Ingram Pinn illustration of Philip Stephens column ‘How Boris Johnson lost control’
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Seizing control is all very well. Sometimes forgotten is that power is useful only when you have a notion of what you want to do with it. Boris Johnson has stumbled upon this truth during an ill-starred year in 10 Downing Street. Mr Johnson’s personal ambition never looked beyond becoming prime minister. With his hands finally on the levers of power, but lacking anything resembling a prospectus, he has been lost.

Initially, he seemed to think Brexit — “taking back control” as the Brexiters call it — would be purpose enough. In the event, his premiership is being shaped by coronavirus. Here, all the decision-making has belonged to No 10 from the outset, with no one in Brussels to gainsay British politicians. The policy and communications strategy have belonged to the prime minister and his special adviser Dominic Cummings. The result has been a shambles.

Mr Johnson was at first too slow to recognise the threat and then too impatient to lift the economic lockdown before it had sufficiently suppressed the virus. The result is that the UK has had the highest number of excess deaths from coronavirus of any nation in Europe, people are confused about the remaining rules and the government has had to call a halt to Mr Johnson’s plans for further relaxation of social and economic restrictions. His trademark “boosterism” has proven to be no match for a deadly virus.

Effective communications are vital in managing such a crisis. The most important ingredients are clarity and the capacity to instil public trust. In Britain’s case, trust was shattered when Mr Johnson refused to criticise Mr Cummings for openly flouting the lockdown. Understandably, many took the view that it was one rule for the people, another for a privileged coterie around the prime minister. Insult was piled upon injury when Mr Cummings offered the extraordinary excuse that on the occasion he had broken the travel ban he had been driving his car in order to test his eyesight. Yes, really.

The absence of clarity in the government’s communications mirrors the lack of a coherent strategy. Advised by epidemiologists to apply tough social and economic constraints in the fight against Covid-19, Mr Johnson has struggled to accept that this endeavour will be a long haul. His forte is telling good-news stories. The only effective policymaking during the crisis has come not from No 10 but from Rishi Sunak, the chancellor. You can quarrel with some of the economic measures Mr Sunak has taken to ease the economic pain, but they do at least fit together.

Mr Cummings, with a background as a political campaigner rather than policymaker, has responded to all this by seeking to hoard still more power in No 10. With a handful of exceptions, cabinet ministers have been sidelined. Mark Sedwill, the outgoing cabinet secretary, heads the list of victims of a purge of senior civil servants deemed to be overly attached to rigorous analysis and too willing to speak truth to power.

Mr Johnson, it should be said, is not the first in his role to have tried to centralise decision-making. It has been something of a modern tradition that new prime ministers are frustrated when they discover constraints on their authority. They start out believing they can do as they please. They then realise that Whitehall resembles a lumbering ocean liner with a wide turning circle rather than the sleek speedboat of their imagination.

Successive leaders have experimented with all manner of institutional fixes to bypass the great baronies represented by Whitehall departments. Inner cabinets, policy and strategy units and “delivery” groups have been invented, disbanded and reinvented. The authority of the Cabinet Office, the central clearing house for decision-making, has waxed and waned. Downing Street has appointed, and unappointed, its own permanent secretaries to counterbalance the weight of the cabinet secretary.

Some of these changes can help. The government machine puts too high a premium on policymaking at the expense of management and implementation skills — a weakness visible during coronavirus. And Mr Cummings is only the latest in a long line of ministerial advisers who have said Whitehall should recruit more engineers and mathematicians alongside its traditional intake of humanities graduates.

For the most part, though, rearranging the institutional furniture is a displacement activity — a poor substitute for the pursuit of an intelligent governing strategy. The prime ministers who have succeeded through the years in bending the will of Whitehall to their service have done so not by changing personnel reporting lines but by setting clear ambitions and pursuing them with consistency.

Few doubted Margaret Thatcher’s ability to get her own way in Downing Street. Beyond winning general elections, what mattered was her political determination and clarity of purpose. The same could be said of Tony Blair, even if he once complained bitterly about Whitehall obstructionism.

The irony is that both former prime ministers ended up as unwitting victims of their impregnable authority. No one in Thatcher’s cabinet was strong enough to prevent her introducing the politically ruinous poll tax that loomed large in her downfall. Mr Blair’s rush to war in Iraq likewise went almost unchallenged. I somehow doubt Mr Johnson will ever exercise such control.

philip.stephens@ft.com

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