When the qualification for being a member of the cabinet is loyalty to bad ideas, it is no surprise Britain is badly governed
‘The coronavirus outbreak cruelly exposes those whose all-consuming ambition for a top job has driven out any grasp of what doing the job well might involve. Gavin Williamson is the exemplar.’ Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters
Prime ministers announce changes to government structures for one of two reasons. Either they are frustrated in pursuit of some cherished policy, or they are panicking that events are running away from them. Moving Whitehall furniture creates a comforting illusion of control.
Since Boris Johnson doesn’t cherish much beyond the idea of himself as a figure of greatness, the safe bet is that his plan to merge the Foreign Office with the Department for International Development belongs in the category of gestural distraction.
The rationale is that a hybrid ministry will more efficiently represent the interests of “global Britain”. Even if that were a feasible outcome, now is hardly the time. It calls to mind the late Denis Healey’s maxim that the moment to remove a man’s appendix is not when he is busy carrying a piano up a flight of stairs.
Johnson did not go into politics for the love of managerial capability, nor was that the basis on which he appointed his cabinet
Instead of performing non-essential surgery on an exhausted government machine, the prime minister might more usefully bolster the UK’s international reputation by competently handling a public health emergency and incipient economic crisis. But Johnson did not go into politics for the love of managerial capability, nor was that the basis on which he appointed his cabinet. The prime minister’s departmental merger announcement in the Commons on Monday was drowned out by the screech of tyres on Downing Street, executing an emergency U-turn over free school meal vouchers. The choreography hardly advertised steady statecraft.
The coronavirus outbreak would have tested a strong ministerial team. It cruelly exposes those whose all-consuming ambition for a top job has driven out any grasp of what doing the job well might involve. Gavin Williamson is the exemplar. I single out the education secretary not because he is unusually weak but because he is typically weak. The bungling inability to steer schools safely out of lockdown is his personal failure, but also symptomatic of an attitude to government that puts someone so likely to fail in charge of something so important.
If children are not allowed to throng in classrooms, there is going to be a shortage of teachers and space. That was a foreseeable problem of logistics, not an ideological battle, which might explain why the government has failed to think it through. The Johnson administration evolved from the campaign to sweep Brexit unbelievers aside, and it hasn’t shaken the habit of treating every problem as a hunt for enemies. That was the muscle memory in action when Williamson kicked education unions for “scaremongering” about the threat of Covid-19 in the classroom. It turned out parents were just as wary of the disease as teachers.
Williamson is not unskilled in politics, just unsuited to the bit that involves governing. He had the right levels of guile and menace to be an effective enough chief whip. He is credited as the fixer behind Theresa May’s confidence-and-supply deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists – not the noblest legacy but a nifty feat of political cut-and-shut to get a wrecked prime minster back on the road after electoral humiliation. Then Williamson got greedy. He fancied himself as a statesman and future leader, to which end he needed a big department on his CV. He was given the Ministry of Defence, where his inadequacies were exposed.
He pastiched gravitas by instructing Russia to “go away and shut up” in the aftermath of the Salisbury poisoning. He created a diplomatic incident and scuppered a trade mission to Beijing by announcing that a new aircraft carrier would be deployed in the Pacific, ready to use “lethal force” to deter countries that “flout international law” – a not very coded reference to China. He was eventually sacked for leaking information from the national security council. (He denied it.)
May herself resigned a few weeks later. Williamson promptly threw his lot in with Johnson and was rewarded with the education portfolio. He completed the round trip from cabinet to disgrace and back to cabinet again within three months. It was a record-beating time, but not a unique journey. Priti Patel had been sacked by May for breaching of the ministerial code. Johnson made her home secretary.
Patel’s unfitness for office was mitigated in the new Tory leader’s eyes by her credentials as a fire-breathing Brexiteer. There is nothing new in the practice of using cabinet appointments as ideological semaphore, or to buy allegiance from potential mischief-makers. May had once put Johnson in the FCO for that purpose. She expected him to be useless at the job, which he was, and thought high-profile haplessness would dent his leadership prospects, which it didn’t.
May also made Dominic Raab her Brexit secretary in July 2018 without expecting him to negotiate anything new, but to give him a crash course in diplomatic and economic reality. He later admitted not having previously grasped “the full extent” to which British trade is “particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing”.
The insight did not stop him running for the Tory leadership, itching for a no-deal Brexit. That then became his recommendation to serve as Johnson’s foreign secretary. Conservative MPs who were prepared to say aloud what a terrible idea it would be to leave the EU without a deal were excluded from government. Those who rebelled in parliament to prevent it happening were purged from the party. The banishment of sensible, moderate MPs has had unintended consequences because there was a correlation between opposing no deal and having an eye for sound government. The connection is grasping the logistical hell and exorbitant cost incurred by terrible policies. That is how experienced, financially literate ministers like Philip Hammond and David Gauke came to wear the brand of remainer treason.
Johnson recruited from a pool of people who either believed in wanton national vandalism under the banner of ideological delusion, or were happy to countenance it to advance their careers. It is not a coincidence that such a team has struggled with the complex challenges raised by a pandemic. There might be clever, able individuals among them but those qualities have to battle the wilful stupefaction that was their entry fee to cabinet. It is a collective flaw that no rebadging or abolition of ministries can fix. When the qualification for joining the government is loyalty to bad ideas, it is no surprise that Britain is badly governed.
Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist
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