The pandemic lays bare a government out of its depth

As Boris Johnson desperately clings on to Dominic Cummings, Colin Wilson argues that the Tory government is woefully unprepared to resolve a crisis of such historic proportions as the current pandemic.

I’m not the first to point out the similarities between Dominic Cummings’ disastrous press conference and Prince Andrew’s interview on Newsnight. Both included their memorable and incriminating details – Andrew’s belief that Jeffery’s Epstein’s behaviour was ‘unbecoming’, Cumming’s claim that he drove to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight. Both involved powerful men with a grossly distorted view of how their behaviour looked – and in both cases, with no one around with the authority to stop them bringing disaster on themselves. The Cummings story is not going away – and, increasingly, it is as much about Johnson’s political future as about that of Cummings. A government which was greeted with rapture in the right-wing media six months ago is now condemned on a Daily Mail front page and criticised for its ‘dysfunctionality’ in a Telegraph editorial.

So, we have a government in crisis – but it should really have been in crisis already. Over 36,000 people have died of Covid-19 according to government figures, while the number of excess deaths is over 55,000. The track record of Boris Johnson’s administration is appalling. Had they imposed the lockdown seven days earlier, research suggests, only around 8,000 lives would have been lost. On 12 March, when the Irish government announced the closure of schools, the British government was allowing over 60,000 people each day to attend the Cheltenham Festival. It took a further eleven days – after Premiere League matches were called off and workplaces closed, and people had begun keeping their children at home – for Johnson to announce the lockdown. The government played down the risks of the virus because business and profitability were more important to them than human life. We must now hold them responsible for this – these thousands of deaths must come to define Johnson in the way that the war in Iraq came to define Tony Blair.

That the Tory government are bastards will surprise few people reading this. But it has been an eye-opener to discover to what extent they are also incompetent and cowardly bastards.  As regards incompetence, we’ve seen the target of 100,000 daily tests met at the end of April only by fiddling the figures, the 400,000 hospital gowns ordered from Turkey that failed safety tests, and the 3½ million antibody test kits which the government ordered and has to pay for even though they are completely inaccurate. When it comes to cowardice, the government has time after time wobbled and retreated. On Friday 8 May, for example, right-wing front pages celebrated the coming end of the lockdown, presumably following behind-the-scenes government briefings. The next day, ministers rowed back and warned the changes would be minor. On Sunday, Johnson’s broadcast told millions of people to go to work the next day. On Monday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab explained that they should go to work on Wednesday. The following day, rather than coercing people back to work by ending the furlough scheme, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced its extension until October, at a cost of £14 billion a month.

There has been similar wobbling when it comes to reopening schools – the government have floated a return date of 1 June, but over the weekend of 16-17 May, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was conciliatory. The return would only happen if conditions were met; his door was open to the unions. By 20 May, days of media attacks on the National Education Union (NEU) had got the government nowhere – Justice Secretary Robert Buckland had conceded that there might not be a ‘uniform approach’ on 1 June. The latest climbdowns concern migrant health and care staff – families of care workers who die from Covid-19 will not be deported but will have the right to stay in Britain indefinitely, while migrant health workers will no longer pay the NHS surcharge. Of course, the idea of obtaining residence rights via the death of a family member is appalling, and the NHS surcharge is inherently unjust when many migrants also fund the NHS through taxation – but for all that, these decisions add further retreats to a growing list.

As regards the lockdown in general, it seems clear that the government would love to end it, but don’t know how. Opinion polls continue to give the measures solid support. The numbers travelling on public transport remain low – on Monday, national rail journeys were at 5 percent of normal. Travelling from London to Manchester for a family funeral, I was told I was one of only three passengers on a train which holds around 500. If people are not responding to the call to return to work – even at financial cost to themselves – that’s understandable. We’ve been through decades where people’s trust in politicians has steadily fallen, via milestones like expenses scandals and the ‘dodgy dossier’ that led to war in Iraq. At the same time, public services have deteriorated and people know that they increasingly have to take responsibility for themselves and their families. So, as many people came to appreciate the danger of coronavirus and as the government failed to act, it was an entirely rational step when many people began a de facto lockdown for themselves. But the government’s failure to act over Covid-19 only emphasised once again that politicians can’t be trusted – and the same applies now, when they tell people it’s safe to return to work. This is the reason for the ongoing general support for the lockdown, not that people have become frightened ‘snowflakes’ or will do anything Johnson tells them to do. The government lost control of the situation in mid-March, when they had to run to catch up with the public mood, and they have not regained it since.

