Irish backstop –
When Boris Johnson was released from intensive care last week the Sun ran with the headline: “Boris is out (now that really is a Good Friday)”, while the Express cheered on the UK prime minister, now “out of danger.”
Plenty of eyebrows were raised at this dissonance on the front pages. As the daily death toll reached nearly 1,000, celebrating Johnson’s recovery seemed in bad taste. And, many were unconvinced that the illness of one man warranted this sycophantic pandering, as frontline National Health Service (NHS) workers still lacked adequate personal protective equipment. People too found it hard to believe that most national newspapers majored on Johnson’s health, as ill-equipped care homes across the country were ravaged with the virus.
This is, to an extent, fair. Johnson’s personal encounter with the virus should not remain the focus of the media. Attentions should be drawn to care homes, the working conditions of doctors and nurses, the economic handling of a pandemic and the government’s wider response.
But as crass as it may appear to cast Johnson as the central character in the midst of a national tragedy, it needn’t be pointed out that the health of the prime minister is of vital importance to the state of the government. It is true of everywhere – even in the most normal of circumstances – that governing is made all the more difficult with an incapacitated leader.
And it is perhaps even more true of Britain right now. Thanks to the specific – and unique – design of Johnson’s government, the problems posed by a leader struck with illness are all the more stark. The type of ship Johnson was captaining prior to falling ill, and prior to coronavirus taking full hold over the nation, was one that was intent on centralising power into the hands of a few men in No 10.
Treasury power grab
Though it might feel light years away, it has not been all that long since Sajid Javid offered his resignation as chancellor. Javid found Johnson’s power grab on the treasury unconscionable – and was swiftly replaced with the all-the-more obedient Rishi Sunak. In fact, the entirety of Johnson’s latest cabinet reshuffle was directed to wrenching power from government departments and transforming No 10 – with himself, his chief adviser Dominic Cummings and a smattering of aides – into the true locus of power in Westminster.
It is then easy to understand the concern that descended on Whitehall and Downing Street as they learned of the severity of Johnson’s illness. Since delivering the largest Conservative majority since 1987, Boris Johnson has reallocated power to such an extent that it seemed the government would struggle to function without him.
A cabinet of inexperienced Brexit ultras are manning the ship
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The current make-up of the British government, then, seems vastly ill-equipped to cope with a pandemic. We should not forget that Johnson was the man happy to expel party grandees – Nicholas Soames, Ken Clarke, Philip Hammond – for daring to defy him over Brexit. And the man was happy to sack Julian Smith – the much celebrated Northern Ireland secretary – for warning MPs of the dangers a no-deal Brexit posed to Northern Ireland.
Most critically, however, when designing his government Johnson opted to fill his cabinet with Brexit ideologues, eschewing the reams of more experienced (and in some cases vastly more competent) Conservative colleagues available to him.
But it would be too easy to cast this as a full-scale failure on Johnson’s part however. It was the prevailing assumption that Brexit – and the now infamous adage “getting Brexit done” – would be Johnson’s magnum opus. His commitment to taking the UK out of the EU under any circumstances was his ticket into No 10. And it was the constant reassertion of the promise to get Brexit over the line that saw Johnson secure a seismic mandate in December last year.
That was all well and good just a few months ago. Whatever criticisms you might make of Brexit, few could reasonably argue that Johnson’s approach was not going well for him. He had avoided the mistake of predecessor Theresa May – who attempted to govern with a wildly incompatible cabinet and ill-disciplined cohort of MPs – and was enjoying the laurels of being the prime minister who seemingly did the impossible.
But unfortunately for Johnson, the type of government required to manage this pandemic seems very different from the magic formula he landed upon for navigating his way through Brexit. It should strike us as a little odd that a cabinet largely full of inexperienced Brexit ultras are manning the ship while the UK’s longest-serving health secretary – Jeremy Hunt – seems left out of the picture altogether.
It is staggeringly obvious to us now that a government designed around the charisma and popularity of one man is left unsurprisingly vulnerable when he becomes sick with the virus he is trying to fight. But amid legitimate criticism that they should have been better prepared for Covid-19’s arrival on European shores, we would do well to remember that the possibility of a pandemic was far from the mind of a newly elected government that had just eviscerated its opposition and was basking in the triumph of delivering Brexit.
But the simple fact that Johnson’s government was adept at delivering Brexit – and ill-equipped for a pandemic – is little solace as Britain is gripped by a national tragedy of proportions we have yet to comprehend.
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