Boris Johnson’s multiple failures
Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, was quick to wish Donald Trump a speedy recovery when the US president let it be known – on Twitter, naturally - that he and his wife Melania were infected with coronavirus – like millions of other people round the world.
Of course, Boris – as is known across the UK, even by the many who dislike him – suffered from the illness himself in March, the first head of government to become ill, and lived to tell the tale. The stakes are far higher in the case of Trump, not least with regard to November’s US presidential election and global repercussions it will have.
Back then Boris’s own brush with Covid-19 served his interests by convincing some voters that his unpleasant personal experience would reinforce his dogged determination to defeat the pandemic. Just days before that Jeremy Hunt, a senior Conservative and a former health secretary, had declared - in reference to strict lockdowns in Italy and elsewhere in Europe – that it was "surprising and concerning that we're not doing any of it at all."
Boris, however, is still not doing well. The UK has the highest number of Covid-related victims in Europe with over 42,000 deaths, making it the fifth worst-affected country in the world, with a substantially smaller population than the countries ahead of it in the list – Mexico, India, Brazil, and the US. Like other leaders, he faces unenviably tough choices between managing health risks and the ruinous economic damage caused by dealing with them.
Seventeen million people - a quarter of the population of Britain - now face heightened local restrictions, short of a second national lockdown that the government desperately wants to avoid. The premier’s boast of a “world-beating” track and trace system has proved to be little more than the hot air and bluster for which he is notorious. In a rare admission, he conceded on October 4 that it was “not perfect.”
It is not just about tackling the pandemic, but the many other crises it has spawned. In the last week, when students returned to UK university campuses for the new term, corona spread like wildfire and some were told both to self-isolate and warned that they would not be allowed to go home for Christmas. And that was on top of the recent failure to tackle the educational effect of Covid, with a damaging row over how to handle university entrance applications when schools have been suspended for months of lockdown.
And Johnson attracted accusations of “gross incompetence” the other day when he was forced to apologise after misrepresenting the latest rules about social distancing. After admitting that the public would find the government’s instructions “confusing,” he said he was relying on “the great common sense of this country.” And, then, adding insult to injury, just before the news broke about Trump, Boris blamed people for becoming “complacent” about the virus.
The country’s hospitality industry – pubs, bars and restaurants - is furious about a new rule that they have to close at 10pm – leading to a mass exodus of customers who pay little attention to distancing. Boris has also been accused of failing to use the summer lull to prepare for the imminent second wave.
In recent years – certainly since 2015 when the then Conservative prime minister David Cameron made the historic mistake of calling a referendum on the country’s membership of the EU – the UK has been bitterly divided. Boris’s catchy slogan of “get Brexit done” managed to secure an impressive victory in last December’s election. He talked then of having a “great new oven-ready deal”.
But in recent weeks murmurings of Conservative backbenchers have become louder to the extent that one MP was quoted- albeit anonymously - as saying: “He genuinely doesn’t give a flying fuck what the policy is... he’s never done the homework, so he doesn’t know anything. There really is no point in talking to the prime minister about policy at all.”
Normally loyal supporters have turned against him. Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, the conservative magazine, complained about months of “disorder, debacle, rebellion, U-turn and confusion”, and asked: “What’s happened to Boris? Where is the man we thought we voted for?” The magazine cover showed Johnson being tossed about on a raging ocean in a tiny boat without any oars.
Asked whether the shine has come off Johnson’s premiership, one former cabinet minister replied: “If you drop something which is entirely ornamental into a corrosive acid bath, it tends to lose its appeal.”
In March polls showed that 65% of voters surveyed backed the government’s handling of Covid-19, but the latest poll suggested only 30% now approve. In addition only 20% think the government is doing enough to enforce its own lockdown measures.
There are other issues too. Time is running out for the conclusion of a crucial deal on future UK-EU trade relations, including difficult issues like finance, state aid and fishing. “Significant gaps” remain – according to a statement from both London and Brussels. The stakes for Britain are high, and getting higher, by the day. And for Boris too.