François Mitterrand once said that the most essential single attribute for success in politics is indifference. France’s former socialist president possessed that quality to his core. His views could turn on a centime, from right to left to centre and back again, as the political situation and his own power required. Indifference, skilfully translated into policy and action, was an essential driver of his 14-year presidency.
Boris Johnson is blessed – which may not be the right word – with an indifference of his own. Johnson is lightly encumbered with political principles, since he believes in little except himself. He famously wobbled about which side to take on Brexit. His instinctive capacity for indifference took him right to the top of the greasy pole. If that is his blessing, his curse is that, unlike Mitterrand, he could not then turn it into effective government action.
On his first day giving evidence to the UK’s Covid-19 inquiry, Johnson wrapped himself in the cloak of indifference. In the middle of the morning, the inquiry counsel, Hugo Keith, confronted Johnson with a list of angry WhatsApp verdicts from No 10 insiders about his government’s failure to take the right decisions at the right time during the pandemic. He quoted the cabinet secretary Simon Case – Johnson’s choice for the job, remember – saying that he had “never seen a bunch of people less well-equipped to run a country”.
For any other figure facing a public inquiry of this kind, this would be a genuinely perilous moment, exposing them to charges of indecisiveness and failure to lead. Yet Johnson revelled in it. This was what politics is like, he replied, visibly relaxing after some sticky earlier exchanges. Angry views were wholly to be expected, he said. If WhatsApp had existed when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, the mandarinate would have been revealed as equally angry and critical with her.
Except that they would not. Johnson was wrong about that. In their different ways, prime ministers such as Thatcher, Clement Attlee or Tony Blair – the trio of postwar premiers whom Keir Starmer invoked this week for their achievements – all knew their own minds, perhaps to a fault at times. If WhatsApp had existed back in Thatcher’s 1980s pomp, there might have been complaining ministers and advisers. But every one of them would have been complaining about the firmness or wrongness of her views – not that they were unclear, as they were in Johnson’s case.
Whatever else you can say about Thatcher, Attlee or Blair, they were all up to the job of being prime minister. Inside their heads, all three had an idea of Britain that they were in Downing Street to try to achieve. The same is not true of Johnson. Unlike fanatical Brexiteers, he lacked any idea of the kind of Britain he sought to create, except one that would glorify and gratify him. He was in Downing Street not because of what he wanted to do but because of what he wanted to be. He was there because he wanted to be prime minister.
Unlike Attlee, Thatcher and Blair, however, Johnson was not up to the job. Michael Gove told the inquiry last week that Johnson liked to listen to contending arguments about courses of action before coming to a decision. He called it a gladiatorial method of policymaking. It was sometimes the way Attlee governed too. But it is useless if you don’t take the decisions once the arguments have been laid out. And in a crisis like a pandemic, it is fatal.
Yet this was what happened with Johnson. Much of Wednesday’s afternoon session returned to the question of whether the first lockdown in March 2020 should have been called earlier. Keith led Johnson through the crucial days in mid-March, when the argument inside government moved more decisively towards lockdown – a moment at which, according to Matt Hancock last week, 30,000 otherwise lost lives could have been saved by an earlier imposition.
Johnson told the inquiry that he was “more or less in virus-fighting mode” by 15 March. Note the slippery language. Not so, countered Keith, you were oscillating. There was a “seemingly perennial debate in your own mind”. Dominic Cummings was still complaining on 19 March that Johnson “still won’t absorb it”. My job was to test the policy, Johnson countered. The lockdown did not start until 23 March. Perhaps it was a poor example of leadership, Keith whispered gently, as his stiletto went in.
The historian AJP Taylor once wrote that the first world war-era prime minister, David Lloyd George, could arouse “every feeling except trust”. The same is true of Johnson. The two prime ministers, a century apart, had other things in common too. “He cared nothing for the conventional rules – neither the rules of personal behaviour nor those economic rules of free enterprise,” adds Taylor. “Lloyd George lived in the moment, a master of improvisation.” He could almost be describing Johnson there.
But there is one absolutely crucial difference. Unlike Lloyd George, Johnson was lazy. Lloyd George could also take a decision. He may not have had a plan, and he certainly did not have a system. In that respect, he was quite similar to Johnson. But, as Taylor puts it: “When faced with a difficulty, he listened to the ideas of others and saw, in a flash, the solution.” It is the difference between a great national leader who saved his country in a crisis and a fraudulent one who did not.
Johnson suffers from a fatal combination of qualities in any leader. He combines indifference to principles and disregard for others with disorganisation of mind and behaviour, and indecisiveness and laziness in action. These qualities have never been hidden. They are part of the role he played in public life. Yet in the unlikely event that anyone switched on the live coverage of the inquiry to see Johnson for the first time, they will have been aghast.
Seeing him in action once again, and with more to come on Thursday, it is the reckless incompetence and manifest unsuitability that stand out most. Three-quarters of this country thinks Johnson handled Covid badly. The Conservative party members who gave Britain such a leader, and the electors who then voted him into office, will have to carry the shame of it with them to their graves.
Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist