Reflections on the incompetence of the Johnson government

Being ideologically opposed to government, or the very least top-down imposed upon us government, we can sometimes just criticise government action on that ideological line. It shouldn’t exist so what it does is wrong. The pandemic though is helping us see things in a different light. It was anarchists who led the way in terms of wanting a lockdown and being prepared for it. The government moved too slowly and we were ready with mutual aid. As things have developed I’ve started to see a gulf between the damage caused by the government in general and the damage of incompetent government.

It’s far to easy to simply dismiss Johnson & Co as a neoliberal elite looking after their own. The actions of Dominic Cummings certainly indicate that. What has come across so starkly though is the incompetence at the heart of the government. If they want power then regardless of ideology there should be some quality to it. This isn’t a new problem. The Cameron / Clegg alliance handled a global banking crisis as if it were a national crisis in public service spending. Instead of reforming the banking sector that had destroyed the economy, they set about moving money from public services to prop up the banks. It was ideological but it was also a simple incompetent way of dealing with the circumstances.

We all knew that Johnson was an incompetent buffoon and we’ve known it for years but the country has ended up with him as prime minister. Government exists and it exists now at a time when it needs to be foolproof in its competence. What a time to have Boris Johnson as prime minister. What a time for his party to be secure in power for a full term in office.

From before the pandemic, the incompetence was for all to see. As the virus began to spread it was clear that other countries were handling things differently, some well and others badly. Italy was singled out for horror stories about how badly it had coped and the UK government proceeded to take the country down the same route. We were told that we were two weeks behind them in terms of virus spread and yet we went into a less severe lockdown than them two weeks after they had. We came out of that lockdown a week earlier than them.

The government was able to ensure that the NHS coped, at least in terms of not being overwhelmed with cases, but that was only because they were sending people with Covid-19 into care homes. That’s not ideology; it’s incompetence. With the added issues of a lack of protective equipment and a badly run testing regime, it was no wonder that the UK had the largest spike of deaths in Europe. Government ministers just routinely lie in press briefings and special advisers get to give lengthy press conferences where they confirm they broke the rules but have no intention of apologising or resigning. The messaging has been changing constantly, themes sometimes entirely dropped.

One example was the guidance given by the prime minister himself a week before announcing lockdown conditions. On 16th March announced that people over 70 should go into lockdown by the weekend. The press on the day following this announcement had stories about people over 70 spending time with family while they still could. The government has never mentioned over 70s self-isolation again. They didn’t announce further details and provided no guidance on the length of this pre-lockdown lockdown other than Johnson saying that it would last around 12 weeks. He didn’t even say when it would start, other than suggesting the coming weekend. The government also talked of ‘vulnerable’ people which they have since focused on as being distinct from people just over 70. The consequence of this is that anyone in that age group was prepped for a 12 week-ish lockdown and then giving no further information. People who have friends and relatives have been given no information on this lockdown. The end of this lockdown has not been discussed because the whole thing has been dropped. This isn’t ideology. This is incompetence. The whole press briefing from that day can still be viewed.

There is, however, an overlap between ideology and competence. We have a prime minister and cabinet and special advisers who believe in the market and the ‘rational’ choices people make within it to the extent that they are deliberately vague regarding advice to the public. They actively want people, businesses and organisations to make choices for themselves. That requires people having information to make good choices but this is a government full of small state ideologues who refuse to provide such guidance. The result is a public that barely understands what is expected of it and a ruling elite that think they can do what they like.

It is unlikely that the Tory Party got into power in December last year because the British people really love neoliberalism. Brexit, Corbyn and the lure of that affable buffoon are probably much more the issue. Ultimately the vast majority of people in the country see a role for the state and probably want it to protect their family when it can. The Tories are therefore at risk of destroying their credibility. Meanwhile we face another four years of them being secure in government. Long term incompetence is just another thing we have to be aware of, on top of the virus potentially being a danger for months or maybe years to come.

Jon Bigger


Image: Fields of Light Photography