In a world crying out for strategic vision, humility, and seriousness of purpose, along come Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Among the reasons we feared they may have been catastrophically miscast, was the coruscating verdict on them delivered by their political peers and friends. Those closest to them, those with whom they had worked, those who had been able to watch them up close and personal, spoke with one voice of their capacity for mendacity, their reluctance to do detail, their overweening ambition. And, not least, that they cheated a lot. Often on their nearest and temporarily dearest.
As the guests departed Capitol Hill after Trump’s inaugural address, George W. Bush remarked to nobody in particular: “that was some weird shit.” George, you hadn’t heard nuthin’ yet. I have a ten cent theory about the appalling President of the United States. His behaviour is so disgusting, his childish outbursts so maniacal, his temper tantrums so frequent, that our shock thresholds have gone off the scale. Like many people, I followed him on Twitter out of curiosity, but now scroll past most of his posts.
Once we gasped as he serially unpicked Obama’s hard won legislative gains, modest enough as they were. Then we realised that whatever Obama had done was always going to be loathed by his successor. Still we were unprepared for Trump to blame Obama for deficiencies manufactured entirely on his own watch. Yet this is Trump’s most despicable party trick. Every time he fouls up he scrabbles around for someone – anyone – else to blame. It was China’s fault. It was down to the World Health Organisation. The state governors screwed up. And, always, disgracefully, “I was left a terrible mess to clean up.”
A backbone free Republican Party has refused to call out this infamy. A supine White House press corps, until recently, has lacked the bottle to flag up his daily contradictions. Only that sector of the media he roundly condemns as “fake” and “lamestream” has consistently been on his case. But now he has ventured beyond even his self serving pale. He has openly encouraged the deranged protestors who have been mobbing their state capitols demanding the measures to protect them from the virus be removed.
Trump has upped their ante by applauding efforts to “liberate” their state. He says they seem “respectable” people. That would be the roused rabbles sporting confederate flags and swastikas. Trump is mad, bad, and too dangerous for his country to know any more. To paraphrase: lock him up, protect America, save lives.
Mr Johnson, be thankful for small mercies, is not in Trump’s league. But the full extent of his detachment from essential realities was laid bare yesterday in an extraordinary investigation by the Sunday Times Insight team. It details his ignoring of serial warnings that Covid-19 was on the march, his failing to chair no fewer than 5 COBRA meetings. His penchant for never letting governing interfere with country weekends at leisure. The article confirms that the UK government were literally bystanders as the crisis bore down, losing 5 critical weeks in which no preparations were made, no essential planning done, no vital equipment sourced or ordered. (Right on cue, later yesterday, ministers started blame China for their own inactivity.)
Many people have suggested that the current cabinet are rudderless because Johnson is still convalescing. This detailed account suggests they have been rudderless all along, save for intermittent interventions from jester Johnson assuring the nation that all was well; everything was under control. We were “fantastically” well prepared. His, and our, problem is that this brand of jolly, gung ho rhetoric, whilst undoubtedly useful in playing to the gallery of the 160 odd thousand Tory party members who gave him the party leadership and, latterly, the premiership, is not a skillset useful for actually doing the job.
Nobody would have wished illness on him. And, though one intensive care specialist in the article suggests he “gilded the lily” when describing his condition, he was self evidently unwell in the days before his admission. His crimes of omission pre-date all of that. And they are all of a piece with the Johnson described by his Tory peers as lazy and untrustworthy. When the Telegraph, once admired for its news coverage, now little more than government pamphlet, ran a headline yesterday saying Johnson was taking back control, you have to wonder what control exactly?
The grasp he never actually had? The grip he never managed to take? As former cabinet secretary Amber Rudd presciently observed, he might be good fun at a party but you wouldn’t want him to drive you home. Or indeed be at the wheel of the UK’s Covid battle bus, with or without dodgy slogans on the side.
I noted that the First Minister, interviewed on a UK national station the other morning, said it would be no more than Scotland expected if she took any future decisions in the best interests of her own country. Presumably whether or not that chimed with whatever the UK cabinet comes up with as we navigate the next, equally crucial few weeks. And I wonder if she and her government now regret falling into line with the UK when they pulled the plug on testing and tracing last month. I have no way of knowing what reasoning informed that decision; whether a slice of Rishi Sunak’s sudden largesse was contingent on compliance.
I do know that the caution being urged by the Scottish government in easing the lockdown process is welcomed by the vast majority of this country, aware as they are, that to loosen strictures too early is to risk all those gains painfully won through the real sacrifices so many people are making. There will not be a posse of the hard of thinking picketing the Scottish government offices demanding to be “liberated”. And there will not be a trio of Scottish government spokespeople railing at China, the WHO or any other useful scapegoat.
This is a time for grown ups. The UK and US got a short straw.
First published in the National 20.4.20