On Brexit and Covid, Boris Johnson must get a grip and stop squandering our trust - Andrew Vine

A DAY after our liberties have been newly curtailed to control the spread of coronavirus, a nagging question arises. How far are we able to trust the Government in its running of the country?

Do you think Boris Johnson is still doing a good job as Prime Minister?

It’s usually a question that is asked of exhausted administrations, battered by years in office and running out of steam, rather than one that has been in power for less than 12 months.

But in the year that has passed since Boris Johnson first set foot in Yorkshire as Prime Minister with a visit last September, the issue of trust in his approach to governing the country has become ever more pressing.

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It isn’t just about the handling of the pandemic, though that inspires little enough confidence. It’s also about the Government’s willingness to break international law by its planned reneging on a treaty freely signed with the EU over Brexit.

It is just over a year since Boris Johnson first visited Yorkshire as Prime Minister - but trusted in him has declined markedly.

And it’s about what appears to be a cynical enthusiasm to scapegoat civil servants for Government failings by either sacking them or making their positions so untenable they resign, rather than the buck stopping with ministers who should lose their jobs when policy descends into shambles as it did over A-level results.

All this is undermining trust at a time when public faith in our politics is already at a low ebb because of the prolonged agonies over Brexit. And worryingly, the Prime Minister shows no sign of being the slightest bit troubled by the impression of untrustworthiness he conveys. Throughout his career, Mr Johnson has been dogged by accusations that he is shifty, says what he thinks expedient for the moment and lacks a grasp of detail.

Those traits are at the heart of what is becoming a serious trust problem for his Government. The shiftiness is there in the negotiations with the EU. Incredulity, and even outrage, at a plan to tear up an agreement over border arrangements for Northern Ireland are not artificial.

Breaking international law simply should not be countenanced by a British Government, still less one that is drawn from the party that traditionally stands for upholding it. It should give any Prime Minister pause when such heavyweight predecessors as Sir John Major and Tony Blair condemn the move as shameful, their criticism echoing that of Theresa May and Michael Howard.

Boris Johnson's handling of Covid is also being called into question.

The tendency to say what is expedient to deflect criticism rather than taking steps that achieve results is written all over Mr Johnson’s handling of the pandemic.

In the early stages, it appeared he had a grip. Inevitably, given this was a crisis unprecedented in modern times, mistakes were made, but the Prime Minister largely carried the country with him. But the errors of judgment have developed into a pattern of indecision and changes of direction that undermine confidence.

Last week’s announcement of a “moonshot” policy of mass testing unravelled within hours of Mr Johnson’s announcement, when it emerged that the technology it relies on does not yet exist.

The testing regime as it stands is not fit for purpose, with targets constantly missed, problems in processing results and the absurdity of people being directed to test centres hundreds of miles from their homes.

The announcement of Covid marshals to monitor gatherings of people also turned to dust when it became apparent that no money was being given to councils to pay them and they would have no powers of enforcement.

The country doesn’t need eye-catching announcements, but action to make a system that just isn’t working do what it is supposed to.

But it’s almost as if the statement matters more than the reality, that if there is enough window-dressing nobody will notice the shop has empty shelves.

The public is noticing, though. Why, families rightly ask, are they prohibited from meeting in groups of more than six – even if none show the slightest sign of being ill – when much larger numbers are together in workplaces, public transport, or sitting in pubs and restaurants?

People know perfectly well that other countries are performing much better than Britain in bringing the virus under control, notably Sweden, which is all but back to normal.

Blustering and inept performances in the Commons are further undermining Mr Johnson’s credibility. Does he realise? Or, more to the point, does he care? A big Commons majority and a long time before another election insulates him from any immediate worries about the consequences of a loss in public trust in his own performance and that of the Government.

But he should care. Trust lies at the heart of honest government and Britain’s relations with other countries, especially in a post-Brexit world. Mr Johnson squanders it at his, and the country’s, peril.

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Thank you

James Mitchinson