A drama, a crisis, and a tragedy

As we all now know, Dominic Cummings’ evidence to Parliament yesterday was something of a bombshell – an account of a political leadership beset by ill-preparedness, detachment and complacency. Ill-equipped to deal with a crisis of this magnitude. Perhaps the best single word to describe the Johnson administration’s performance throughout is ‘hapless’. 

Not stated explicitly was the fact that, despite the red-flashing warning of the National Security risk register, a decade of austerity had done nothing to shore up the nation’s resilience in the face of an entirely predictable pandemic. Like the Marines yomping across the Falklands when their helicopters were lost, it was down to the NHS to put in the hard yards to rescue an impossible situation, at some considerable cost to their own. And despite Mr. Cummings’ praise for the actions of the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, we’ll need to reflect longer-term on whether the ‘spend, spend, spend’ approach to national crisis is preferable to adequate spending beforehand to ensure national resilience. 

Of course, it’s important to factor in that this account of events was offered by the author of the £350m Brexit Big Lie, and the as-yet massively under-fulfilled promise of ‘taking back control’; a person who left No. 10 in unhappy circumstances and who, it’s widely speculated, has scores to settle. But there was an air of contrition and, dare I say it, humanity in Mr. Cummings’ presentation that suggested that this account should largely be taken at face value. That, and the fact that much of what he said has been well documented elsewhere

Will any of this impact Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson or the other primary target of Mr. Cummings’ ire, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock? 

A large chunk of the electorate seems thus far to have been impervious to Mr. Johnson’s manifold shortcomings, including his Trumpian relationship with the truth.  Those elements of the media which are normally supportive of Mr. Johnson are however unsparing in their reporting of the evidence session. Just maybe some of this will begin to sink in with those who think Mr. Johnson worth voting for because he’s different to ‘normal’ politicians, the kind of bloke you could share a pint with down the pub, someone you’d vote for (I’ve heard said) because he’s ‘funny’. Whether it will also dent the tendency of some folk to vote for an opportunistic, shallow patrician (because, as a nation, we’ve never quite lost that deferential mentality) rather than a low-key competent (think Attlee) is another question. 

As for Mr. Hancock, it’s long been a matter of speculation that he owes his place in the Cabinet to the need for a fall-guy at the crucial moment. If that’s true, it speaks volumes about the immaturity of British politics. Maybe the point is approaching where a reshuffle might ease Mr. Hancock out, beyond which it would be interesting to hear his unvarnished version of events. 

Beyond the immediate fall-out, and as I’ve said in other blogs, we desperately need to learn the lessons of this episode to be able to do better longer-term. Mr. Cummings referenced ‘groupthink’ as a factor, but this is far from being a new realisation – much of the learning from Chilcot focused on this. Ironically, the counterpoint to groupthink is the difficulty of coordinating effectively across Departments. This is a hard trick to pull off, but not impossible, given sufficient preparation. 

Once the dust settles, and those Mr. Cummings criticises have responded, as no doubt they will, what remains is an appalling death toll (with its concomitant impact on the bereaved), the lingering repercussions of Long Covid and interrupted educations and unprecedented economic disruption at both individual and national levels. 

This is a tragedy fashioned by the shortcomings of a political system that has evolved to lubricate the rise to power of incompetent but media-friendly leaders, and on which the judgement of history will be harsh – not just on Mr. Johnson, but on all who make it so.

3 thoughts on “A drama, a crisis, and a tragedy

  1. I think there is a problem in all democracies, in that the skills that you need to get elected are very different from the skills you need to govern. Our (and the USA’s) first past the post system of elections seems to throw this difference into even starker contrast than some proportional systems, where reasoned debate and compromise are much more in evidence, probably because of the need for coalition-building. FPTP breeds a mentality where you have to be right about everything, and your opponent has to be egregiously mistaken about his whole programme. On the long anticipated public enquiry, you raise an important point. Will it simply focus on the decision-making in 2020, or will it take a harder look at the decade of austerity and the impact on our preparedness? I’m not placing any bets at the moment.

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    1. Hi, Richard. Sorry to be sluggish in responding. I agree about FPTP, which alarmingly the Government wants to introduce now for mayoral elections. A significant step backwards. On the inquiry, it needs to assess how things were at the start of the crisis, which means looking at, for example, funding for public health provision at the time (and over preceding years). Anything else will be inadequate.

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