How Boris Johnson has failed us over lockdown one year on – Jayne Dowle

ALL the cinemas remain closed, but take heart. The Government has a new film out.

This was Boris Johnson leaving for Prime Minister's Questions last week.
This was Boris Johnson leaving for Prime Minister's Questions last week.

It’s called A Beacon of Hope: The UK Vaccine Story and I’m told it’s already being hailed as box-office success. In Downing Street, at least.

Elsewhere, questions are being asked about the cost of the documentary and more seriously, its moral purpose.

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Is it right to release such a hagiography when more than 125,000 people have died with Covid-19 on their death certificate and countless others taken from their families too soon because treatment of serious medical conditions has been sidelined to focus NHS resources on fighting the virus?

Should Boris Johnson have taken swifter action against his aide Dominic Cummings for breaching the lockdown last summer?

When we look back on the most challenging year for a peacetime Prime Minister ever, will we remember it for the world-beating success of the UK’s vaccine rollout and hail him as our saviour? Or will we still be reeling from the personal, economic and social impact of coronavirus, and deploring the many questionable decisions taken by Boris Johnson at the helm?

A year ago, even his staunchest critics found a small corner of their heart for the Prime Minister. Faced with the most serious public health crisis for more than a century, the great libertarian of modern Conservative politics was clearly out of his depth. Any politician, of any party, would have been.

When Mr Johnson addressed the nation from Downing Street on March 23 and told us that our lives and liberties must come to an immediate full stop in order to tackle the spread of Covid 19, no-one envied him the job.

It would have been remiss then to attack the man outright. Whilst many of us had deep private doubts about his capabilities as a crisis leader, we kept our own counsel – especially when he caught Covid. And at least he wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn, we kept reminding ourselves.

FFirst Minister Nicola Sturgeon is still pushing for Scottish independence in the wake of the Covid pandemic. Will she succeed?

At the beginning of this terrible year, even the cynical amongst us were prepared to put our faith in this untested Prime Minister, because frankly we had no choice.

How do we feel now? Let down and lied to just about sums it up for me. I respect that these 12 months would have tested even his great hero, Sir Winston Churchill, but there is no excuse, frankly, for some of the omissions in judgement made.

I’d argue strongly that the turning point was Mr Johnson’s refusal to condemn immediately his former special adviser Dominic Cummings for bending lockdown rules by going on that trip to Durham and Barnard Castle. One rule for them, another for us; this was rank hypocrisy. And dangerous too.

This incident lost the Prime Minister a huge swathe of public support and paved the way for a summer when the relaxed social distancing measures were stretched to the max by hordes thronging beaches and holding mass barbecues in their back gardens. For his own holiday, he pitched a tent in rainy Scotland with his fiancée and baby son, Wilf, but had to flee when it emerged he hadn’t sought the farmer’s permission. In dark times, a sprinkling of comedy value, at least.

In his favour, Mr Johnson has proven himself capable of listening, to the science at least. His reliance on chief medical officer Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, has been criticised, parodied even, but he at least now accepts that he doesn’t have all the answers.

He wants to be liked. In a leader this can be both a strength and a weakness. Tony Blair wanted to be liked, because his immediate predecessors as Labour leaders, with the exception of the late John Smith, were not universally likeable. However, when it came to the tough decisions – I’ll just mention Iraq – he wasn’t remotely bowed by public opinion. Mr Johnson’s failure, as demonstrated with the ridiculous relaxation of social distancing rules over Christmas, is to allow his quest for popularity to overwhelm any sense of resolve.

And yet his major failing is a tin ear when it comes to empathy. How else could he have made official promises to the nursing profession to reward their dedication with a decent pay rise, only to renege with a pitiful offer of one per cent?

Why couldn’t he take on board what Marcus Rashford and many other anti-poverty campaigners told him about children suffering from hunger during lockdown? And why is he pretending not to notice as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each in their own way, call into question the future of the Union?

As someone once (almost) said, a year is a very long time indeed in politics. What we must turn our attention to now, however, is not Boris Johnson’s qualities as a leader, but how he actually leads going forward.

His Cabinet appears even more beleaguered than he does; his hapless Education Secretary, a belligerent Health Secretary and a Home Secretary no-one respects. Tough decisions must be made. If he really does want to “build back better”, he must not rest on scant laurels.

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