Boris Johnson’s term as prime minister tested the British state to destruction.
In the end, his ill-considered, negligent and self-deceiving style of leadership destroyed his political career. He took the public’s confidence in those who govern us down with him. No cog in the machinery of power – prime minister, cabinet, civil service, special advisers, MPs, independent experts – is emerging with their reputation intact from the hearings at the COVID inquiry.
Those who were in the engine room of No 10 damned themselves with their own mouths and texting fingers as they gave evidence to protect their own backs and plunge knives into their former colleagues.
Many of the problems were down to the leading personalities involved – Johnson, who was generally likened by his staff to a broken supermarket trolley, veering off in all directions – and his closest adviser Dominic Cummings, who admitted to the inquiry that he should never have been taken into No 10. Their extreme behaviour exposed a system in which the wrong people, arrived at the wrong decisions, taken in the wrong way.
But there is a growing sense of foreboding that the faults in the system do not depend on the behaviour of a bunch of miscreants. When pulled by whoever may be in Downing Street, the levers of power are not propelling the nation in the right direction – if they work at all.
We all know how the UK’s unwritten constitution is supposed to work. Voters choose a government at general elections by giving a party or coalition of parties a majority of MPs in the House of Commons. The ruling party chooses who is prime minister by selecting their leader – as we know from recent turmoil, they can also depose them.
Once installed, the prime minister has considerable executive power to take decisions without automatically referring them to parliament. Some constitutionalists reckon that the British PM is more powerful than an American president. The prime minister appoints the cabinet, and they preside over departments overseeing all aspects of national life, from the NHS and schools to foreign policy and the nation’s finances.
In the UK, the government is assisted and advised by two groups of officials: an impartial civil service, charged with implementing government policy, headed by the cabinet secretary, and a cadre of politically committed special advisers.
What the inquiry has uncovered
The evidence to the inquiry shows that this web of checks and balances around prime ministers, designed to deliver effective and decent government, comprehensively failed in the case of Boris Johnson. Many would say it also failed under Theresa May and Liz Truss.
The UK is floundering and has a problem.
None of this will come as a surprise to those who watched the television dramas and documentaries about the Johnson government during COVID, including This England on Sky, State Of Chaos on BBC and Partygate on Channel 4.
The full ugly incompetence of those responding to the arrival of COVID in the UK is now being put on the record. Former deputy cabinet secretary Helen McNamara, who cut perhaps the most sympathetic and apologetic figure in the witness box, complained of the toxic, “violent and misogynistic” working atmosphere at the height of the pandemic. She blamed Johnson’s closest aide Dominic Cummings but shared his diagnosis that the “government was dysfunctional”.
Both she and Cummings were among those in government who broke the regulations they were imposing on the country. McNamara admitted “it’s hard to pick a day when we did not break the lockdown rules”.
There was general agreement in the testimony that then health secretary Matt Hancock repeatedly lied about what his department had and had not done. Cummings viewed ministers as “useless f***pigs, morons and c***s”. The Cabinet Office, designed to coordinate government activity around the prime minister, was “terrifyingly s***”, in his view. The cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill was “out to lunch” but his Cummings-backed replacement Simon Case was soon texting about “being at the end of my tether” with the prime minister and that “we look like a terrible joke”.
Cummings despised the usual forums of decision-taking such as cabinet and COBRA emergency meetings, in part because of “leaks” from them, but he proved incapable of organising Downing Street effectively himself, not least because of his bullying unpleasantness to many colleagues.
How Number 10 arrived here
The Johnson/Cummings meltdown is not the only time when there has been concern about the workings of our government. Complaints about “presidential” prime ministers date back to the days of Margaret Thatcher and have grown louder since another long-lasting premiership, that of Tony Blair.
Politically appointed advisers came into prominence under Blair. They became public figures in their own right, overshadowing civil servants. Thatcher’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham, did not attend cabinet meetings. He waited to be briefed on cabinet meetings by the cabinet secretary before speaking to reporters.
Blair’s spokesman Alastair Campbell sat in at cabinet – along with numerous other special advisers. Campbell made no bones about speaking on behalf of the prime minister directly and about telling cabinet ministers what to do. He also took political control of the information flow about government activity, all but gagging civil service information officers.
Blair also appointed a “chief of staff”, Jonathan Powell, who took over some of the functions driving the government from the cabinet secretary. Critics of the changes argue that Blair weakened cabinet secretaries went native, seeing themselves as Blair’s personal servants rather than the imposing impartial advisers typified by Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister.
The Blair model worked for Blair. His formidable team of political appointees were loyal only to the prime minister and less accountable than either elected politicians or civil servants. He and his ministers remained directly accountable, through frequent appearances on the media, and in parliament. The trouble has come from the admirers and imitators who came after the Blair government.
For ambitious SpAds, Sir Humphrey was replaced as a role model by the foul-mouthed and bullying Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It, as shown in the slouchy, sweary, insolent and intimidating informality of Cummings and his text messages.
Johnson’s Downing Street got Tucker, the negative caricature, shorn of the original Campbell’s intelligence, political principle and dedication to his boss.
Can we stop it happening again?
Subsequent prime ministers all failed to recruit teams of personal advisers to match the quality of Blair’s so-called “sofa government” while they still had to fall back on the disempowered civil service which he left behind.
Influential think tank The Institute for Government has set up a commission to look into “why No 10, the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury do not always work as well as they should and what could be done to radically improve the centre of UK government”.
Its 18 commissioners are drawn from “the great and good” of politics, Whitehall, academia, journalism and the media. They are due to report back next February. Whether anyone in power, or likely to get it, takes any notice of their recommendations is another matter.
The main lesson being taken away from the COVID hearings seems to be how to cover up better in future by using the automatic delete function on WhatsApp or losing an incriminating phone altogether.
The truth is that the current heights of unaccountability are convenient for ministers, if not the country. They are their own judge and jury on ethical behaviour and have uprooted the customary guardrails around acceptable conduct in government. Rishi Sunak is the sole arbiter of whether the ministerial code has been breached and has the power, for instance, to abandon a major infrastructure scheme such as HS2, approved by parliament, on a party conference whim.
The COVID inquiry is doing the public the favour of exposing the catastrophic depths of dysfunction to which the British government descended. As yet, there is nothing in place to stop it happening again.