After No 10’s latest U-turn, even supporters of Boris Johnson are asking in despair: When will this Government get a grip?
The latest volte-face is flabbergasting. And yet it was at the same time depressingly predictable that Downing Street would try to exempt itself from the onerous rules in which it has enmeshed the nation.
Hundreds of thousands of us are being forced to self-isolate. People on holiday in France, or planning to go there, are told at a moment’s notice that they will have to quarantine for ten days because of the South African variant. Yet it is more prevalent in Greece and Spain, to which no such restrictions so far apply.
Despite being informed by NHS Test and Trace that he had been in contact with someone with Covid — namely Health Secretary Sajid Javid — Boris Johnson’s immediate response was to try to dodge the rules to which the Government has made all of us subject
And, in the semi-police state we now inhabit, a terrified 12-year-old girl hides behind her mother as police turn up at her home to check that she is self-isolating. Officers return the next evening in what the girl’s family describe as a ‘riot van’.
In a country that has become entangled in restrictions that are often oppressive or downright illogical, the least citizens should expect is that the politicians responsible for those restrictions will follow them.
But no. Despite being informed by NHS Test and Trace that he had been in contact with someone with Covid — namely Health Secretary Sajid Javid — Boris Johnson’s immediate response was to try to dodge the rules to which the Government has made all of us subject.
It was announced that he and the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak (also in contact with Mr Javid last Friday), would make use of a little-known pilot scheme which allows people out of self-isolation every day so that they can continue working, if they pass a daily lateral flow test.
Ah, that must be the same scheme from which Michael Gove, Minister for the Cabinet Office, benefited after a recent jaunt to Portugal to watch a football match. But it’s not a wheeze the rest of us have been told about, or invited to use.
Politicians, business leaders, and members of the public expressed outrage. Mr Johnson and Sunak caved in within hours, and agreed to self-isolate. Common sense had prevailed.
Boris then had the brass neck to insist in a self-generated video that avoiding quarantine was only ‘briefly’ contemplated. Come on! They had many hours to think about it, and made the wrong call.
How shameful that No 10 ever imagined that the Prime Minister and Chancellor could side-step regulations which, though often unnecessary, everyone else is obliged to observe on pain of a swingeing fine.
This is far from the first time Mr Johnson has shown himself out of kilter with public opinion. In May last year he exonerated chief adviser Dominic Cummings, who had broken lockdown rules by driving from London to County Durham, and then undertaking a 60-mile round trip to Barnard Castle, allegedly to test his eyesight.
It was announced that he and the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak (also in contact with Mr Javid last Friday), would make use of a little-known pilot scheme which allows people out of self-isolation every day so that they can continue working, if they pass a daily lateral flow test
Home Secretary Priti Patel was also spared after an official report found that she had behaved as a bully at work and broken the ministerial code. The PM instructed Tory MPs to ‘form a square around the Pritster’. It was Boris and his mates versus the rest of us.
Most recently, Mr Johnson loftily ‘considered the matter closed’ after Matt Hancock was caught in a clinch with his adviser, Gina Coladangelo, in contravention of Covid regulations. An almighty hullaballoo ensued, Mr Hancock resigned, and the PM tried to pretend that this was what he had wanted all along.
In all these instances the Prime Minister displayed an Olympian disregard for proper behaviour. Is it because he can’t recognise it? Or does he simply not care enough about what people feel?
Mr Johnson badly needs someone to provide him with a moral compass that is lacking. In this case, someone in authority should have said: ‘You can’t do that Prime Minister. You can’t conceivably evade restrictions the Government is forcing everyone to follow.’
Unfortunately, no such person appears to exist. There are precious few wise heads in No 10 where, following the departure of a valued long-term adviser, 71-year-old Edward Lister, Mr Johnson is at the age of 57 the oldest person.
The alarmingly inexperienced Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, is 42. The PM’s chief of staff, Dan Rosenfield, is 44 and, whilst doubtless able, is not seasoned in top-level politics.
Where Mr Johnson could once depend on the counsel of his grown-up and successful former wife, Marina Wheeler, he must now rely on the wisdom of the current occupant of that office, 33-year-old Carrie, who has her own power base in No 10.
If Boris is going to shepherd the nation through these bumpy coming weeks, No 10 will have to show consistency. It must stop chopping and changing, and ensure all ministers abide by those remaining rules the rest of us are being asked to accept
Today is so-called Freedom Day. Because of the attempt by the Prime Minister and Chancellor to duck their own severe rules, it comes with a slightly sour taste
I’m sure there are some clever people surrounding the Prime Minister, but experienced and shrewd political operators who can both stand up to him, and offer him good guidance, are in short supply.
Ultimately, of course, every prime minister stands alone, and must rely on his or her own judgment. We can’t just blame a shortage of adequate advisers for the recurring pattern of Mr Johnson misreading the public mind about what constitutes decent behaviour.
What is odd is that Boris the populist seems often on the same wavelength as ordinary people. He appears instinctively to understand their fears, hopes and aspirations. He is much less good, however, at grasping what they regard as proper conduct in their leaders.
Today is so-called Freedom Day. Because of the attempt by the Prime Minister and Chancellor to duck their own severe rules, it comes with a slightly sour taste.
The next few weeks are likely to be the most testing Mr Johnson has experienced since becoming PM two years ago. Covid cases are bound to soar, though not, I hope, hospitalisations and deaths. The Government will come under pressure from scientists and Labour to re-introduce restrictions.
If Boris is going to shepherd the nation through these bumpy coming weeks, No 10 will have to show consistency. It must stop chopping and changing, and ensure all ministers abide by those remaining rules the rest of us are being asked to accept.
Writing about this muddled and chaotic administration, I sometimes recognise in myself the triumph of hope over experience. More than ever, we do need Boris Johnson finally to get a grip.