The Covid inquiry begs the question how did Boris Johnson become Prime Minister? - Matthew Flinders

The Covid Inquiry is the most sophisticated and wide-ranging blame-game that has ever played-out in British politics. The great benefit of public inquiries, as opposed to parliamentary scrutiny, is that they seek to explore issues in a way that promotes ‘cool thinking’ (i.e. balanced, reflective, evidence-based) over the ‘hot rhetoric’ (i.e. aggressive, adversarial, emotive).

Although ‘hotly’ awaited it is probably not surprising that Dominic Cummings’s appearance before the inquiry was a fairly ‘cool’ affair. Gone was the ‘mad man in the wings’ who had caused controversy and chaos in Whitehall. The edgy and unrepentant dissident who sat in the garden of No.10 and sought to justify his ill-advised drive to Barnard Castle replaced now by a far calmer character.

There were, of course, the juicy soundbites about poor planning and even poorer leadership, the NHS thought to be at risk of collapsing into a ‘zombie apocalypse film’. The scale of dysfunctionality captured in the use of a new language of disarray and disorder. The Prime Minister, for example, was known as ‘trolley’ due to his tendency to change direction. But none of this insight was new. A ‘Kafkaesque nightmare wrapped in bad language’, as Cummings put it, was no revelation to those who had been following this sorry saga. So what was the ‘deep story’ that emerged beneath and beyond Cummings’ evidence?

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The answer lies in a focus on feelings, expertise and leadership.

Former prime minister Boris Johnson was known as ‘trolley’ due to his tendency to change direction. PIC: Jonathan Brady/PA WireFormer prime minister Boris Johnson was known as ‘trolley’ due to his tendency to change direction. PIC: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
Former prime minister Boris Johnson was known as ‘trolley’ due to his tendency to change direction. PIC: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

In sociological research the notion of a ‘deep story’ focuses on how people make sense of the world. Deep stories don't need to be completely accurate, but they have to feel true to those who tell them. They are the stories people tell themselves to capture and manage pressures and disappointments, fears and anxieties.

In the Covid context what’s most significant is the way in which a trail of WhatsApp and other social media messages have laid bare the ‘deep story’ of how officials and advisers felt about their political masters. Expletive-laden messages between senior officials, the government described as a ‘terrible, tragic joke’ and even the admission by the country’s most senior civil servant that he was ‘not sure I can cope’.

The deeper issue, if not the story, emerging out of Cummings’ evidence was the existence of a governing system that was almost completely devoid of expertise. Plans did not exist. Systems were not connected. Data was not collected. Admissions of ‘dysfunctionality’, little more than a veil for an incredibly amateurish system staffed by generalists who were committed to ‘muddling through’ when systemic responses were needed.

Muddle, befuddle and fudge.

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Where expertise was available in the form of SAGE the government lacked the capacity to understand or interrogate the advice it was given. The bigger picture is provided in Rory Stewart’s Politics on the Edge which charts in great detail how those with expertise and specialist knowledge within Whitehall are side-lined in terms of promotion and policy input.

And yet there is a dimension of this story that is not at all deep. Indeed, its shallowness is almost shocking. But the blame for such political pathologies cannot and should not be heaped on the most obvious of people. The core and undeniable concern that Cummings’ evidence simply reinforced relates to the issue of leadership.

The admission by Lee Cain, the former Director of Communication in No.10 who worked with Boris Johnson, that Covid ‘was the wrong crisis for this prime minister’s skillset’ demands deconstruction. How did Boris Johnson become Prime Minister, and what were the skills or attributes that he brought to the role?

This is not a partisan question. It is a demand for sober reflection on how we give people power.

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Arguably the most galling element of the evidence that the public inquiry is amassing about Boris Johnson’s lack of leadership skills is that anyone who had done even the smallest amount of credible research on his personal and professional life up to July 2019 could only have concluded that he was totally unfit for office.

Again, this is not a partisan point. It is a statement of truth that is underscored, underlined and under-written in a vast seam of research and scholarship.

The deepest question unearthed by Cummings’ evidence is really one about how we select and support our political leaders. In Johnson’s case it’s worth remembering that he was elected and effectively anointed Prime Minister by Conservative Party members who constitute less than 1 per cent of the electorate in the United Kingdom.

Celebrity, charisma and charm might be appropriate qualities for tea parties and fund-raising dinners but they’re not much good for leading integrated pandemic response strategies.

That’s the deep and simple story.

Matthew Flinders is a professor of politics at the University of Sheffield.