Richard North, 19/06/2020  

There are times when you feel like giving up. Right from the very start, I dismissed the contract tracing "app" as a waste of time.

I was hardly on my own. It is hard to find anyone outside government circles who had a good word for it. But still the government persisted with it, carrying out trials on the Isle of Wight, promising that it would be rolled out in June, or whenever.

Long after it became obvious that the system wasn't going anywhere, the government has finally conceded defeat – as we all knew it would have to.

But the thing is that, in more normal times, one might be interested – and either angry or amused – in the government's volte face (a posh way of saying U-turn), but the only thing I can drum up at the moment is complete indifference.

We knew the government had messed up, we knew it was going to circle the wagons before admitting it, and we know it was then going to ditch the app, offering all sorts of excuses as to why this was the best thing they ever did, and there was no mistake made. So, not interested – really not interested. We've been there too many times before.

As so often, we resort to John Crace for comment. This really has to stop – he writes for the unspeakable Guardian, dammit. But, he had the measure of the Johnson gang, and isn't afraid to say so. 

For months now, he writes, the government has been prefacing all its coronavirus briefings as world-beating when the only thing in which we appeared to be global leaders was our mortality rates.

But now, says Crace, "I’m beginning to think Boris Johnson and his cabinet may have been on to something after all. Because it’s beginning to look more and more as if we are genuine world beaters: if only in total incompetence".

Interestingly, I hadn't even read his latest column when I started on this piece, but his "take" on "the real genius of Hancock's cunning plan" is uncanny. "Because faced with the choice of testing a system on the Isle of Wight that everyone knew didn’t work or one that could possibly be improved", Crace says, "Matt had opted to waste several months testing the one that was a complete non-starter".

Caustic as always, Crace calls this "world-beating science at its absolute best". Testing the useless one was spearheading the international effort to show other countries precisely what not to do. It was an act of supreme "world-beating" self-sacrifice for the UK to take one for the global team. The 60,000 Brits who have died of Covid-19 could rest assured they hadn’t done so in vain.

Equally, I like his demolition of Dido Harding. When "Matt" handed over to her, Crace comments she is "an equally unreliable narrator having not had tremendous success with data breaches at Talk Talk and giving the go-ahead to the Cheltenham festival a week after many scientists had been pleading for a lockdown".

"The baroness", he says, "is one of that elite club of chief executives who consistently manages to fail upwards. So her insistence that though the test and trace figures were basically crap they were still better than nothing wasn't as reassuring as it might have been".

Hardly new, but that comment just sums it up. There is indeed an elite club of chief executives who consistently manage to fail upwards. It doesn't seem to matter how often or badly they fail. They simply dust themselves off, pick up their golden handshakes and then waltz off into their next over-paid positions, ready to mess up all over again.

Mostly, they seem to be employed by NHS Trusts – which in part explains the lamentable response of the Service to Covid-19 - but in Harding we have a gem. Predictably, when the Johnson gang wanted a front for their latest failure, they chose her. They couldn't have picked better for the purpose.

But the one thing Johnson doesn't need in this department is any help from his friends. When it comes to world-class failure, he is in a league of his own. How else could we judge his bravura performance yesterday with Macron, delivering his latest instalment of the Trans-end saga.

There is, he has told the French president, "little point prolonging UK-EU talks on a future trading relationship into the autumn". Rather than intensify talks on the issue in July, he thinks it might be better if the parties end the talks without an agreement and use the time to prepare for a no-deal Trans-end.

The rationale for this "world-beating incompetence" is that it is better to start preparing now, rather than make last-minute "adjustments" in December when the transition period expires.

There is a certain amount of internal logic there, I suppose. If you are going to fail, you might just as well do it earlier rather than later and get it over and done with. But, for "team Johnson", that just means clearing the decks to make way for the next failure.

At least Grayling isn't around any more to hire ferries from a company that doesn't have any ships, to land at a port that couldn't handle them even if they did. There are plenty more ministers waiting in the wings ready to take his place.

Here, it is interesting to see Johnson's fan club stripping the shine off Rishi Sunak and his furlough scheme.

To do the demolition job, the Telegraph uses Guy Standing, a professor of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. And just for starters, Standing dismisses it as a "nonsensical mistake" – a bit like Hancock's "app" really.

It has, says Standing, proved unfair, distorting and regressive. This £60 billion-plus scheme has proved fraud-prone; it is subsidising employees who would or could have been covered by their firm anyhow or were not at risk of redundancy; it actively discourages work; and it distorts the labour market.

And, in being regressive and unfair, it excludes a lot of people who do not qualify, including many who need help most. And it gives most to those who are already paid most, so high-paid workers receive five times as much as those in the precariat, even supposing the latter qualify for the scheme, which many do not.

It is, says Standing, even more unfair to those who lose their jobs who, if lucky, receive a pittance. For low-paid workers, on the edge of unsustainable debt, losing 20 percent of their income can lead to destitution, as growing queues for food banks testify.

When lovers fall out, it seems, the outcome can be pretty savage. Here, we might just be seeing the scales falling from the eyes of the Telegraph as it begins to look a bit more clearly at the Johnson legacy.

It's actually pity for Starmer that he didn't think to get his policy wonks to look at the furlough scheme – he could perhaps have made some serious political mileage out of it. But then the man is far too busy virtue signalling. He may be better than Corbyn, but not much better.

That, in a roundabout way brings us back to John Crace. His piece when he watched Starmer and Johnson at this week's PMQs is a classic.

Here's a thought, observes Crace: "Would it actually matter if Boris Johnson were to answer a direct question?" After all, he says, "the prime minister’s relationship with the truth is so tenuous at the best of times – he can’t even confirm how many children he actually has – that almost everything he says needs to be independently fact-checked".

Lying, he goes on to say, "isn’t just second nature to Boris, it’s first nature. It's what he does. It's how he navigates his way through the world. He has no moral universe to cause him fits of conscience".

It says something that a prominent newspaper columnist can write such things without finding themselves heading to the libel court. We're used to this sort of thing now, but if you stand back from it, its still pretty strong stuff. I can't ever recall a serving prime minister being described in such terms – not even serial liar Ted Heath.

But a liar is one thing. Total incompetent is another. Combine the two and we have the imperfect storm. We know the man is going to fail, and when he does, he is going to lie about it. Taking a lead from their boss, his minions do likewise. So common and predictable are their lies that they aren't even worth listening to any more.

And yet, Crace says the British public expect rather more of their leader than a few glib one-liners and a crumpled haircut. The only trouble is that, for the moment, that's all we have on offer. With another disaster waiting just around the corner, we need something better. Whether we deserve something better is something else to ponder.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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