Plumbing the depths of Boris Johnson’s incompetence


Photo by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

Boris Johnson has never hidden his admiration for Winston Churchill or disapproved of comparisons between himself and his predecessor as Prime Minister. An even better parallel, argue Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell in their account of Johnson’s tenure, is David Lloyd George.

“They shared a willingness to take enormous risks with the Constitution, as well as its lax approach to truth and malleable principles,” the authors note in their introduction. “Her rampant sexual and financial appetites led her into deep and repetitive trouble. Neither thought of using patronage to make outrageous appointments bare for their own benefit. They both actually enjoyed being rude.”

However, a reader hoping that Johnson’s 10: The Inside Story will focus on Johnson’s similarities to Lloyd George—the scandalous and the racy—will be disappointed. There is an intriguing line about Johnson’s time as Secretary of State and how “he was certainly interested in forging a strong bond” with his female Canadian counterpart, and in the introduction we are told that “given his unconventional life, more revelations will come to light.” “. However, that is not the main concern of this book.

Lloyd George was a villain, as was Johnson. Lloyd George was also an able and effective Prime Minister. Johnson, as Seldon and Newell strongly point out, was not.

It’s tempting to focus on Johnson’s dishonesty (both personal and political) and lack of principle – and consequently the damage he has done to our political institutions. And our international reputation. And the economy. What can be neglected, and perhaps less obvious to those not close to Whitehall, is how extraordinarily incapable he was of performing some of the prime minister’s basic functions. Seldon and Newell have done us all a service by laying out this reality in unsparing detail.

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Based on interviews with more than 200 contemporary witnesses to Johnson’s office, his weaknesses are repeatedly revealed. His thinking is “superficial”, he lacks “focus and comprehension” and he has a “chronic inability to initiate difficult conversations”. Described as “completely inadequate at governing”, “he led meetings in a chaotic manner” and had a “short attention span”; he was “flexible” and “often untrustworthy … and he lacked any grip on the machine”. He was “hopeless to understand how to turn his woolly dreams into substance” and “could neither act like an adult nor trust other people to do so”. Johnson had little knowledge of Whitehall, politics, Parliament or the Conservative Party. He was impossibly ill-equipped to adequately fulfill the role of junior minister for paperclips, let alone prime minister.

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The chapter on Covid is particularly scathing. One official noted that it was “amazing how difficult it was for him to understand the intricacies of Covid policy… he couldn’t process the amount of information”. Another official noted that “he had three meetings in one day in which he said three completely different things depending on who was present and then denied that he had changed his position.” When he insisted he had not made a decision, officers had to show him printouts of what he had agreed earlier that day.

When the official investigations into how to deal with Covid are finally concluded, the government’s response to the second wave of infections, which was followed in September 2020, is likely to be viewed very sharply. This will be an awkward moment for Johnson and, to some extent, for lockdown skeptic Rishi Sunak. However, it is all too obvious that in the first few months of the crisis, earlier this year, the country was without a functioning leader. “In the absence of a Prime Minister who can rise to the occasion, No 10 needed a figure with the intellectual capacity and influence to grasp the scale of the problem and focus on action,” write Seldon and Newell. “Boost Dominic Cummings.”

Ultimately, Johnson is little more than a bungler. However, Cummings is more complex and interesting. He brought “determination and clarity where Johnson offered pudding and frivolity” and was “evidence-driven, immensely hardworking and getting things done.” But he was also immensely destructive, sometimes getting off the rails and ruthlessly removing alternate power bases in Whitehall. Johnson is said to be afraid of him, proclaiming miserably “I’m the leader, I’m the king,” frustrated at being marginalized by his adviser. Exceptionally, Cummings was able to effectively remove both the Chancellor (Sajid Javid) and Cabinet Secretary (Mark Sedwill) and choose their successors. Cummings left both the Cabinet and the Civil Service hollowed out and in a state of dread.

Johnson’s shortcomings meant Cummings might have been a necessary evil. To the extent that Johnson had priorities, he could do little without Cummings’ support. The Prime Minister was unable to determine what he wanted to achieve and how to achieve it, and needed someone else to do the job. He didn’t understand the detail and couldn’t bother to master it.

[See also: Rishi Sunak, not Keir Starmer, is now the leader under pressure]

Where Johnson has a legacy is in “getting Brexit done”. Here he worked hand in hand with Cummings. Johnson campaigned for the Tory leadership and vowed to leave the EU by October 31, 2019, but had no idea how to go about it. Cummings was the man with the plan. Some of us continue to view it as a thoroughly reckless plan which would have resulted in disaster had it not been for Parliament’s intervention, but ultimately the UK left the EU and Johnson won an 80-seat majority. Voters appear to regret both outcomes, but there’s no denying that the Johnson-Cummings partnership was at least momentous.

However, Seldon and Newell show how ill-conceived Brexit was. The morning after the 2016 referendum result, they write, Johnson was shocked and exclaimed, “Oh shit, we don’t have a plan. We haven’t thought about it. I didn’t think it would happen. Holy shit, what are we going to do?” Years later, there was still no consensus among Brexiteers on the purpose of leaving the EU, and Johnson was at a loss to identify and deliver the purported benefits of Brexit. Even Cummings seemed strangely distant from the issue during his reign. For all the political instability and economic damage inflicted, it’s exasperating to see how frivolous the thinking was among its main protagonists.

Johnson at 10 is not happy reading. Little can be said positively about Johnson’s tenure (although he is rightly praised for his handling of Ukraine). It’s, by and large, a cheesy tale of opportunism and incompetence. The conclusion asks whether Johnson should be considered a great prime minister, but the answer is evident in almost every one of the 582 pages.

There are at least two categories of people who should read the book – in repentance, those who once supported Johnson; and those aspiring to ministerial office. If you are looking for a guide on how not to be a prime minister, or a minister at all, this report should prove invaluable.

Johnson at 10: The Inside Story
Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell
Atlantic, 624 pages, £25

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[See also: Brexit is slowly killing the Conservative Party]