Boris Johnson has succeeded in achieving something no other sitting prime minister has done to date: he has made himself the target of excoriating criticism from not one or two, but three former leaders of his party, two of them also former prime ministers. It is an extraordinary indictment of his incompetence and his failure to take the business of governing this country seriously.
What prompted this was the unprecedented admission by one of his ministers that the government planned to break international law. In a Commons debate about the government’s internal market bill, the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, confirmed that in giving ministers the power to unilaterally overturn parts of the EU withdrawal agreement, the bill contravenes international law. In order to get there, the attorney general, Suella Braverman, had to, incredibly, assert in her legal advice that international law is trumped by parliamentary sovereignty, in contravention of the Vienna convention, and that the bill does not flout the ministerial code that places a duty on them to comply with the law.
This was an incendiary interjection during a critical week in the Brexit negotiations. If it was intended as a threat to bring the EU closer to the UK positions on the level playing field and fishing rights, it has backfired: the EU has threatened legal action if the government does not alter the bill by the end of the month. The UK’s threat to break a treaty it has already signed has further undermined trust and reduces the chance of the bare-bones free trade agreement that the government aspires to.
The real intention was, presumably, to signal to voters that the blame lies with the EU if no deal is reached, with all of the consequences that would have for an economy that has just suffered its biggest ever contraction as a result of coronavirus. It raises the question of whether there is any principle that Johnson would not trample over if it suits his political agenda.
In threatening to rip up the Good Friday agreement, which guarantees that there will be no border on the island of Ireland, even if that means introducing customs checks and, potentially, tariffs in the Irish Sea in the absence of a free trade deal, the government has further underlined its casual indifference to the Northern Ireland peace process. Any government that prioritised the longevity of the Good Friday agreement would have pursued a Brexit that kept the UK aligned with the single market and customs union; instead, Johnson has shown he is willing to play petty politics with a peace agreement that ended a conflict that cost thousands of lives.
Time and again, Johnson has shown that he is willing to take unconscionable risks in his political games
The consequences will be felt not just in our relationship with the EU but in our relationship with the United States: Democratic lawmakers have already said that there will be no trade deal with the UK if Brexit undermines the Irish peace process. There are also broader repercussions for Britain’s international standing. So much of our criticism of dictatorships and rogue states around the world is founded upon their disregard for the rule of law, from China to Russia to Iran. How can Britain claim to speak with any authority when this charlatan is our prime minister?
Time and again, Johnson has shown that he is willing to take unconscionable risks in his political games, regardless of the consequences. It is a Vote Leave approach to governing that prizes populist slogans over real change, soundbites that poll well over any attempt to govern with competence. We have seen the costs in the government’s mishandling of this pandemic; a number of unforced errors have contributed to Britain’s terrible excess death rate.
And now, as a former chief scientific adviser warns that the UK is on “the edge of losing control” of the virus, there are alarming signs that the government has not used the summer hiatus to get a grip. The test-and-trace system, absolutely key to minimising a second wave of infection, is seriously underperforming. In many areas of the country, it is proving impossible to book a coronavirus test. The government is failing to enable people who have symptoms to stay at home by increasing statutory sick pay from its pitiful level of £96 a week; little surprise then that rates of compliance with the guidelines around self-isolation are far too low when many parents simply cannot afford to take a hit of hundreds of pounds if a family member develops a cough or a temperature.
Instead of addressing these serious failings, the government has tried to distract from them with a pie-in-the-sky £100bn “moonshot” pledge to carry out up to 10m instant Covid-19 tests a day next year. Instead of making it financially possible to comply with its guidance, the government has sought to shift the blame for rising infection rates to the public, despite the mixed messages it sent suggesting that the worst of the virus was over. Instead of preparing for a second wave, it spent the summer picking fights: stirring up strife with anti-racist protesters and the teachers’ unions, and sacking civil servants while insulating ministers from the consequences of huge errors such as the A-level grades scandal.
This is the government we have as Britain heads into a dangerous autumn, on the cusp of a second pandemic wave and at the most crucial stage of Brexit talks yet. Just as we have rarely been more in need of sober and competent stewardship, we have a prime minister who regards politics as a game and who views fomenting culture wars as fruitful political strategy. His government’s response – to the avoidable loss of life, or the blighting of a whole generation’s life chances, or the threatened breakup of the union – is lamentable.