We cannot forgive and forget Boris Johnson’s failings - Lesley Riddoch

Much depends on whether Boris Johnson has learned from his experience, says Lesley Riddoch.

Boris Johnson speaking at the March 22 daily briefing

When Boris returns to the helm, how should the public react? Conservative voters will doubtless welcome their captain back onto the bridge, some may feel respect for the man who “beat” Covid-19 and political opponents might judge it unwise to cast up past failings, lest that diverts from the essential business of planning the future. 
So, should voters forgive and forget the missing five weeks, the skipped Cobra meetings and the unused pandemic strategy highlighted in a weekend newspaper expose?

Should we shrug off growing evidence that Boris Johnson’s government seems to have mishandled much of the Covid response, saved by the speedy intervention and better judgment of folk on the ground? In short, when Boris returns to Number Ten, should it be Judgement Day or bygones?

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Much depends on whether the Prime Minister has changed or learned from his experience.

Everyone makes mistakes. And everyone’s subject to normalcy bias plus the empty conceit that what affects others will somehow pass us by. But we expect governments to do better than that - to think further, scrutinise harder and act less on whim, bias or unexamined default than the ordinary citizen. If it turns out the opposite is true - that nurses, doctors, carers, cleaners, bus drivers, checkout staff and other key workers were quicker on the uptake, smarter, and braver than the British cabinet, where does that leave Boris Johnson’s authority today? Tempting as it is to it speculate, that may still be a matter for another day. However rickety, the Good Ship Britannia is still our shared vessel - however much roughly half the Scottish electorate would have it otherwise.

The important issue now though is how the boat is being steered, whether the underlying attitudes that produced those missing five weeks are still at work, and whether parliamentary and journalistic scrutiny is sufficiently robust to expose any more wrong choices. The indications are not good.

Jeremy Hunt certainly piled into into his successor Matt Hancock in the first ever video conference-based version of the Health Select Committee.

But he told blood-scenting interviewers afterwards he wouldn’t apportion personal blame. Fair enough, but given his own role in proceedings, hardly surprising. Hunt was the longest serving Health Secretary in British political history and presided over the shredding of NHS budgets, the first-ever strike by junior doctors and the shameful vote against a pay rise for nurses. He implemented the controversial Health and Social Care Act 2012, which effectively dismantled and part-privatised the NHS in England despite opposition from every part of the medical profession. A King’s Fund review found NHS ‘reforms’ had caused greater marketisation, distracting and damaging top-down reorganisation and new, ‘complex and confusing’ systems of governance and accountability.

Still the British Government ploughed on, until 100 English health trusts faced bankruptcy this winter. And that’s why £13.4 billion of the debt smothering NHS Trusts in England were written off three weeks ago. A good opportunity to dump a failed policy perhaps, except the Conservatives have no long-term plan to dismantle the system that’s crippled English hospitals.

Equally, I almost choked on my coffee midweek, to hear Scottish Secretary Alister Jack explain, “what we learn from previous analysis of recession and depression is that poverty kills”. This is awe-inspiring audacity from the Scottish face of a government whose benefit sanctions were branded “cruel and inhuman” by the United Nations’ rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. But let’s be generous, or at least pragmatic. It may be that a very ill wind is starting to blow some good - but is it enough to guarantee a fresh start? Probably not.

It’s clear from the weekend’s revelations that the UK Government has a deep-seated predisposition towards inaction in the face of expert alarm. Indeed, quite apart from the NHS funding crisis, it’s presided over the bedroom tax, disability cuts, local government cuts and the utterly unfit for purpose Universal Credit. If you can shrug off hard evidence that endless online form-filling and six-weeks without money cause despair, illness, family breakdown and even suicide, I imagine nothing much will make you react. The blind eyes and deaf ears turned to policy failure during the decade of austerity helped usher in those five missing weeks. And despite the blizzard of cash support promised by Rishi Sunak, there’s no evidence the Tories’ uncaring, unresponsive gene has been engineered out of government thinking.

Certainly, it’s good news that Priti Patel’s controversial Immigration Bill is set to be withdrawn this week - sparing the government’s blushes by being seen to push a callous income-based immigration system stopping low-paid, foreign frontline workers from entering this country, while the public keeps applauding them from their doorsteps every Thursday night. But doubtless the idea will return.

Meanwhile Brexit rolls on. The Sunday Times’ investigation discovered that “contingency planning was diverted to deal with a possible no-deal Brexit,” while the threat of the virus was emerging. Will that prompt Leave voters to concede that leaving the EU by December is now an absurd, wasteful distraction? Not while the Prime Minister insists (via a spokesman) that he will reject any attempt to extend the Brexit transition period.

And quietly HS2 has been given the green light. Last week, construction firms like Costain, Balfour Beatty, McAlpine were all given the go-ahead to start work on the £100bn pound scheme (observing social distancing), because those working on the project deserved certainty. Really. And other suspended projects in housing, health, the care sector and private enterprise do not?

This huge vanity rail project was always dodgy, but now borders on the offensively irrelevant. Yet the UK Government seems determined to thunder on with a vainglorious prestige project that will see no meaningful return on investment and no boon to Britain north of Birmingham.

Our Tennesse Valley Scheme will be HS2. One massive, building project will be at the centre of efforts to reconstruct Britain. Despite new priorities, evidence that small, local investments “level up” faster, despite everything that’s happened - it’s economic pump-priming business as usual.

Planning Britain’s future obviously matters more than indulging in a blame game or raking over the ashes of past mistakes. But if we’re in for more of the same from Boris Johnson, whether we like it, back it or need it, what’s the alternative?

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