It is hard to feel much in the way of sympathy for Boris Johnson, whose questionable leadership during the pandemic has come under renewed scrutiny during today’s much-anticipated appearance at the Covid Inquiry. Even so, Johnson made a valid point – too easily dismissed amidst all the guffawing and glee at the exposure of the derogatory comments in WhatsApp messages. He said that his government was no different from any other when it came to private feuding. Johnson suggested, under questioning from lead counsel Hugo Keith KC, that if WhatsApp messages were available from the Thatcher government showing what its members thought of each other, some of them would have been ‘pretty fruity’.
This came after Keith showed the inquiry more WhatsApp exchanges about the culture at No. 10, including one where Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, said he ‘had never seen a bunch of people less well equipped to run the country’. Another Case message claimed that ‘top-drawer people’ were refusing to work in Downing Street because of the atmosphere there. There was also a reference to a claim that talented people refused to work at No. 10 due to the ‘toxic culture’ – made in evidence to the inquiry by Helen MacNamara, the deputy cabinet secretary.
Johnson refused to accept that this showed there was friction at the heart of government, insisting that it would have been worse to have a culture where people were ‘deferential’ and ‘reluctant to make waves’. Not everyone will agree, of course, but that doesn’t make his interpretation wrong.
In truth, far too much weight has been placed during this inquiry on the somewhat absurd notion that government should be a harmonious working environment, where no one, from ministers down, is ever exasperated, frustrated or liable to blow up in colourful language.