For many years, the phrase “Whitehall farce” denoted long-running comedies at the Whitehall theatre, a stone’s throw (or two) from Downing Street and assorted government departments. One of my favourite stories is of the time my friend the economist Lord Peston – father of the broadcaster Robert – returned unexpectedly to the office he shared with Lord Rix, once a star of Whitehall farces, and expressed his embarrassment at the sight of Rix changing for dinner with his trousers down. “No need to be so shocked, Maurice,” said Rix: “In the old days people used to pay to see me like this.”
Well, the lockdown may have closed theatres, but the Whitehall farce is alive and well, and has been taking place at least twice daily in Downing Street. We are undergoing the worst economic depression in memory – some believe in history – and we have as a prime minister a man who is all at sea and so dependent on his key adviser, Dominic Cummings, that he could not bring himself to sack him even though Cummings made a laughing stock of the government’s entire lockdown policy with his trip to Barnard Castle “to test his eyesight”.
It is true that Johnson could not reasonably have expected to have the premiership he had long wanted torpedoed by the Plague. In Cummings, however, he has an adviser who claims to have predicted it (although this claim was itself torpedoed by the revelation that an old blogpost of his had been altered to include a postdated prediction). Such is the degree to which standards in public life have fallen.
It has emerged from surveys that the chaotic state of public opinion on Covid-19 behaviour – that is, the breakdown of public trust in the government and the understanding of the rules – is attributable to the Barnard Castle episode, this government’s Black Wednesday moment. I am told that the government maintains that its focus groups tell a different story. All I can say is that, like Cummings himself, its focus groups need their eyes tested.
How do they confront these enormous events? They decide to conduct a war on the civil service whose loyalty and trust they require
It was one of Johnson’s more illustrious predecessors, Harold Macmillan – prime minister 1957-63 – who famously declared, when asked what he most feared, “the opposition of events”. At the time, Macmillan was having a crack at what he regarded as the feebleness of the opposition. Well, that may have also have been true of Labour under Corbyn, but Keir Starmer is proving a formidable opponent, and, for good measure, Johnson and Cummings have plenty of dissident Tories to worry about.
Anyway: this duumvirate face not only the unexpected event of the Plague but their own “oven-ready” event called Brexit. And what they are finding is that in real, as opposed to fantasy, life, Brexit is not the breeze they convinced themselves – and far too many unsuspecting souls – it would be.
So how do they confront these two enormous events? They decide to conduct a war on the civil service whose loyalty and trust they require, and quietly brief their Brexiter brethren that negotiations with the EU are going better than people realise, and that there is a reasonable chance of a “deal” after all.
Yes, the fiendishly clever duo foment speculation about no-deal, then learn from business and industry that this would be an economic catastrophe that would outweigh any fantasy gains from “global Britain”. Although there is still a lunatic fringe of Tories wanting a suicidal no-deal, the betting now is that there will be some sort of trade deal, which will soften the blow, and enable Johnson to claim that tough tactics with “Brussels” have paid off. The truth is, however, that leaving the customs union and the single market will still cause bureaucratic chaos at the ports for trade, and much chronic inconvenience for ordinary citizens. Those on whom this has not already dawned will realise that they have been conned.
However, like Macbeth, our Brexit government is “in blood stept in so far, that, should [they] wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.” I am reminded of a Remainer member of government who observed some time ago that he was inclined to stop opposing the nonsense and leave it to the Brexit crowd to sort out their own mess.
Meanwhile, with regard to the unexpected event which is consuming the nation, it has become obvious to everyone that the unpreparedness of the government for coping with the pandemic was exacerbated by the impact of a decade of austerity on the NHS. On which subject, the European partners we are about to leave are to be congratulated on their mammoth Marshall-style plan to rescue the EU economy. Even Germany has realised the dangers of austerity, and has, with France, been a leader in agreeing to assist their southern neighbours.
Long live the EU. I wonder how long it will take this country to reapply …