James Ferguson illustration of Robert Shrimsley column ‘How Boris Johnson could outwit Covid inquiry hopes’
© James Ferguson

Be the first to know about every new Coronavirus story

One phrase routinely crops up in discussions of the UK’s response to the coronavirus crisis — “the inevitable inquiry”. For the critics of Boris Johnson’s government, it can’t come soon enough.

That one is needed is beyond dispute. In the words of Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser: “It is clear that the outcome in the UK has not been good.” The official death toll of almost 46,000 is already the highest in Europe, while the excess deaths are nearly to 66,000. Even Mr Johnson has acknowledged that errors were made.

And yet while some form of postmortem is certain, nothing else about this inquiry is inevitable, least of all that it will deliver the brutal reckoning Mr Johnson’s critics assume.

There are many reasons for scepticism, but first among them is that Mr Johnson’s team does not play by the normal rules. The novelist Josephine Hart wrote that “damaged people are dangerous because they know they can survive”. Something similar is true of politicians with a record of defying conventional wisdom and political gravity.

Those around Mr Johnson, notably his chief strategist Dominic Cummings, will not lightly allow previous practice or media pressure to force them into a public ordeal that seriously damages him. In the words of one close ally: “People are still in the mould of thinking this government runs on the old rule book. But Dom burnt that rule book.”

This is an administration that unlawfully suspended parliament during the Brexit battle, which is purging senior civil servants, filling key roles with cronies, removing officials it cannot control from coronavirus briefings and refusing to delve too deeply into Russian electoral meddling. At times, it is almost comically defiant. The new national security adviser has no record in intelligence or security. The first choice for head of the intelligence select committee was a former minister famed as a serial incompetent but a Brexit loyalist owed a favour. When allies are caught breaking rules, the government toughs it out, gambling that outrage subsides and the media eventually moves on.

Mr Johnson has pledged an independent, though not yet a public, inquiry, but not until the crisis is over. Few expect it before next year. Many accept that this is not yet the time for officials to be distracted. Private reviews will take place and House of Commons committees are investigating the UK response, but Downing Street is in no hurry. “There won’t be some big open inquiry. They aren’t stupid,” says an insider. 

While transparency would be lost, there are arguments against a public inquiry. They are painfully slow. Three years on from the Grenfell Tower fire, which claimed 72 lives, the public inquiry is far from over. The 2004 Butler review into intelligence failures in the Iraq war, which sat in private and reported within five months, may appeal more to ministers.

Downing Street has ways to tilt the table. It chooses the chair, and it will choose carefully. It sets the terms of reference and will set them tightly. It decides on powers to demand not only official papers, which are hard to refuse, but also private WhatsApp messages.

Mr Cummings and Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, see the inquiry as an opportunity to build the case for their agenda of reforming the machinery of government. They are already pushing ahead with the creation of a full prime minister’s department. They will seek a tight remit that focuses the inquiry on whether the civil service was ill-equipped for this crisis. One senior Tory argues that “organisational change is no substitute for proper leadership”. Downing Street sees it differently.

Even the most friendly inquiry cannot be that friendly. It will hear from scientists close to the decision making, who are scathing about the cost of early errors. One member of the government’s scientific advisory group, Sage, talks of the “complacency and arrogance” at the outset when Mr Johnson did not focus on the looming crisis.

But governments are good at managing inquiries. They have the most experience and the resources. Chaff can be thrown up to deflect blame. Was the scientific advice as clear cut as assumed? How many problems, testing capacity, for example, were due to decisions by previous regimes? It will play up the real successes, show that what looks clear from the outside was in fact far more nuanced and find ways to make its story better. It was notable that at a recent select committee hearing Matt Hancock, the health secretary, began blurring the date of lockdown by eliding it with earlier measures. Mr Johnson has already begun blaming others for the deaths in care homes. The chair will not wish to be seen as a stooge. But, the normal pool of judges and retired civil servants can be reasonably understanding of the pressure of governing.

None of this means an inquiry will not be damaging. It will. But its impact may be more nuanced than many imagine. It will be shaped by those it is investigating and they are masters of misdirection, unencumbered by convention and contemptuous of critics.

Finally, there is also the bet that by next year the country will be less absorbed by the first stage of the crisis. After the horrors of the peak, daily death tolls in double figures are treated as a cause of relief, even though current fatalities equate to six Grenfell Towers a week.

Most voters are more concerned about the future, their lives and livelihoods and, in any case, they have their own power to apportion blame when the time comes. 

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

Follow Robert Shrimsley with myFT and on Twitter

Get alerts on Coronavirus pandemic when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article