The Irish Times view on British government scandals: a question of judgment

There are straws in the wind to suggest that Boris Johnson’s vaccine bounce may be faltering

British prime minister Boris Johnson has a reputation for not being able to fire people. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA/Bloomberg

British prime minister Boris Johnson has a reputation for not being able to fire people. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA/Bloomberg

 

‘The prime minister considers the matter closed,” Boris Johnson’s spokesman told the press on Friday following an apology from then health secretary Matt Hancock for what he described delicately as his breach of social distancing. The next day it was Hancock who told Johnson he would leave. As one columnist observed, “If Boris Johnson had his way, Hancock would still be health secretary this morning”.

There was never really any doubt that Hancock would indeed have to depart. His undermining of the rules he himself had crafted and for which he was responsible for mobilising public support was so egregious that the real question is why Johnson ever thought he could stay. And what does it say about the political judgment and competence of the British prime minister?

Johnson has a reputation for not being able to fire people. Dressed up by his acolytes as commendable loyalty to colleagues, the trait is not, however, one which is recommended for chief executives or political leaders.

Not least because it means governing with incompetents, or worse, and the British cabinet is by no means a team of all the talents. The return of the competent administrator Sajid Javid to the cabinet might indeed be seen as the saving grace of the weekend fiasco.

What does it take to be fired, one minister was asked. Home secretary Priti Patel survived a scandal over bullying her staff, housing secretary Robert Jendrick over alleged favours for a business friend and, of course, there was former adviser Dominic Cummings’s extraordinary car trip.

As long as the public doesn’t seem to mind, was the minister’s reply. But there are straws in the wind to suggest that Johnson’s popularity may not be as solid as he would like to think, and that the pandemic bounce may be faltering. This month’s Chesham and Amersham byelection loss of a safe seat suggests earlier regional election gains may not be that solid away from the Red Wall seats of the north. Public anger over Hancock may suggest Johnson’s touch is not so sure.

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