Conservatives once knew that command and control didn’t work. Even if they didn’t know it intellectually, one former Conservative minister told me as he looked in disbelief at the chaos of Johnson’s dictatorial administration, 'they felt it in their bones'.
This nominally Conservative government has centralised control, Soviet style, into a triumvirate of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings: two pundits and a maniac. Even if they were the greatest politicians in history – and they are not – they would never have been able to cope with the Covid crisis. As it is, they have been overwhelmed, along with the 60,000 or so of our fellow citizens sent to their premature deaths.
The triumvirate have brought the tactics of the Vote Leave campaign, where message discipline and the selling of fantasy were everything, to the administration of a modern state, where the hard facts of a killer virus cannot be spun away. They acted as if they could be. It is almost as if a fact does not exist until they deign to notice it.
If that sounds like a description of a one-party state, then so be it. Dictatorial organisations depend on the leader. If the leader does not see a problem, then as far as their frightened underlings are concerned, there is no problem.
To take the most obvious example, between February and early March, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong successfully dealt with Covid-19 outbreaks. Northern Italy showed the horrific consequence of being unprepared. You did not need supernatural powers to know what might happen to Britain. You just needed to watch the news.
Why didn’t Britain realise it could be about to enter a national emergency? It’s not that government advisers weren’t aware of the danger. Sir Andrew Parker, the recently retired head of MI5, says he set its emergency pandemic plan into motion in early February, six weeks before Johnson locked down. He reportedly heard the warning at a Cobra meeting, that the prospects for a pandemic ‘were high and strong’ and acted to ensure the security service could keep functioning.
Few others did, because the leader wasn’t interested. Boris Johnson missed five Cobra meetings at the time. He, Gove and Cummings were celebrating taking Britain out of the EU and had no time for anything else. Sympathy for the sick prevented critics from making too much of Johnson going down with Covid-19 in the spring. But, when all sympathy is spent, the truth remains that his sickness and the sickness of so many others in the prime minister’s inner circle, was a symptom of a government that wasn’t even protecting itself, let alone its country.
They can never admit their failure. For if they did, even Tories would question the centralisation of power. The party leadership must be all wise and all-knowing at all times. Thus, Cummings tried to airbrush history on his blog by making it look as if he was warning about the ‘possible threat of coronaviruses’ last year.
The Johnson regime can act as if it lives in an alternative reality because it has tried to terrify the Parliamentary Conservative party and civil service into silence. Cross the leader and you can lose the Conservative whip, and hence your seat at the next election. Johnson ended the careers of Rory Stewart, David Gauke, Oliver Letwin and other Tory moderates for defying him on a no-deal Brexit in 2019. That many of the sacked men and women were experienced ministers, whose skills might one day have been of use, didn’t bother him. They had challenged the great leader and that was enough to ensure a sentence to the Tory equivalent of Siberia. Johnson’s decision last week to strip Julian Lewis of the Conservative whip for daring to stand against and beat the approved Downing Street candidate for the intelligence and security committee showed he still adheres to the gangsterish dictates of one-party states: defy the boss and you’re finished.
Only abject loyalists can prosper. The result is a cabinet stuffed with ministers with little or no experience, an extraordinary position for a party that has been in power for ten years to find itself in. The apparent nonentities could still come good, of course. But Johnson, Gove and Cummings are doing everything they can to make sure they can never challenge them. Cummings controls their special advisers. They are Downing Street’s spies now, making sure that no minister gets ideas above his or her station. So determined is he to control, Johnson sacked his own chancellor when he defended his aides and refused to replace them with apparatchiks appointed by the triumvirate .
As for the civil service, which is meant to offer advice without fear or favour, it is cowed and briefed against, and it is plain to anyone watching that your career is over unless you are a yes man or woman.
The result is a Soviet level of overpromising, faked targets and power worship. Johnson promises he is bringing us a 'world-beating’ track and trace system His luckless ministers must scramble to pretend his fantasies are real. The truth as Labour’s Jon Ashworth pointed out, is that the testing regime is getting worse by every available measure. ‘The government’s own figures show that the proportion of tests being done in 24 hours is falling. Last week, 55 per cent of tests were done in 24 hours, down to 50.6 per cent this week.’
Johnson promised that by the end of June, 100 per cent of non-home tests would be done in 24 hours. In fact only two-thirds are, and regional testing sites, mobile testing units and satellite testing units are getting slower.
This will sound familiar to students of the Soviet dictatorship. We have the great leader, Johnson. The politburo: Gove, Cummings and a handful of hacks. Democratic centralism is the rule in the Conservative and Unionist Party as surely as it was in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The job of members is to obey the dictates of the centre or be purged. The job of ministers is to pretend that fantasy is reality or pay the price.
One of historians’ favourite stories from the Soviet era is the tale of Alexei Larionov, for it captures the dangers and absurdity of trying to pander to a dictatorial centre. Larionov was the Matt Hancock of his day. In 1958, he was the Communist Party’s first secretary in the Ryazan district, southeast of Moscow. Nikita Khrushchev demanded the party increase food supplies. Larionov promised he would triple meat production. He appeared to do just that, and Khrushchev made him a Hero of Socialist Labour. A year later it emerged that Larionov had tried to meet his target by slaughtering all the cows and breeding-bulls he could find and there was barely a beast left in Ryazan. Inevitably, meat and milk production collapsed. Khrushchev stripped Larionov of his honours and the poor man committed suicide.
He is not the villain of this story. The villain then was the leadership of the Soviet communist party and today is the leadership of the British Conservative party. A few dictatorial men cannot possibly run a country well. As I said, Conservatives used to know this. Now we are all relearning that old lesson the hard way.