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Alex Massie

Boris Johnson is eating reality

Nothing is real and anything is possible

Boris Johnson is eating reality
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It is neither fair nor correct to say it was obvious from the moment Boris Johnson became Prime Minister that he was not fit for the job for this was a truth obvious long before Johnson entered Downing Street. Nothing in his career suggested a man capable of making a success of one of the country’s most demanding jobs. What was foreseeable was in fact foreseen.

Voters may be excused for accepting Johnson’s promise to ‘Get Brexit Done’ and for preferring him to the grisly prospect of Prime Minister Corbyn — but those Tory MPs who put that choice in front of them have no such excuse. They knew the calibre and character of the man they chose and they cannot claim to be surprised by what has happened since. It was always a punt and the more honest Johnson backers will admit it. This is the sorry reality: he is not up to the job because he was never up to it and he never will be.

What does Johnson actually want to do as Prime Minister? Your guess will have to be better than mine because I haven’t a clue. To the extent the government has an agenda at all, it is one marked by staggering incoherence. Prime ministers often learn how to be more effective, but their character, nature and purpose typically remain constant. What you start with is what you finish with. This would be sub-optimal in times of placid prosperity, it is not quite so amusing now.

All governments have moments when the truth becomes a problem but in this ministry’s case the lies serve no great matter of state. They are merely routine, a now-standard way of doing business. So of course there was a Christmas party in Downing Street and of course all those who attended knew it should not have taken place. Instead of owning a temporary embarrassment, this government chooses to insult everyone else’s intelligence: ‘There wasn’t a party but if there was no rules were broken’.

At the same time, it should be noted that thousands of people have been prosecuted for breaches of Covid regulations while millions more endured restrictions that, at the cost of their freedom, they accepted were for the common good. Think of all those who have patiently done their bit to help the country through this emergency. Think of all those empty funerals. Think of those last goodbyes that were never made. Think, and draw your own conclusions.

If the Christmas party was a single affair it might matter less. But yesterday also brought confirmation of something worse than governmental mendacity: governmental incompetence of a kind so complete it is stained with indifference. Britain’s departure from Afghanistan was never going to be an especially noble thing, but it was quite plainly made worse by the manner in which it was handled. The Foreign Office proved incapable of rising to the challenge of an admittedly pressing moment. It cannot have helped that the Foreign Secretary and his permanent secretary were each on holiday. But it is astonishing to think that neither considered it sensible to end their holidays and return to work. And yet if the Foreign Office failed, the buck ultimately rests with the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister.

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Then there were the cats and dogs. According to the government 'our focus throughout was on prioritising people' which is — surprise! — another falsehood. If this were the case, why was so much time spent assisting Pen Farthing’s charity? Why did so many animals get out of Kabul when so many people could not? The cost is obvious, as the Foreign Office whistleblower has now made clear: time spent on cats and dogs was time that could not be spent on people. Some of those people are dead now.

There was no prime ministerial involvement, we are told, but it was clear at the time that the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was thoroughly disheartened by the official attention lavished on Farthing’s menagerie. It was abundantly apparent that the doglift was imposed upon Wallace from above. Now a letter has been leaked from the Prime Minister's parliamentary private secretary giving Farthing permission for his animal evacuation. We are asked to swallow the palpable nonsense that this was a piece of constituency business even though — surprise! — Farthing is not one of her constituents.

Farthing was clear at the time: his charity had a line into Downing Street. A prime minister who cared about the efficient allocation of desperately needed resources would have made very different decisions. A matter of life and death, but perhaps because those lives and deaths were all so very far away Downing Street thought them a matter of little consequence.

This is a government that does not even possess the courage — the moral courage — to own its decisions. It is a profoundly unserious administration of a sort that has no equivalent in living memory. There have been bad or failing governments, of course, but this one is bad and fails in a different way.

Is it any surprise that a government led by a prime minister disinclined to take his job seriously is a government of startling carelessness? When everything can be a joke nothing really matters; when everything is a performance who worries about actual reality? What is the point of any of it? This is a government without a purpose, without a vision, and without any keen interest in having any of these notionally useful things. Like all governments, it starts at the top. It is a question of judgement and confidence.

In totalitarian regimes, the people know they are being lied to and this eventually creates a kind of shadow reality of its own. Remember Saddam's increasingly absurd party spokesman, Muhammad 'Comical Ali' al-Sahhaf, going out each night on Iraqi television and insisting the American invasion was faltering — eventually assuring his viewers that forces were nowhere near Baghdad as bullets whistled by. Nothing is ever quite as it seems, save for the certainty that nothing is remotely like the world the regime insists exists. Black is white and white is black and it becomes possible to navigate a sort of reality so long as you remember how to decipher the official proclamations.

Well, Britain does not have a totalitarian regime, nor does it have an authoritarian one. Nevertheless, the government’s willingness to insist on things that are palpably and provably untrue — and its ability to do so with a straight face — bears at least some resemblance to the 'eat our reality' style favoured by tinpot dictators. Comical Ali has been sent out to insist there was no Christmas party; Comical Ali continues to pretend no one put cats and dogs ahead of people on the last flights out of Kabul. That everyone knows these are fictions — surprise! — is all part of the performance. Nothing is real and anything is possible. And who can be bothered to care anyway?

It is all so shabby and grimy and low-rent, isn't it?