The prime minister’s habit of ignoring strategic challenges and leaving everything to the last minute is no way to run a country.
Boris Johnson’s government is too often caught unawares by events that were not only predictable but scheduled. The start of a new school term has been a feature of autumns for a lot longer than Gavin Williamson has been education secretary, yet arrangements for keeping classrooms safe from Covid-19 are still uncertain. Ministers cannot answer a question as simple as whether masks should be worn. As with the mess over exam results, guidance issued one day is contradicted the next.
The pattern is set by the prime minister. He deals in grand ambitions, not plans for their realisation. When things go wrong he shifts the blame, as he did on Wednesday when he suggested a “mutant algorithm”, and not ministerial incompetence, was at fault over the grading fiasco. The top civil servant at the education department is being ousted; the secretary of state responsible is not.
The problem is most extreme in relation to Brexit. Every stage of the UK’s uncoupling from the EU has been mapped out by treaty, including the expiry of transitional arrangements at the end of this year. By then, a free trade deal is supposed to have been negotiated and ratified. That is getting harder with each passing week. The impediment is British reluctance to recognise what is realistically available, or understand the imbalances of power in negotiations between a lone country and a continental trading bloc.
In June, the prime minister said he could see no reason why broad agreement might not be reached in July. But there was a reason, and he was it. Mr Johnson has not paid close attention, made choices or given his negotiators bandwidth for compromise.
The UK still demands pristine sovereignty, with no obligation to align its standards with EU markets, plus a right to subsidise domestic industries to a degree not permitted under Brussels rules. The EU will not grant privileged market access on those terms, because doing so would undermine its own industries. Eurosceptic hardliners say they would prefer no deal to any obligation to match continental standards.
Whether that is a bluff or not is a question that interests EU leaders less and less. They have other things to do. At the instigation of Germany, Brexit has been dropped from the agenda of a top-level European meeting next week on the grounds that there is nothing new to discuss. Mr Johnson knows what the options are – they range from close integration to something more distant, with tariffs and quotas – and he must choose.
But he doesn’t. Instead, the government still treats Brexit in the most superficial manner, as if the performance of readiness counts as the real thing. A report that Tony Abbott, a former Australian prime minister, might take on a senior trade advisory role is a case in point. Setting aside Mr Abbott’s notoriously rebarbative character, the appointment would be consistent with the myth, common among Brexit supporters, that trade deals are conjured into being by swaggering personalities.
The reality is that good outcomes in a trade deal are achieved by the application of time, attention to detail, experienced negotiators and a rational appraisal of the other side’s interests. The UK government is deficient on all those metrics.
As with the challenge of reopening schools, or grading exams never sat, the job does not get any easier with neglect. Leaving everything to the last minute, testing the fixity of deadlines, is a method that might have worked for Mr Johnson when he was a newspaper columnist, but it is no way to run a government. He operates one day at a time, stumbling from one problem to the next, with no sense of a strategic horizon. Such a man cannot safely settle the UK’s long-term relations with its neighbours. Nor, for that matter, should he be trusted with many other tasks required of a prime minister.