Boris Johnson’s handsome election victory was only three months ago, but already it feels like a relic from another age. The coronavirus requires him to be everything he is not: serious, attentive to detail and respectful of expertise and public servants. He may not be ‘yesterday’s man’, because no replacement is in sight. But he isn’t ‘today’s man’ either – the leader you want to step forward in serious times. On the contrary, there may well be Conservatives wishing he could step aside until the danger has passed.
It’s not just Johnson. The culture-war world of Trump, Cummings, Sanders, Corbyn and his outriders, of no-platforming, Twitter storms, most editions of the national press and every edition of Question Time, is looking like a dangerous sport we can no longer afford to play. The attitudes these culture warriors foster and the lines they draw are a public health hazard.
Their world is built on mistrust. Political charlatans and media hucksters may disagree violently. But they all keep their supporters in line by damning ideas and individuals that might challenge them. Their tactic is familiar to every religious fanatic. If you say contrary evidence is the Devil’s tricks (or their modern equivalents) then your followers will not find the strength of character to question you.
The Johnson administration has made extraordinary promises to reengineer Britain, and Number 10’s grandiosity mirrors the old socialists Tories once opposed. The government will renegotiate our trade agreement with the EU in less than a year. It will begin the expensive and, again, hugely difficult task of decarbonising the economy. It will improve living standards in the North of England. Yet while promising all this and more, it has been engaged in neurotic distraction exercises, which would lead to a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder, if you or I behaved as Her Majesty’s government is behaving.
Why the attacks on the BBC? Or the threats to the judiciary and civil service? How can they expect to reach any destination if they will always ‘cross the road to pick an unnecessary fight’, as my colleague Gaby Hinsliff succinctly put it?
Let’s not be distracted by unknowable arguments about motive. I neither have the means nor the desire to look into the minds of Johnson and Cummings. It may be that they sincerely believe their grand projects could be completed without a sweat if only they could stifle the Court of Appeal and the Today programme. If they do, they are dumber than I thought – but their mental states do not matter. A hard truth a culture obsessed with purity and authenticity often misses, is that what you do – not why you do it – matters most. Even if Johnson and Cummings sincerely believe their own conspiracy theories, spreading mistrust by using an enemy within to explain away your failures before you have even failed, is a way of keeping your supporters in a profitable state of finger-jabbing outrage.
We will never be able to have our cake and eat it with the EU, to take the most egregious example of political stupidity for more than a decade. A hard Brexit will hurt. There will be a border in the Irish Sea. Number 10 can avoid the political costs by lining up enemies within to take the blame, and thus maintain the right’s political base. It’s easier to invoke vast conspiracies than admit you have made a mistake.
Yet the most obvious point about the fight against the coronavirus is that fighting it requires trust. We must trust each other to quarantine ourselves. We must trust Michael Gove’s derided experts to provide advice on containing the epidemic. We must trust their scientific emphasis on probabilities, and its suspicion of the breezy, easy certainties that have carried Johnson through life. We must trust the government to act in our best interests. On the face of it, this demand should not worry the Conservatives, as they are in government and, surely, would wish to be respected. But the crisis is moving us towards levels of state control Conservatives are temperamentally unsuited to handling. The question then becomes not so much do the electors trust the Johnson administration to handle it, but does Johnson trust himself? Good leaders are able to face emergencies with grim resolution. This essentially trivial government, however, continued a ban on health ministers appearing on the Today programme to talk to the electorate – an act of petty spite, no one has been able to justify – until Matt Hancock decided that someone in government had to behave as if they weren’t still a child. The needless fight suggests that the government would much rather be raging in culture wars than protecting the public.
It’s here the question of seriousness starts to matter. Not just a serious willingness to take uncomfortable advice. But a seriousness of style. Johnson to date has bluffed through most of his difficulties. He can claim not to have put an internal border in the Irish Sea because few people outside Ireland want to do the research and become the bore who points out that’s exactly what he has done. His chummy, clowning style won’t wash when and if people start dying.
Cometh the hour cometh the man, runs the cliché. The hour is almost upon us. And the man is nowhere in sight.