misery and excess death.
The Dominic Cummings saga demonstrates the low calibre of leadership we are witnessing. The Government told us to stay at home, while Dominic Cummings was allowed to do something different. It is implied by the Cabinet that those Britons who followed the lockdown to the letter – even in trying circumstances – simply didn’t care enough about their families. The whole scandal has been a communications disaster, with the Government flatly denying the allegations and then sending Cummings out to tell us that he went on a 30-mile drive to test his eyesight. This a see-through untruth – slightly less see-through, however, than Michael Gove’s assertion that he has done the same on LBC yesterday. If reports from the weekend papers are to be believed, then the Cabinet is less than impressed with Mr Cummings’ conduct but still parrots the Government line.
A poor Cabinet is the responsibility of the Prime Minister who picked it. We were told during the Tory leadership election that Boris would surround himself with a good team. He hasn’t, and we are paying the price. From the dither and delay in instituting the lockdown to the failures over testing and PPE, the Government’s handling of this crisis has been catastrophic. Mr Johnson’s “team” seems to have been picked solely because they express blind loyalty to the Dear Leader, in scenes reminiscent of Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet.
In a crisis, people rally round the flag, interpreting Government mistakes in the best possible faith. But moments like CummingsGate give everyone the opportunity to look up and see that the flag has long since blown away. Any other Prime Minister would accept that his advisor had behaved in contravention of the guidelines and would have sacked him. The fact that Johnson has had his entire team gaslight the nation suggests that Mr Johnson is incapable of governing without his Chief of Staff. An entire government infrastructure around him, his choice of Cabinet, and a stonking great majority… and yet still Cummings is clearly so important that Johnson would simply fall apart without him. The Government hasn’t even done a good job of late. If Cummings is the heart of Government, then the heart of Government is decaying.
It is overzealous to suggest that this affair alone could bring down the Prime Minister, but I suspect his behaviour is the beginning of what will be a long and drawn-out ending to this dismal chapter of our political history. People vote Tory, after all, for economic competence and sensible government. In the midst of a recession and serious pandemic response failures, it seems Johnson is irreparably tarnishing the Tory brand. If the Tories are to win the next election, they must replace the ailing Mr Johnson with someone who epitomises competence, perhaps the well-liked Chancellor Rishi Sunak. The Conservative Party urgently needs to fill the post-Brexit vacuum and recover from its recent mistakes.
The Prime Minister does seem to have made a career out of bouncing back, and maybe he will recover and lead the Tories to a further landslide in 2024. I doubt it, however, and the Cummings saga seems like just the latest symptom of a government unfit for office.