What do these events tell us about the Johnson government? Are we facing right-wing Thatcherites or one-nation Tories? When Johnson became Prime Minister, he suggested austerity was over. There has been some increase in spending – though it only makes good some of the previous cuts. On the other hand, key ministers are viciously right-wing. Back in 2012, Dominic Raab and current Home Secretary Priti Patel both contributed to the book Britannia Unchained, which argued that British workers were ‘among the worst idlers in the world’ and argued that ‘too many people in Britain prefer a lie-in to hard work’. It was Patel who, in December 2018, suggested using the threat of food shortages to put pressure on Ireland in Brexit talks – a suggestion evoking the history of Great Famine of the 1840s, in which over a million people died under British rule. Also in 2018, Raab made the claim that 25 years of immigration had ‘put house prices up by something like 20 percent’.

The current government’s political direction was established after Theresa May’s disastrous election results in 2017. A fundamental problem for May was that she had nothing positive to offer to the electorate – neoliberal austerity seemed set to last for ever. The Tories cast around for alternative political directions, without much success. The most coherent strand was a move towards populism. After Johnson became Prime Minister, more money was announced for public services – £18 billion in March’s budget. May’s racist Hostile Environment policy framework was sharpened further into a points-based immigration system. The first sign of US-style culture wars over oppressed groups began to appear, with right-wing attacks on trans people. This set of elements constituted an election-winning package, but as a strategy for British capitalism it left a lot out – most of British capital, after all, had rejected nationalist nostalgia for the Empire and supported EU membership since the 1960s.

But this lack of overall direction didn’t, perhaps, seem a major problem. The hard work of establishing neoliberalism had been done under Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s. Thatcher’s election in 1979 followed a period when established values and authority had been challenged on a wide variety of fronts. The strike wave of the late 60s and early 70s had, at its peak, brought down a Tory government in 1974. Widespread opposition to the Vietnam War, which continued from the 1960s to 1975, rejected American imperialism. Militant anti-racists successfully fought the far right and the cops, most notably at the Battle of Lewisham, where thousands of protesters broke through police lines and attacked members of the fascist National Front. Punk defied authority and responded to the celebrations of the queen’s twenty-fifth year on the throne with the slogan ‘stuff the jubilee’. Thatcher – who had grown up far from the centres of political power, above a grocer’s shop in Lincolnshire – opposed all this, and was willing to stand firm despite a high opposition and social polarisation. She went to war with Argentina though victory was uncertain, and never wavered during a year-long miners’ strike, the most violent industrial dispute in twentieth century Britain, in which five people died. Riots against Tory policies and police racism at various times made no change in her position either – even when, as in Tottenham in 1985, a policeman was left dead with some forty machete wounds and a six-inch knife buried in his neck.

Trade unionist Bernie Steer addresses dockers in 1972 after being released from Pentonville prison. The working-class radicalisation of the 60s and 70s was a formative shock for Margaret Thatcher and a generation of right-wing Tory politicians

In general, Thatcher’s project was successful – neoliberalism became normalised and the struggles around its birth forgotten. So the Eton-educated Johnson can take it for granted and sometimes indulge in one-nation rhetoric if it suits him – or even, in a bizarre post-hospitalisation broadcast, claim that ‘love’ was what would see us through the lockdown. It’s this combination of one-nation political rhetoric with neoliberal realities that characterised Johnson’s term as Mayor of London. He joined the London Pride parade wearing a pink cowboy hat, for example, while his two terms of office from 2008 to 2016 also saw widespread riots in 2011 over austerity and racist police violence – met with further draconian repression – and tens of thousands of people living in makeshift ‘beds in sheds’.

So, despite its hard-right politics, there was no sign in the Johnson government of Thatcher’s chippy, combative edge, or of the hard work she did in the early 80s to build a right-wing coalition supported by people from business leaders to rank-and file cops, not to mention workers who had bought their council house. In the words of a Downing Street senior advisor quoted in the Sunday Times on 19 April: ‘What you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends.’ All this was familiar from Johnson’s underwhelming stint as Foreign Secretary, where his lack of attention to detail was exemplified by his careless comments about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, which the Iranian authorities used to justify her continued imprisonment. Johnson behaved the same way as Mayor of London – the hard work was delegated to various deputy mayors, while he took charge of high-profile vanity projects such as a little-used docklands cable car, or the unbuilt garden bridge on which £43 million was spent.

