Coronavirus: Why Boris Johnson’s lack of moral authority is a real problem – Martyn McLaughlin

Boris Johnson has sown mistrust and division, yet has the gall to plea for unity amid the coronavirus outbreak, writes Martyn McLaughlin.

Boris Johnson visits the Mologic Laboratory in Bedford where scientists are working on ways to diagnose coronavirus more quickly (Picture: Jack Hill/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson visits the Mologic Laboratory in Bedford where scientists are working on ways to diagnose coronavirus more quickly (Picture: Jack Hill/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

The UK Government’s passive and insouciant response to the growing coronavirus crisis warrants a great deal of scrutiny of how – and when – it intends to put measures in place to mitigate the worst of the contagion, but watching Boris Johnson deliver a press conference at Downing Street on Monday evening, it was impossible not to be struck by one fundamental problem which he – and by default, we – are facing. Our Prime Minister is almost uniquely ill-equipped to govern.

The near two-decade-long political ascendancy of Mr Johnson and the first eight months of his premiership have been almost exclusively concerned with power: the acquisition of it and, more importantly, the consolidation of it.

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The coup he waged on Sajid Javid and the Treasury was the most blatant example of Mr Johnson’s insatiable desire for control. He is not the first Prime Minister to wish to play puppetmaster, nor will he be the last. But some are more fortunate than others in terms of how external events impact on internal scrimmages. Lady Luck is not on Mr Johnson’s side.

The advent of a potential pandemic is a stark reminder that chaos is never far away, ready to humble even the best-laid plans of ideologues.

The restoration of order requires more than empty rhetoric and patriotic tubthumping. It demands the smooth operation of the machinery of the civil service, and good faith on the part of the public – the two things Mr Johnson and his ringmaster, Dominic Cummings, have undermined more than any other.

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Now, the discord and division they have created is coming home to roost, and an angry, fractious nation – haunted by an irreversible sense of decline and eroding values – is left to cram bog roll into every spare nook and cranny.

Perhaps the most galling comment made by Mr Johnson in his Downing Street address was his exhortation for people to “behave responsibly and think about others”.

A time of crisis requires reason and logic, and for leaders, the most important quality is moral authority. Sadly, Mr Johnson forfeited the right to such virtues a long time ago.

What possible example can be set by a man who wrote that Muslim women wearing burkas “look like letter boxes”, and who has referred to black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles?”

Mr Johnson has fulfilled his ruthless personal ambitions thanks in no small part to spreading fear and mistrust of marginalised sections of our society. He cannot now invoke his Chuchillian fantasies and urge, as he did on Monday, for the public to “look out for another” and to “pull together in a united and national effort”, and assume that he will be taken seriously.

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Humanity and solidarity

There are many people, no doubt, who take the view that assuming individual responsibility for our behaviour at a time like this is paramount. While that is true, it is only natural that a great many others should look to those in authority for guidance and inspiration. It is, after all, not too much to ask that those who govern us should be, above all else, decent human beings.

The fear and the panic are real, and though humanity and solidarity are no antidotes to a deadly contagion, they can blunt its sharper edges.

There are at least a few small mercies for which those of us on this island should be grateful. The UK Government’s inaction is positively reassuring compared to the situation across the Atlantic, where the Trump administration’s messaging on coronavirus has been chaotic, specious and genuinely dangerous.

The US president is urging people not to believe anything written or said about the crisis in the news media, despite the fact it is one of the few authoritative sources of information and advice.

Mr Trump has said that he doubted the effectiveness of proactively identifying those regions worst hit by infections, blithely insisting that “you’ll find out those areas just by sitting back and waiting”.

Sturgeon’s sober pragmatism

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According to reports, the self-professed germaphobe has even told aides he fears journalists would purposefully contract Covid-19 in an attempt to infect him on Air Force One. If the US public is already ill at ease, Mr Trump is doing his level best to unsettle them even further.

One kernel of solace came in the form of the torrent of criticism such views drew. Among those to take issue with Mr Trump’s rambling egotism and maddeningly incompetent public health strategy was First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who pointed out that leaders bear a “massive responsibility”, and that she felt it acutely.

“Listen to the science, understand its implications, apply judgement, and ensure all of that is reflected in clear, consistent and responsible public messaging,” she advised.

It is a sign of how broken our political culture is that Ms Sturgeon’s sober pragmatism feels odd and out of place, when it should be the norm.

Redressing the balance and restoring a semblance of common sense will take time, though it is tempting to wonder if it can be done at all. That sounds like a pessimistic forecast, maybe, but it is one informed by politics, not epidemiology.

Coronavirus has arrived as a perfect storm at a time when concepts such as open borders and open supply chains were already under siege. It can, and will, be exploited by those pushing at the door, knowing that with crisis, comes opportunity.

There is no guarantee that competence and honesty will prevail, or that those in elected office are even capable of it, but epidemics come and go. So too, in the end, do zealots.

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