Ministers have been guilty of pursuing popularity, rather than telling it like it is
As is becoming glaringly apparent, shutting down the economy is a good sight easier than opening it up again. It pains to say it, but on both counts the Government has been found wanting.
It plainly moved too slowly in imposing the lockdown, and when it did, it acted in a confused, half-hearted way that fell short of what was needed properly to get on top of the pandemic.
Neglect of the care home sector, after forewarning from experience in northern Italy, lays ministers and officials open to particular criticism.
The Government is now proving equally indecisive both on how to end the lockdown, so that we can get on with our lives and the economy can start functioning again, and just as alarming, on how to ease workers out of furlough without creating a tsunami of unemployment and a second spike in infections. Ministers have dug the country into a hole so deep that it can’t get out again.
No one should underestimate the scale and complexity of the challenge Covid-19 poses. It has taxed the abilities of even the most competent and well-prepared of administrations.
Yet in the UK, we seem to have approached the crisis with the nonchalant arrogance of the gifted amateur who turns up late for the match, has to borrow his boots from the coach, and in his delusion still expects to score the winning goal.
How can the UK’s handling of the pandemic be in any way described as “a success”, the Prime Minister’s depiction of it when he returned from his sick bed? Even as cheerleading pep talk, it lacks all credibility.
This peculiarly British mentality is the curse of our post-War economy, and has been horribly exposed for the sham it is by the country’s repeatedly backfooted approach to the crisis.
The other week, a Number 10 official was quoted as saying that it would be a mistake to extend transitional arrangements for leaving the European Union because the UK needed to be free of Europe’s acquis communautaire so as to give itself the flexibility to respond appropriately to the post-Covid economy.
That flexibility might indeed be a nice thing to have, but it assumes a government with the competence to use it. There has been precious little evidence of that over the past three months. Rather, ministers have appeared like rabbits caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. Am I being unfair? Only a little, I fear.
The nub of the problem is that against the backdrop of a badly prepared healthcare system, the Government has found itself torn between public health considerations on the one hand and economic/libertarian concerns on the other; it has been unable to make up its mind which comes first.
Its approach has therefore been neither one thing nor the other, neither fish nor fowl, and its messaging has as a consequence been deeply confused and bewildering.
Given these divergent pulls, the now manifest failings in the UK’s response might seem at least understandable, if unforgivable, but it is actually much worse than that.
What we have seen is salesmanship rather than leadership. We are meant to cheer when targets are hit and boo when they are not. Yet to be instructed simply by a desire to please, which seems to be the only true guiding principle, is not going to see us through to the other side of this crisis, and threatens to create enormous difficulties for the future.
What is required amid this storm of destruction is serious leadership, not trite crowd-pleasers and “light at the end of the tunnel” platitudes.
Naked pursuit of popularity is likely to lead to bad policy even at the best of times, but at moments like these it is particularly dangerous.
Inevitably, the Government will end up disappointing.
A corporate comparison seems appropriate here. Chief executives that try to cover up the truth, and tell the markets only what they want to hear, always eventually get found out, but often too late to prevent disaster.
I suppose we are going to get another dose of all-in-it-together, sunlit pastures, end-of-the-beginning, Churchillian hyperbole from the Prime Minister this evening.
Even the usually cautious Bank of England seemed to be on message last week, with its positively Pollyannaish view of prospects for recovery in the economy. They’d all be much better advised to tell it as it is. Britain looks as if it is going to end up with the worst of both worlds: the highest death rate in Europe and a completely bombed-out economy to boot. Not a great backdrop to be celebrating the 75th anniversary of VE Day.
I’m trying to get the tone right here, because I don’t want this column to turn into an unconstructive, Corbynist type rant against Boris Johnson and his followers. These are exceptional times, and one thing we can be sure of is that the other lot would have made an even bigger hash of it.
The enemy is not of the usual kind, but an unconventional one that is common to all countries, from China to Japan, Brazil and India. All of the major European economies are suffering in equal measure. Britain does not stand alone in its self-inflicted economic destruction.
To both protect the vulnerable for as long as it takes to find effective vaccines and/or treatments, and get the economy moving again, is a massive multifaceted task for which there are no magic solutions; there is no route map to work from.
Yet if there is one good thing that might eventually come out of this almighty mess, it is the realisation that the age of the gifted, winging-it amateur is over. It’s no longer sufficient to see the country through, if indeed it ever was.
What’s required is hard-headed, pragmatically and methodologically instructed attention to the task at hand. Blind hope and optimism are no longer enough.
For the moment, Johnson is riding high in the polls, confirming the old rule that at times of crisis, people are desperate to put their trust in the presiding government.
Criticism from the press is by contrast regarded as unhelpful, lacking in self-belief, or even unpatriotic.
But once the dust has settled, voters will see the mistakes and the wrong turns; they’ll see the phoney salesman behind the leader. And if he continues to get it wrong, they will punish him.
Ultimately, all the choices made are political ones; it won’t be so easy to scapegoat the civil service or the shamefully ill-prepared Public Health England for all that has gone wrong.
“You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time,” said Abraham Lincoln. “But you cannot fool all the people all the time.”