It always seems to be too soon. It was too soon for the UK to lock down in early March, when other European countries had already done so. It was too soon for Boris Johnson to reimpose national restrictions in September, when scientific advisers privately called for them.
Now the UK prime minister’s allies tell us it is too soon to judge his government’s performance. They may be right. We don’t know how the pandemic will end — and other countries, including France, Italy, Spain and Scotland, which manages its own health service, have suffered similar peaks and troughs to England. If the UK government has erred, others have too, in different ways.
Yet it is not too early to judge the performance of Mr Johnson himself because we have already seen the pattern. His missteps over coronavirus have closely followed those he made over Brexit. In both cases, he insisted on seeing what he wanted to see. He saw a world where the British economy would blossom by shunning its largest trading partner, and where a virus would disappear while he shook hands with its victims. That world did not exist.
Mr Johnson went beyond patriotism to embrace British exceptionalism. As coronavirus spread in early February, he mocked the idea that it would affect the global economy, insisting that the UK was “ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles”, and act “as the supercharged champion” of free trade.
If you are not Superman, taking off your spectacles just leaves you blindly optimistic. With Brexit, Mr Johnson insisted “Global Britain” would defy the laws of trade gravity; with coronavirus, it would build a “world-beating” test-and-trace system. Mr Johnson is not one for details. There was no sense of how these goals could be achieved — and they have not been. His global rhetoric only exposed his parochialism.
Futile promises are a hallmark of Mr Johnson’s leadership. During the campaign for Brexit he said the Irish border would be “absolutely unchanged”. Running for the Conservative party leadership he said the UK would leave the EU on October 31 of last year, “do or die”. With Covid-19, his pledges were less cynical, but still beyond his control. He suggested that the UK would turn the tide by June and, in July, said there would be a “significant return to normality” by Christmas. Some people are born to mislead.
Mr Johnson has been most at ease attacking the proposals of others, then stealing them. When his predecessor Theresa May came up with a Brexit deal that avoided a hard border on the island of Ireland, he likened it to a “suicide vest”. When Labour leader Keir Starmer proposed a two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown last month, Mr Johnson dismissed it as offering endless “misery”. In both cases, he ended up adopting the bulk of the proposals that he had lambasted.
His favoured tactic has been to wait until the last moment before U-turning. Whatever the political merits of this strategy, its real-world effects are likely to be disastrous. As Brexit talks drag on, businesses do not know what trading arrangements with the EU will be in two months. Thousands more Britons are now forecast to die of Covid-19 than would have been the case had lockdown been implemented in September.
Mr Johnson has his strengths. This time a year ago, he began an election campaign that made even some Remainers believe Brexit could be swiftly solved. After leaving intensive care in April, he gave an inspiring tribute to the medical team who had treated him for Covid-19. He is an ideal salesman of ideas, which is why his interest in climate change is so welcome.
The problem is that he does not stick to an idea. His signature on any topic is incoherence. He is pro-individual liberty and pro-public health. He likes low taxes and a big state. He wants to boost business, while refusing to listen to it. He does not want a culture war, but he doesn’t stop his government from fighting one. He wants to be the hero and expects everyone else to do the work.
Democratic accountability is an art, not a science — and not a very sophisticated one. Some leaders are punished for events on their watch for which they bear no blame. Some escape the blame for their misdeeds.
Mr Johnson may get lucky with Brexit: while voters now think voting to leave the EU was a bad idea, their minds are elsewhere. But he can have no complaint about being held responsible for the UK’s pandemic failings. He has made the same mistakes at least twice and now looks unlikely to remain in office beyond 2024. Whatever challenge faces him before then, he will probably make the same mistakes again.
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