Boris Johnson: Serial incompetent or victim of events?

Charge sheet against the Prime Minister seems to be growing week on week.

Boris Johnson: Serial incompetent or victim of events? STV News

Question. Is Boris Johnson a serial incompetent or is he the victim of events that engulf him to create a permanent state of crisis?

It would appear that the Prime Minister fights on so many fronts that Downing Street could do with their very own fire brigade to extinguish the flames ignited by yet another run of bad headlines.

‘Crisis, what crisis?’ is a famous tabloid headline from 1979 when the winter of discontent finished the Labour government. The Prime Minster James Callaghan didn’t actually utter the words that became his government’s epitaph.

Forty-one years on and those same words could well be uttered by Boris Johnson. When he is hounded by yet another issue which has eluded his grasp he wears a slightly bewildered expression which asks what all the fuss is about.

His indifference to detail is, of course, legendary and in his time as a correspondent in Brussels for the Daily Telegraph, he freely admitted to massaging the actualités or ‘making it up’ as one might put it less charitably.

The flaws of personality and character which worry some of his supporters and terrify his opponents in the parliamentary Conservative Party seem to be catching up with him.

His poll ratings are poor. Labour suddenly look credible again and Sir Keir Starmer is viewed as a steadier hand and mind in times of national emergency.

The charge sheet against the Prime Minister grows by the week. His communication on Covid has been wobbly and on occasions his knowledge of his own rules wobblier still.

The summer of 2020 was the summer of the U-turn, a phrase associated with another Conservative prime minister, Ted Heath. But Heath’s U-turns were as nothing compared to the current Prime Minister, who U-turns so often that all he does is spin like a top.

We have already had one U-turn on free school meals and another might be in the offing. Minsters hide behind answers about funding formulas to rebut the charge that they will not fund meals for kids outwith term time, something that the devolved administrations have committed to doing.

The cost of unambiguously funding this is so small that you have to wonder, why the stubbornness? Looking tough is one thing but displaying your political machismo when the issue is children possibly going hungry beggars belief. 

Yet again it has taken footballer Marcus Rashford to play the role of quiet assassin and lead a national chorus which is shaming the government by the hour.

Even the most politically disengaged will feel that there are some things that are not worth a political row and the prospect of hungry kids is one of them.

Today, 800 former judges and lawyers have written to The Guardian deploring what they see as the demonising of their profession after the home secretary referred to “lefty lawyers” and “do-gooders” during a speech on immigration appeals.

Now, the angst of judges is unlikely to play at the electoral box office but it is nonetheless an issue of note. I can’t recall when so many senior people in the legal profession have cast aside a hard-wired disdain for entering the political arena to so freely castigate an elected government.

But then again, it is probably an issue which is not born of an accident of language on the part of the home secretary. Perhaps the assault was deliberate. After all there is something unique in the current government in seeing certain constitutional principles as a conspiracy to frustrate their will.

Last week we had yet another refinement of the help for business during the pandemic. First, it was more money back in March. Then came furlough. Then an extension of furlough. Then the £1000 bounty for keeping furloughed workers in January. Then the Job Support Scheme issue one, and then last week issue two.

There is nothing wrong in the government fashioning intervention as circumstances dictate. Quite the reverse, they should actively change course when the abyss threatens mass unemployment.

The problem, though, for Boris Johnson is that his government appear to change policy because they are forced to do so by a combination of a narky opposition and a vocal business community genuinely worried where they will be come next summer.

The trick of government is to change policy without it looking like a change, to take hold of a narrative and drive it in a way that it doesn’t look like yet another climbdown.

But that would take the political dexterity of a Harold Wilson or the presentational nous of a Tony Blair or even a David Cameron, who at least could participate credibly in the art of not looking like the crisis is one of your own creation.

The row on school meals is the latest example of an issue that will have Tory MPs in the tea rooms asking, is he the right man for the job? As last December’s landslide victory fades in the memory the goodwill of his colleagues will run out for Johnson unless that is, he gets a grip on the job he was elected to do.