An additional problem for the Tories is that their Cabinet, too, is mostly composed of the lazy, the inexperienced and the plain incompetent. Priti Patel was forced by Theresa May to resign as International Development Secretary in November 2017. Patel had met with Israeli government officials without telling the Foreign Office, apologised to May, and survived – but had not told May about further meetings. When these were exposed and it became clear she had not told the whole truth, her resignation became inevitable. Gavin Williamson, now Education Secretary, was sacked in May 2019 after being accused of leaking secure information while Defence Secretary.

These patchy track records mean that Patel and Williamson are particularly in Johnson’s debt for their jobs, and unlikely to oppose him. Rishi Sunak has also been promoted extremely rapidly; if he’s given no evidence of incompetence, he is certainly inexperienced, and also indebted to Johnson. We have, then, a cabinet of yes-men and -women – and this became a major problem when Johnson was ill for month, from late March to late April, during a severe national crisis. Ministers took few initiatives and established no clear direction for policy, because none of them could be sure that Johnson would approve of these decisions when he got back. So, we have a lazy chancer of a Prime Minister, who has surrounded himself with sycophants and incompetents. This is why Cummings is so important for him – Johnson can’t or won’t do the hard work and take difficult decisions himself, so he relies on Cummings to do this work for him.

This was always complacent, but in the economic and social crisis we now face it plainly fails to meet the situation. The impact of the pandemic on the weakest parts of the British economy, such as high street stores, will be severe. Unemployment has reached over 2 million, with young people most likely to lose their jobs. As the Financial Times has reported, the pandemic is increasing the gap between rich and poor – people on low incomes are more likely to have lost their jobs, while those on higher incomes are saving the money they might have spent in restaurants and on holidays. The other impacts of the lockdown – in terms of people’s mental health or their experience of domestic violence, for example – will also be felt for years to come.

The weakness of the government doesn’t necessarily mean it will lose its battles, any more than the huge problems facing capitalism on a global scale will mean its inevitable collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. (Marx’s alternative scenario, ‘the mutual ruin of the contending classes’, gains a new relevance in the context of the pandemic.) The key question here is what opposition the government faces. If there is no meaningful opposition, they can do what they like. For example, after more than twenty years of attacks on migrants and asylum seekers, a certain level of racism against them has become normalised – and so Patel didn’t face a high level of campaigning against her Immigration Bill, which was voted through the Commons last Monday. In particular, the government has been awarded a real bonus in the form of Sir Keir Starmer KCB QC, with his determination to shift Labour to the right and to provide opposition which is ‘constructive’ at a time when the government is responsible for tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Thankfully, the Labour leadership isn’t the only potential source of opposition to the Tories. It’s been inspiring to see the crucial role played in the last few weeks by the leadership of the NEU. Not only have they been completely consistent in their position, they have made innovative use of digital technologies to enable debate and involvement. Following Johnson’s broadcast on 10 May, for example, the union surveyed 49,000 of its members in an hour, with 85 percent of respondents saying they disagreed with the Prime Minister’s plans. An NEU Zoom call on Monday 18 April attracted over 20,000 participants. Nor are British teachers and support staff the only example of renewed union activism – on Tuesday 12 May some 10,000 people, many members of a local union, took part in a Las Vegas protest in their cars against local casinos reopening prematurely. Workers at Amazon and other major employers called in sick on 1 May to protest against unsafe working conditions.

As well as examples of activism, we’re also seeing a revival of left-wing ideas. In Britain it’s become a commonplace to say that NHS staff deserve a pay rise, or to stress that ‘key workers’ like low-paid workers in supermarkets or refuse collectors are vital to the operation of society, while managers and bankers are not. Ending the lockdown and reopening workplaces will lead to further debates over issues from education to public transport. With the neoliberal status quo shattered, and its key claim – that it is inevitable – destroyed, it’s much easier for the left to start discussions and campaigns by asking ‘how do we really want to live?’ The right are not confident that they will win these struggles – on 18 May former Tory leader William Hague, for example, wrote a column in the Telegraph headlined, ‘The right must plan now if we are to save the post-Covid world from the torment of socialism’. Hague’s nervousness – along with the incompetence and inexperience of the Tory government – should inspire us as we look to an uncertain future.

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