The fact that Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Gavin Williamson, supposedly still in charge of the pencils at the Department for Education, remain “in post” says as much about their boss as it does about them.
It’s shameful really, to think that alleged evidence of the Prime Minister’s lack of trust in Mr Hancock is circulating so freely. In WhatsApp messages in a 7,000-word blog post published by the PM’s former aide, Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson appears to use a profanity and is reported to call his senior minister “hopeless”.
It’s also alleged that Mr Johnson described the lack of PPE at the start of the pandemic as a “disaster” and contemplated sidelining Mr Hancock and bringing in Michael Gove in his place.
With so much apparent discord and distrust coming from the very top, the PM can hardly expect the rest of us to fall into line unquestioningly.
No-one wants to be held publicly accountable for things they might have said in the heat of the moment, especially in the middle of an unprecedented global pandemic. However, this level of criticism is hugely damaging to the credibility of not only Mr Hancock, but also the Prime Minister.
It’s tempting to think that the loss of the formerly-safe Tory seat Chesham and Amersham to the Lib Dems in last week’s by-election was all about Mr Johnson. That would be right, to an extent, but in a more complex way than we might imagine.
Voters in the leafy Home Counties constituency, held by the late Dame Cheryl Gillan, repeatedly said that the Government wasn’t listening to their concerns.
This was despite the arrival of Mr Johnson himself on the canvassing trail, followed by a number of senior figures including the Conservative Party co-chair Amanda Milling.
In retrospect, this could have been a public relations miscalculation. For too long now Mr Johnson has made complacent assumptions about voters.
If this by-election bruising doesn’t give the Prime Minister a wake-up call about the shortcomings of his government, especially those senior ministers flailing in vitally important roles, nothing will.
This is the problem with a leader who came to power through a modern personality cult. For Mr Johnson to stand out, he must be thrown into relief by those who surround him.
And that is one of the reasons why his senior ministers are at best competent, like the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Richmond MP Rishi Sunak, and at worst chaotic. That, and a sad lack of courageous rebels and intellectual verve in modern Westminster politics, a situation which affects all parties, not just the Conservatives.
Where are the big guns, the big thinkers, when we need them more than ever? The pioneering Michael Heseltines, the reforming Kenneth Bakers? Instead we have, in characters like Hancock and Williamson, middle-management suits promoted way above their pay-grade and capabilities, in charge of seriously sprawling departments that shape our lives.
There is only one person and one person alone who can make the final decision on allowing this hapless duo to carry on, and that is the Prime Minister. What further evidence does he need?
If there is some form of self-protection on his part happening here, then he needs to give his head his shake and think of that NHS he is apparently so keen to protect. By allowing Mr Hancock, who has presided over a number of damaging and lethal misjudgements during the pandemic, to continue, he simply looks weak and indecisive.
And let’s not forget that a summer of exam results is almost upon us, plus a new term for school, college and university students just over the horizon in September. No-one wants a repeat of last year’s series of fiascos from Mr Williamson, and he has hardly filled us with confidence that he is better prepared this year.
I’ll just mention the cack-handed handling of the £1.4bn Covid catch-up fund a few weeks ago. Reported to break down to £50 extra per pupil per year, it’s a mere fraction of the £13.5bn that the Education Policy Institute (EPI) think tank had calculated would be required to catch up on lessons disrupted by the pandemic.
Somehow, our children and young people are struggling their way towards achieving a state education, whether they’re sent home from pre-school every other week due to a Covid scare or sat at home completing Finals in their bedroom. I’d like to think that we could do better than that, as a country.
And I’d like to think that we could trust our Prime Minister to do the right thing. No more excuses or hiding from the truth. Call a Cabinet reshuffle now before further damage is done.
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