Richard North, 07/04/2020  

There is something distinctly Soviet in the way the news on the prime minister's health has been managed. After nearly a week of rumours, when aides were insisting that Johnson was suffering only "mild symptoms".

When, finally, it was conceded that the prime minister had not been able to shake off his illness, we were told that he was being referred to hospital for "testing", while he remained in "good spirits" and in full control of the government.

After spending a "comfortable night" we heard little more until it emerged that he was to spend a "second night" in the hospital. Only hours later he was "on oxygen" and then came the news that he was in intensive care.

In retrospect, having not recovered from his illness, it is clear that the prime minister on Monday was not at all well. The claim that he was being referred to hospital merely for "testing" was quite obviously (even at the time) a fiction.

This is important because, at a time of crisis when the government is demanding the active participation of the population in its measures, trust is an essential element. And here we have a situation where the official news is quite evidently being managed, and people are being kept in the dark.

Such an action, of course, transcends the fate of an individual. Johnson, at best, is a divisive character and there are many – including this writer – who cannot stand the man. It would be hypocritical to state otherwise.

But, at the height of an epidemic, continuity of leadership tends to be important and therefore, the health of the prime minister is a matter of legitimate public concern. It is important that the public is not kept out of the loop.

Even the Guardian retails that some Conservative MPs are worried that Downing Street's evasiveness on the seriousness of the prime minister's condition "will undermine trust in what they say going forward".

And whether stated or not, it is apparent that Johnson is not fit to lead the government at this stage. Even if he was well enough to read his papers and take briefings, the judgement of a sick man must be questionable. Thus, whether we like it or not, the de facto deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, must take control.

Some are questioning whether the substitution would be an improvement, or whether we will be in the hands of a second division politician who is even less capable than the man he replaces. Here, only time will tell but it is also the case that, in the current circumstances, it would be very difficult for any leader to excel.

That much, I've already noted, conceding yesterday that the mess in which we find ourselves is not entirely of the prime minister's making. And that there are stresses in government as to which actions should be taken is being widely conceded, even by the likes of the Telegraph.

The media, though, has the unfortunate habit of focusing on the here and now, highlighting the interplay of personalities in government, or advising ministers. In so doing, they tend to treat the epidemic response as if it had been devised and executed by the current players.

In this, there seems to be no recognition that the fightback against Covid-19 requires the commitment of the full apparatus of the state, a giant clunky machine with so many moving parts that it is quite beyond the control of the prime minister or those advising him. Most, in fact, will have only a vague idea of the extent of the machine, and very few (if any) have a complete grasp of how it works.

Tracking back the current policy, we have identified its genesis in the Blair years, with most of the components of the current policy having been decided then, and recognisable in the actions and responses of this government. That is how it always is.

Complex policies cannot be devised on the hoof and while prime ministers like to give the impression that they are in charge and in command of events, in events of this nature they have little option but to fall back on the plans devised during the tenures of their predecessors.

That is not to say that Blair, during whose term the current policy was initiated, had any direct part to play in its formulation. No doubt, he was informed of what moves were being made to devise a pandemic preparedness plan, but he would have had no more coherent things to say about it than might have Cameron when his turn came to preside over amendments and updates.

Inevitably, with such plans, the only real way they can be tested is to implement them and, as I observed previously, Johnson has drawn the short straw. It is not his fault that that plan has been found to be wanting, based on false assumptions and proposing actions which, quite obviously, are politically untenable.

Being saddled with a plan that doesn't work is one thing though. Knowing what to do about it is quite another, especially as the automatic response of officials will be to deny any flaws and to defend the "plan" against precipitous change.

It is very clear though that Johnson was forced to confront the political consequences of a "do nothing" policy, riding out the storm until a vaccine became available. Thus, he ordered a rushed "lockdown" strategy, cobbled together on the hoof, with no very clear idea of the implications and even less of an exit strategy.

In the nature of the media though, obsessed as it is with personality politics, there is only one item of news at the moment, dominating the front pages of all the national newspapers and taking the lead with the broadcasters. And that is the admission of the prime minister to intensive care.

Of far greater importance, even in the shorter term, however, is the management of the lockdown, and the decisions on when restrictions can be lifted, before people start to rebel and the damage to the economy becomes overwhelming.

With the cases having reached 51,608 and the death toll having soared to 5,373, there are no indications as yet that we are anywhere near a peak in the current phase of the epidemic. And if it is not for Johnson to decide when to take action, it will be down to Dominic Raab, who will be under exactly the same constraints as his fallen leader.

To an extent, this points up the irrelevance of that man at the top. These are not grand Churchillian days, where the fate of the nation rested on the fortitude of one man deciding that Britain would stay in the fight, whatever the odds, rejecting the siren calls to make a deal with Herr Hitler.

In this event, surrender is not an option so the fight back is a given. But how that is achieved lies in the hands of the technocrats, beyond the ken of politicians, on whose advice the prime minister must largely rely.

Whether Johnson or Raab, though, there are no easy options and no single master stroke that will bring us victory against this invisible enemy. If and when the restrictions are lifted, we will almost certainly see a recrudescence of the illness yet, for every day the restrictions are in place, the economic damage multiplies.

The ultimate resolution to this crisis comes only when an effective vaccine is produced and administered, the development of which lies entirely outside the control of the prime minister. Unless he has the courage and understanding to realise that he has been misled by his officials and experts, and has been sold the wrong plan for this disease, all he can hope to do is embark on a programme of damage limitation.

In this context, "limitation" is in itself limited. The emphasis will be on the word "damage" and this is set to be substantial, whatever action is taken. The only trade-off available is whether that damage should be expressed in blood or treasure or, more likely, both.

There is a chance that a change of tack, with a real commitment to "test and trace", could make the difference, but all the indications are that the health establishment will block any such move.

And if Johnson showed no sign of understanding the issues, there is no likelihood of Raab proving any better. Between a prime minister, potentially unconscious under heavy sedation in intensive care, and his (so far) healthy deputy, there is very little difference. As long as we have our present system of government, it wouldn't make an awful lot of difference if we had a zombie at the helm.

That much, we need to take on board. The opportunity to decide our fate came and went fifteen years ago, and we are currently prey to decisions made then, which were neither scrutinised nor challenged. As this epidemic progresses, therefore, the prime minister isn't the only casualty. Long before he succumbed to the virus, the policy was already in intensive care. It is unlikely to recover.

comments powered by Disqus

Log in

Sign THA

The Many, Not the Few