Senior members of Boris Johnson’s government have expressed their concern at the recent string of policy U-turns, questioning the prime minister’s approach, the make-up of the cabinet and the civil service’s ability to handle the pandemic.
The government has changed course 12 times in major policy areas since coronavirus hit in March. The latest reversal came on Tuesday evening when education secretary Gavin Williamson announced that face masks would be mandatory in communal parts of English schools in areas under stricter lockdown.
A dozen senior Tories have privately told the Financial Times about their growing disquiet, with one cabinet minister expressing unhappiness with both the substance and form of the latest announcement on face coverings.
“What I find odd is that we’re becoming more precautionary with our U-turn activities: it’s layer upon layer of precaution that doesn’t match where the science is going,” said the minister.
“Instead, it seems the PM is making a political choice to help people get back to school. It doesn’t follow our narrative that we’re following the science.”
Another senior member of the government said he was not convinced Downing Street’s non-ideological approach was working. “Boris is a pragmatist and he uses his political sense test to figure out what is right. Some in government think voters don’t care about [us] changing our minds, they just want us to do the right thing. I’m not so sure.”
Handling an unprecedented pandemic has proved challenging for governments around the world, but Tory party grandees are becoming increasingly concerned that errors made by Downing Street are often unforced. One blamed the make-up of the cabinet.
“Of course Covid has made the difficult job of governing even more difficult and inevitably there was going to be some mistakes and changes made, but what it's done is to highlight the question of what the government wants to achieve beyond Brexit,” a former cabinet minister said.
“Until that is obvious there will always be messaging issues, problems in the Number 10 operation and ministers being chosen for adherence to Brexit rather than ability or competence.”
Other government members said part of the chaotic approach was because of the poor state machinery. “Real-time data and statistics are very thin on the ground,” said a Cabinet Office insider. Another well-placed official added: “They are making decisions when they don't always have the complete picture. We are learning as we go.”
One government aide suggested that a skills deficiency among civil servants was partly responsible for poor policymaking. “We’re all learning on the hoof, but there’s no doubt we need more accountability and better skills in Whitehall. There are too many liberal arts graduates and not enough focus on career development. A wider pool of talent would help question more decisions.”
Confirmation by the government that Jonathan Slater, the permanent secretary at the Department for Education, would leave next week marked the fifth departure of a top civil servant this year.
Several senior Whitehall figures said the number of civil servants working remotely — only around 30 to 40 per cent of officials are thought to be back in their offices — had not helped.
“Officials not being back in departments and working from home means there is a sharpness that has been lost,” acknowledged one government insider.
“The truth is we are making decisions day by day and that's part of the challenge. Ministers don't always have time to read the latest data emerging. They have 50 balls in the air every day and are relying on the latest information getting to them.”
One influential backbencher questioned the role of Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, and whether he was effectively responsible for the U-turns.
“Is it that Dominic Cummings is too busy building death star stations or whatever he wants to do? That feels like the problem. Great leaders choose great advisers. I don't know what it is, but there are just so many fingers in this incompetent pie.”
The rapid changes in government policy, which happen without consultation with the parliamentary party, are causing growing unease among backbenchers. “They never tell us anything. I find out what’s happening in the government on Twitter,” said one.
Charles Walker, vice-chair of the influential 1922 committee of Conservative MPs, said: “The government just cannot make this stuff up now on the hoof . . . saying one thing on Monday, changing its mind on Tuesday, something different presented on Wednesday. It’s just not acceptable.”
Huw Merriman, a Conservative MP who opposed masks in schools, told the BBC: “My concern is that we just keep making this up as we go along . . . the government needs to get a grip on our scientists . . . how can the science change from one day to the next?”
“What happens is there is a mess-up in a department and then Number 10 realises what's going on, decides they don’t want the aggro and U-turn,” noted a senior Tory.
Another said: “There is no lighthouse system in government to steer people off the rocks, no beacon in Number 10 or warning system of what’s coming up.”
The past few months had been a case of the “blind leading the blind”, one long-serving Tory MP said, adding that it looked like “incompetence” every time a minister was put on the airwaves and asked to “keep to the script” just hours before a policy U-turn.
In response, a Downing Street spokesperson said: “Throughout this pandemic we have followed the latest scientific evidence at every stage. As with any brand new and rapidly developing disease, we have to be flexible and adapt to respond to new evidence in order to fight this disease.”
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