Johnson's Worldbeaters

  • by Patrick Casey
Boris Johnson on his way to Covid-19 briefing

Brexit and a nascent English populism have split conservatives, made anarchists of some of them, then handed them the reins. Dominic Cummings in Number 10; Boris Johnson babbling in his pocket; a Cabinet assortment of crank and crook – one third fanatical, two thirds ornamental – soldier and shopkeeper thrown in with the usual lawyer and toff. And what a torrid time they’ve had of it, the poor devils. Chasing the science, manoeuvring activist lawyers, mutant algorithms, the law. Cometh the hour, cometh the man – but they must have put him on furlough. 

Matthew Hancock, health

Hancock is the brains behind Britain’s world-class and massively successful public health response to Covid-19. Charismatic, astute, good with numbers – all are terms that fail to describe him. Having cut his teeth in the software business, the Department of Health was the perfect place to get them fixed. There, his IT know-how inspired Britain’s world-leading contact-tracing app (a call centre) and his department’s ability to turn 60,000 coronavirus tests daily into 100,000 without actually having to do more coronavirus testing. A similar ingenuity produced Operation Moonshot – the government’s plan to bewilder ten million people a day until 2021. This foretold mass test scheme brought charges that it wouldn’t work, didn’t make sense and could make things worse. Where Hancock intendeds conjury, his naysayers only see policy. 

Gavin Williamson, education

It might be said that Gavin Williamson CBE embodies a more modern, more equal British democracy, one in which really anyone can be a government minister. Sacked by Theresa May after secret talks on Huawei were leaked to the press, he wasn’t long in the wilderness. Within weeks Johnson was in Downing Street scraping the ministerial barrel. Williamson’s luck was in. With teenage angst extending into his mid-forties – an unrelenting rebel against his Labour-voting parents – childish insights made him uniquely qualified for the role of Education Secretary. In the job, he sought just deserts for all those who’d picked him last at football and to whose parties he was never invited – downgrading exam results at state schools and making Ofqual take the blame. He reasoned to spare students from jobs beyond their competence – a concern doubtless informed by experience. 

The rearguard

It is the occupants of the great offices of state that best sum up this government. After constructive dismissal from the Treasury in February, Sajid Javid noted that the conditions imposed on him by Number 10 could not be accepted by any self-respecting minister. Hence Rishi Sunak. And from the ever amenable to the quasi-maniacal: headbanger Home Secretary Priti Patel, affording Downing Street that fascistic aesthetic guaranteed to win hearts and minds and Red Wall votes. Last and least, Johnson’s alleged second-in-command, first among eejits, Deputy Dominic Raab: the once Brexit Secretary who ‘hadn’t quite understood’ the importance of the Dover-Calais crossing; the man who thinks anti-racism protesters taking a knee was inspired by Game of Thrones. Dubbed The Turnip by EU negotiators, he’s known on the continent as England’s answer to Dan Quayle – the gaffe-prone Reaganite of American yesteryear – an analogy which is rather unfair to one of them.

It’s easy to see why Raab’s held in such high esteem by his staff – to the extent that they once played at who could sneak the most ‘A’s into his surname in official documents. We understand the record was five. Whether in the office, in Brussels or in tête-à-tête with Cummings and co, the Right Honorable Raaab commands a similar authority wherever he goes.

Goodbye Grayling

When Christopher Grayling left government this summer, FRFI were sorry to see him go, having followed his career closely. But now we congratulate him on a new appointment. Chris will be working as adviser to the company running Thamesport and Felixstowe – albeit on a very part-time basis, reminiscent of his time as Minister for Transport. 

It’s unfortunate Grayling’s political career is remembered, not for his long years of service to the people of Epsom and Ewell, but by momentary ministerial lapses of judgment, memory and ethics – occasionally all three at once. His contribution to Brexit contingency-planning is not easily forgotten: Tasked with securing extra cross-channel freight capacity, Grayling took the bold decision to conclude a multi-million-pound contract with the little-known Seaborne Freight – the ferry company that, we learnt, did not actually possess any boats. Regrettably, Grayling had clean forgot about the Channel Tunnel. As he failed to include it in the bidding process, his department struck another megadeal. With a £33m out-of-court settlement in the bank, EuroTunnel would provide the extra freight capacity itself. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Buffoons and zealots don’t control government in its ascendency – they come to power when all else is coming apart. Cummings and Johnson are at war on most fronts: with Brussels, with Whitehall, sometimes with reality. Having shed several of Brexit’s true believers along the way, they must now go the extra mile to prove fealty to the cause. Majority governments are supposed to be stable, but Johnson has to rely on such low-grade political material because he is contending with so much of his own party. The incompetence of his ministers is so exposed because they are now at odds with the civil service. Their adventures are suddenly scrutinised across the entire news media, including the conservative press. These are the conditions that make the tyrannical methods of Cummings possible – and make him indispensable. Of those cabinet members with a vertebra or two, he made short work. Populism did not cause Brexit, but populism is the logic of Brexit and will only gain momentum as reality engulfs its promised land.

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