Johnson’s ‘get Brexit done’ cabinet once again found wanting

A-levels debacle just the latest blunder by low-quality cabinet not chosen for ability but for loyalty to his Brexit project

Students hold placards as they take part in a protest march  to the constituency office of Gavin Williamson,  Britain’s education secretary, to demonstrate against the downgrading of A-level results. Photograph:  Paul Ellis / AFP

Students hold placards as they take part in a protest march to the constituency office of Gavin Williamson, Britain’s education secretary, to demonstrate against the downgrading of A-level results. Photograph: Paul Ellis / AFP

 

It speaks to a particular character of Boris Johnson’s government that the highly gaffe-prone Gavin Williamson sits comfortably in the cabinet as secretary of state for education.

The ongoing A-level results debacle – that saw tens of thousands of students unexpectedly downgraded (specifically disadvantaging students from state schools) – is just the latest political storm for Williamson to weather.

No stranger to controversy, just over a year ago Williamson was sacked as defence secretary by former prime minister Theresa May for allegedly leaking confidential National Security Council information. And less severely, but no less embarrassingly, in the wake of the Salisbury poisonings of 2018 Williamson, pointing the blame squarely at the Kremlin for the attack, said: “frankly, Russia should go away and it should shut up”.

We should perhaps, then, not be too surprised that it was Williamson who has presided over this instance of the government’s mismanagement of Covid-19 and its litany of byproducts.

Despite warnings from the Education Select Committee as far back as July that the effects of standardising the results centrally could be disastrous, and despite the example of the Scottish exam fiasco to learn from, the department of education failed to act. Instead, it followed through with the original plan, believing an untested algorithm to be the fairest assessment of students’ academic performance.

It has been a well laboured point that if you input data gleaned from years of an unequal education system into an algorithm the results are likely going to be unfair. And they were. It seems the basic questions were not asked, and the likely problems the system would present totally un-interrogated.

Unequal system

Of course the A-level results row and subsequent U-turn is not solely the product of one incompetent cabinet minister. It too is a product of long-seated flaws in the broader political ecosystem, not least the damage years of austerity wrought on an education system already wracked with inequality; the failure – for which the government shares collective responsibility – to get children back to school to sit exams safely; and of course the arrival of a highly contagious and lethal virus on British shores.

Nevertheless, you might reasonably expect the cabinet minister responsible for education to resign in the wake of such an abject failure in education policy. But there is good reason to believe that Williamson’s position is secure, at least for now.

As more political crises loom he is too useful to dispose of: deflecting failures of government away from the prime minister and on to individual members of his cabinet could prove crucial to saving Johnson’s political skin down the line. But what this whole saga has revealed is something more foundational than cynical ploys to protect Johnson. In an unimpressive cabinet Williamson has stood out as an unimpressive member. But he is not necessarily an outlier.

Because the type of cabinet Johnson runs is not one designed at capitalising on the talent on the Tory benches, but rather one aimed at achieving ideological consistency and loyalty from its members.

Brexit loyalty

Upon getting the keys to number 10 – on the promise of achieving Brexit, come what may – Johnson set about avoiding all the mistakes of his predecessor. May faced a litany of insurmountable obstacles in her failed bid to secure Brexit: a Conservative party beholden to the whims of the DUP; and impossibly divided cohort of MPs; an abject lack of vision. But perhaps the most tricky of all for May’s ultimately failed attempt to push through Brexit was a totally ideologically incompatible cabinet.

Astutely identifying the design flaw that went straight to the heart of May’s government, Johnson was careful not to make the same mistakes. Opting for ideological compatibility above all else, Johnson did not face the same problems May did – and thanks to a seismic electoral victory and a much more favourable parliamentary arithmetic, was able to get Brexit over the line.

But what Johnson is now left with is a low quality cabinet not chosen for ability but for loyalty to his Brexit project. That political gambit may have been laudable if Covid-19 hadn’t emerged as the defining battle of Johnson’s premiership. It’s all well and good to avoid the errors made by your predecessor if the problems you face are identical in character and scale. Unfortunately for Johnson, that was not to be the case.

Of course when he made his bid for the leadership on the mantra of “get Brexit done” he could not have predicted that coronavirus would engulf any other political project. But that minor mitigating factor does not change the material circumstances he now faces: the cabinet is wholly inadequate and ill-equipped for handling a pandemic and its ripple effects. Williamson is simply the latest among the cohort to reveal this.

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