Dropping the pilot

Dropping the pilot

To listen to some Conservatives, you would have thought that Carrie Symonds had slain the wicked witch of the west with a click of her shoes. Excitable munchkin MPs are cavorting with joy at the sudden fall of Dominic Cummings. These MPs, who divide equally between cowardly lions, tin men without hearts and scarecrows with no brains, all now expect a return to true Conservative government (though they disagree about what this would mean in practice).

Let us be clear. This is a ridiculous narrative. Everything that has been done by the current administration has been done with the express or implicit agreement of Boris Johnson.  Dominic Cummings had no power except what the Prime Minister had vested in him. If Dominic Cummings is going now, it is because he failed Boris Johnson, not because Boris Johnson had escaped his captivity.

Ridiculous it may be, but this narrative is likely to be bruited around for a little while. It suits everyone to pretend that Dominic Cummings did all the unpopular things.  Scapegoats have a purpose.

As Eleanor Roosevelt would have pointed out, we are discussing people when we should be discussing ideas. Perhaps we can be forgiven on this occasion because the government looks completely out of ideas. What we see is a government grappling with events. Grappling, and failing. These are not great minds, these are average minds.

This is, I should note, as true of Dominic Cummings as of any remaining member of the government. 25,000 word blogposts about how government should be conducted in the abstract are of no use in formulating a strategy for dealing with the short term problems thrown up by Covid-19 and a breakneck negotiation to secure a trade agreement with the EU. He was given the challenges of government and he failed.

The underlying problems of this government remain and they are found at the top. The Prime Minister prizes loyalty above competence and he offers no strategy, just bluster. A strategist would not have thrown away his political capital on an unelected aide in May only to let him go in November. A strategist would not have thrown the country hurtling towards a hard stop to Brexit negotiations in the midst of a pandemic without a clear idea what resolution he expected.

He does not compensate for this with good administrative skills. Britain has been especially hard hit by Covid-19 and its economy has suffered especially hard too. Even if you blame that on bad luck, his government has, for example, made a balls-up of dealing with Covid-19’s consequences for education and he has allowed that failure to continue without any consequence for any of those responsible. Public appointments and contracts appear to be doled out based on personal contacts rather than rigorous procurement and the speed thus obtained has not noticeably improved the results.  

Nor has public communication been good. The government has been flatfooted in responding to popular pressure on, for example, free meals for children in school holidays. The public is now thoroughly bewildered about what is or is not allowed on any given day under the Covid-19 restrictions. The government has managed to alienate farmers and businesses over Brexit by alternately patronising and misleading them.

None of this will change with Dominic Cummings leaving because Boris Johnson is not changing. After an initial giddy euphoria among Conservative backbenchers, reality will intrude again when all the same failings lead to all the same results.

Precedents are not good for Boris Johnson. Black Strafford was executed in May 1641. By early 1642 the Civil War had broken out.  Alan Walters was sacked by Margaret Thatcher in October 1989. By November 1990, she was out too.  Take away the lightning rod and the next bolt kills you. Boris Johnson is 13/8 with Paddy Power and Betfair Sportsbook to leave office in 2021.  Those odds look on the generous side to me. Take that bet.

Alastair Meeks

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