LONDON (Labour Buzz) - On Sunday Boris Johnson went onto the Andrew Marr Show and told the country schools were safe. The next day he went on TV and told us they were not and would have to close. What’s remarkable is not the speed of the U-turn, but the fact that nobody watching was surprised.
The screeching U-turn has become Johnson’s signature move of this pandemic. We’ve seen it time and time again from the first lockdown in March, to free school meals, support for workers, help for the self-employed, eviction bans, circuit breakers and just about everything else.
It follows a tried and tested routine.
- Scientists issue advice
- Johnson ignores it.
- Keir Starmer asks ‘shouldn’t you do what the scientists advise’.
- Johnson ridicules Starmer and claims the advice doesn’t exist despite being published on the Government’s own website.
- Johnson hurriedly organises a press conference to announce he’s going to do the thing the scientists told him to do weeks ago.
Important note. This doesn’t mean Johnson was wrong. Far from it. It’s usually down to one of the following factors.
- People not following the rules, especially foreign people and poor people.
- The science changing, especially if scientists claim it didn’t.
- Keir Starmer, especially if he’s not been supportive enough at the most recent PMQs.
The important thing for Johnson is that nobody, under any circumstances, should get it into their heads that this is his fault. This is where the real problem lies. The Tories have adopted a very different approach to the pandemic than the rest of the world. While most countries see it as a public health crisis; Johnson views it as a PR problem.
Reputational management firms, to him, are the heroes of the pandemic. He’d stand on his doorstep and clap for them if they hadn’t told him how bad this would look on the news.
This is part of the reason why Dominic Cummings got a huge pay rise at a time when everyone else’s was being frozen. You can tell what Johnson really values by where he puts his money. He keeps it from health workers while throwing it at his cronies.
It also leads to the biggest problem throughout this crisis: Johnson’s inability to make a decision. It’s a problem Dominic Cummings fired up as he was booted out the door of Number 10. Johnson, he said, was ‘indecisive’.
For those countries following the science and focusing on clamping down on COVID 19, the choice has been simple. They have acted fast to impose necessary measures early on to bring the numbers down.
When you bring PR teams into it, the choice becomes much more difficult.
Every issue, and every decision, is judged not on whether it will work but how it will look. Johnson didn’t want to be the Scrooge who cancelled Christmas, so he dithered until events forced his hands. Likewise, he didn’t want to be the man who closed schools so he insisted they were safe despite knowing full well they were not.
This is (or should be) a huge scandal. When Johnson insisted schools were safe on Sunday he already had advice from SAGE that they were not.
SAGE advice states that children are more likely to bring infection home compared to those who are aged 17 and over. The likelihood is seven times higher in children between the ages of 12 to 16 and three times higher in children under 12.
“Multiple data sources show a reduction in transmission in children following schools closing for half term, and transmission rates increasing again following the post-half term return to school (medium confidence).”
But now the best bit. SAGE gave this advice before information about the new variants emerged. This has the potential to increase the R rate by around 0.7. According to an estimate by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the new strain is 56% more transmissible.
The unfortunate truth is that, with this new variant, getting R below one is impossible without closing the schools.
All this Johnson knew when he spoke to Marr. He knew that by encouraging people to go into school, he would increase the spread. He knew that teachers and parents would be put at risk.
Deep down he probably also knew that he’d be forced into the announcement he made just over a day later to close them. And he knew that every day he delayed the decision would mean further spread, more deaths and make life more difficult for parents and teachers.
But he did it anyway.
In doing so he confirmed what a growing proportion of people know already. He’s just not very good at this.
Johnson has always wanted to be Prime Minister. Unfortunately, he spent so much effort working to get there that he never thought about what the job entailed. At the best of times, it needs someone with dedication, attention to detail and the ability to make clear and difficult decisions. It also needs someone with a moral sense of the responsibility which rests on his shoulders.
Johnson has none of those qualities. His only option is to bluff, lie and when all else fails blame someone else. He’s not the only political leader with these failings. There are a fair few of them about, which is one reason why it’s taken such a stranglehold.
However, during a pandemic, such failings kill people and ruin lives, and that brings us to a question which should be front and centre of all our minds: how long can any of us afford to have him as a leader?
Time for a change
For most of us, this is an issue of competent leadership, but it should also worry the Conservatives. They are never a party which has been overly concerned with competence. This is the party, remember, which gave us a Brexit Secretary who was confused by the concept of Calais, and an Environment Secretary who became irrationally outraged by cheese.
This time, though, it may hurt them. Johnson’s approval ratings are through the floor. The Tories have seen a lead of more than 20 points evaporate in less than a year, and their response becomes an international laughing stock.
If the party isn’t concerned about the crashing economy, or the surging virus, they should be concerned about that. Already murmurings of discontent have grown. Knives are being sharpened and the likes of Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove wondering if their time has come.
Johnson himself is also rumoured to be thinking of throwing in the towel. This is not the job he imagined. He’s starting to remember the huge fee he got for spouting the occasional piece of racists drivel in the Telegraph. He’s started to remember how nice life was when the biggest thing he had to worry about was getting a rough ride on Have I Got News for You.
Johnson has never been someone who enjoys hard work. He’s all about the prize at the end of the process rather than the graft involved with getting there. Few people will be surprised if he follows the example of David Cameron and leaves someone else to clean up the mess he’s left behind.
However, if that thought excites you here’s a moment’s pause. The guy most likely to replace him is the Chancellor Rishi Sunak and he is arguably, even more, to blame for the current crisis.
(Written by Tom Cropper, edited by Klaudia Fior)