Losing his grip
Boris Johnson’s poor management of the covid crisis is undermining his ability to govern
Britain’s chaotic departure from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on “Black Wednesday” in 1992 destroyed John Major’s premiership and condemned the country to five years of agony, as the Tory government stumbled from crisis to crisis. The coronavirus debacle now threatens to do the same to Boris Johnson. He has a bigger majority than Sir John (87 compared with 23) and is more loved by Tories. But the corona crisis is much bigger than the ERM episode and will be harder to escape from.
Mr Johnson’s poor handling of the crisis has wrecked the government’s most important asset, its sense of authority. The government may already have lost the public: ratings for “being in charge of the situation” have been negative since May. It is beginning to lose its own party, too. Tory MPS have a litany of complaints about government policies. They especially dislike the insistence that strangers must stay 2m apart when other countries have settled on 1.5m or less, the back-tracking over reopening schools, the decision to quarantine those arriving from abroad for a fortnight, the abolition of virtual voting, which forces MPS to stand in a milelong “conga line” to cast their votes, and the unruly streets, with up to 40 police officers injured in a fortnight of protests and counter-protests. Habitual critics of Mr Johnson ask: what did you expect? Others are “worse than despondent”, says one. “Despondent implies that you think that there might be a way out.”
Mr Johnson’s authority, like that of the Roman emperors he studied at university, rested on fear and charisma. He struck fear into his colleagues by repeated shows of brutality, expelling half the Cabinet when he took over as prime minister, purging 21 MPS who voted against the party and dispatching his chancellor, Sajid Javid. He also used his considerable political charisma to help win an audacious general election in December. Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s key adviser, was central to this regime of fear and charisma, picking fights with all and sundry but also earning a reputation as a campaigning genius.