Published: 00:00 GMT, 21 December 2020 | Updated: 00:03 GMT, 21 December 2020
Prime ministers can make big mistakes and be forgiven. But sometimes an error is so defining of failure that the public never forgets.
John Major was doomed from the moment Britain crashed out of the European exchange rate mechanism – into which he had led the country two years earlier – in September 1992. The episode destroyed his, and his administration’s, reputation for competence. He could never recover.
Tony Blair was similarly a marked man after the 2003 Iraq War, though it took voters a long time to realise the extent of his chicanery and he was able to win the 2005 general election. But the eventual reckoning came, after which he was cast into the political wilderness.
Prime ministers can make big mistakes and be forgiven. But sometimes an error is so defining of failure that the public never forgets
Boris Johnson’s cancelling of Christmas will very likely live in people’s minds for as long as he is Prime Minister, and be held against him until he leaves No10. Although I can’t predict when that will be, I’ve little doubt he won’t be forgiven for what he has just done.
Note that not only the 16million inhabitants of the draconian new Tier Four are being deprived of Christmas. Even in the more favoured areas of England, festive ‘bubbles’ of up to three households can now just meet on Christmas Day, while people in the other UK nations are being similarly penalised.
It’s not the cancelling of Christmas per se that causes such resentment. When he addressed the nation last Wednesday afternoon, most people would probably have understood if the PM had said the five-day break over the festive season couldn’t go ahead after all.
Note that not only the 16million inhabitants of the draconian new Tier Four are being deprived of Christmas. Even in the more favoured areas of England, festive ‘bubbles’ of up to three households can now just meet on Christmas Day, while people in the other UK nations are being similarly penalised
If he had stressed there was a new mutant strain of the virus running amok in London and the South East – which was sequenced by scientists as far back as September – the public might have appreciated the need to alter arrangements.
As it was, the Prime Minister insisted that, while there were fresh guidelines, the mixing of up to three households over five days could still take place, and people should exercise their own judgment. In words which will forever cling to him, he declared it would be ‘frankly inhuman’ to ban Christmas.
So now, by his own definition, he has acted inhumanely. For nothing very significant happened in the three days between his first statement on Wednesday and his second on Saturday afternoon. Infection rates continued to rise in the capital and large parts of the South East.
A week ago today, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, told MPs that a new variant of Covid-19 associated with faster spread had been identified in south-east England. Boris Johnson was fully in the picture on Wednesday afternoon.
What changed between Wednesday and Saturday was not the lethality of the mutant virus. It was Boris Johnson’s mind that changed – doubtless under pressure from scientists who hadn’t approved of his decision. Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty looked as happy as a wet afternoon at the first press conference.
On that occasion, the Prime Minister, wishing to please and be the bearer of happy news, gave his endorsement to ‘a merry little Christmas’. To change his mind so quickly on so important a matter is unforgivable.
Why did he? Weakness and a lack of clear thinking played their part, to be sure. But there is something else. Generous hearted and well disposed toward humanity though he may be, Mr Johnson is frighteningly detached from the consequences of his decisions on ordinary lives.
It’s not decent and fair to allow people to raise their hopes for a family Christmas and then dash those hopes three days later. There is a carelessness and irresponsibility at the heart of Boris which leads me to question his fitness to be Prime Minister. There is an even darker possible interpretation.
The influential Tory backbench MP Sir Charles Walker suggested yesterday that the Government knew on Wednesday it was going to cancel Christmas, but delayed doing so because Parliament was still sitting and might have created a fuss. That would be contemptible if true.
What is surely beyond doubt is that Mr Johnson has been guilty of a huge betrayal of trust, for which he won’t be forgiven by many people – nor, I expect, by a number of his own backbenchers, some of whom are visibly losing faith in their unpredictable leader.
Moreover, there was something objectionable about the high-handed way in which the volte-face was accomplished on Saturday. We were treated to the familiar charade of unenlightening graphs by the gloomy duo of Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance.
Mr Johnson asserted that the new variant ‘may be up to 70 per cent more transmissible’ than previous versions of the virus. What does that mean? Where is the evidence? As so often during the pandemic, momentous decisions are taken on the hoof, and announced without proper elucidation.
Nor was there any awareness of the catastrophic economic effects of what amounts to another lockdown on London and the South East, which account for about a third of the UK’s GDP.
The influential Tory backbench MP Sir Charles Walker suggested yesterday that the Government knew on Wednesday it was going to cancel Christmas, but delayed doing so because Parliament was still sitting and might have created a fuss. That would be contemptible if true
Well, there wouldn’t be, would there? Mr Johnson listens only to the scientists, and they have little conception of the disastrous consequences for the economy – which means people’s lives – of their ruinous medicine.
Democratic governments are expected to behave in a reasonable fashion. If they are to govern effectively, decisions must be taken in an ordered and transparent way – the more so if we are being arbitrarily deprived of hard-won liberties.
Though it pains me to say it, this Government is all at sea, and Mr Johnson is losing authority fast. One consequence is that a growing number of people will no longer observe the ill-conceived regulations spewing out of an increasingly wayward No10.
Will Boris survive as Prime Minister? Not if he goes on like this, repeatedly chopping and changing, and withdrawing undertakings almost as soon as they are made. This is the man to whom, we are told, a supine Cabinet is happy to entrust the final decision about whether to accept a deal from the EU.
Maybe he can still save himself. But I doubt he will ever shake off the unhappy reputation of being the Prime Minister who betrayed the public over Christmas.
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