In 40 years of reporting I’ve never known such a wretched absence of leadership

Only a fool or one blinded by prejudice would demand infallible judgment during an almost — if not entirely — unimaginable crisis. But is it too much to ask our leaders to treat people as adults, and to grow up themselves?

John Pienaar www.thetimes.co.uk 

“Don’t you find it hard to stay impartial?” I get asked that a lot, and it’s a fair question when you’re a guest in someone’s home, as we radio presenters are when listeners tune in. More frequently now, it’s: “How do you think the government’s doing?”

The first one’s easy. Neutrality is not hard at all. It’s a habit I’ve grown used to since I was a green young political reporter and Margaret Thatcher was a fresh-faced prime minister who began as an embarrassingly wooden performer in the House of Commons and went on to define authority, conviction and resolve in her own image. It doesn’t always work out that way.

My second answer, consistent with the first, is that in 40 years of reporting and broadcasting about politics, daily and most weekends, I’ve never known a time when rational, mature leadership has been more needed and yet been so wretchedly absent.

Not since John Major’s election victory in April 1992 and, five months later, the calamitous sterling crisis on Black Wednesday has so much trust in the government gone gurgling down the pan so quickly. Then it was terminal for the Conservative Party; not so for the country. Now it’s awful for everyone, it’s unbearable for many and it may come to define Boris Johnson’s administration as hopelessly unfit.

Only a fool or one blinded by prejudice would demand infallible judgment during an almost — if not entirely — unimaginable crisis. But is it too much to ask our leaders to treat people as adults, and to grow up themselves?

Everyone can judge who was grandstanding in last week’s face-off between Downing Street and Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham. Millions of people with everything to lose were caught in the completely unnecessary political crossfire, and who needed that? For the sake of £5m.

With the best will in the world, since that bold first plan to weather the economic shock, has there been any clear sense that Johnson and his team have much of a clue how to handle the pandemic? Much, that is, beyond a drip-feed of evasive answers to reasonable questions, and tottering from day to day in search of new slogans and implausible gimmicks (such as Covid marshals and a “Moonshot” test-and-tracing plan even better than the “world-beating” one we have already). And occasionally seeking someone else to blame. Anyone. Maybe all of us.

True, it’s easy to call on ministers to own up to faults. Much harder to do. Any admission of error will always be stuffed back up that minister’s nose faster and harder than a swab in a Covid test. Perhaps we could all do with growing up a little where that’s concerned.

Team Johnson’s guiding strategy seems to be to continue fighting an election campaign he — and it — won emphatically 10 months ago. Only now the campaigning is being conducted so badly, it’s baffling. And as for Labour, Keir Starmer sometimes seems so afraid of losing an election still four years off, he’s wary of saying anything.

We’ve never been better informed and still left so clueless. Intricate, multicoloured charts decorate the newspaper front pages and news websites. They chart the virus, unemployment and public debt, and they come with thousands of words of high-octane expert analysis. Professors seem as familiar as contestants on Strictly Come Dancing.

Yet our future, our direction as a country, our place in the world, is anyone’s guess.

According to a survey reported last week, millennials now have less faith in democratic institutions than their parents or grandparents did at the same age. Ask people who’s the most persuasive and convincing voice for social justice today, and they’ll probably say Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford.

Today’s Conservative and Unionist Party looks to many lifelong Tories neither very Conservative nor especially unionist. I know of one of the most senior and prominent figures in the Better Together campaign of 2014 on Scottish independence, who is now privately convinced that the Union is lost.

If he’s right — and the latest polls suggest he may be — the government’s handling and mishandling of the pandemic is part of the reason. Another is Brexit.

We may or may not finally depart from the EU at the end of the transition period on December 31 with a trade deal. The former European Commission president José Manuel Barroso predicted to me on Times Radio that we will get an agreement, after a little more “theatre”. I’m willing to bet that he’s right.

But it’s maybe just as worrying that the prime minister gives a convincing impression of not much caring whether there is a trade deal or not. Like many of my age and younger, I was taught to think of Britain as a trading nation. I’ve always assumed the Conservative Party instinctively regards itself as the party of business.

How odd, then, to see business leaders invited to a Brexit briefing call with Johnson last week that left many of them convinced he was preparing to blame them for the failures and disruption of a disorderly Brexit that has not occurred and that he has the power to avoid.

At Westminster the audible whisper for weeks has been about Johnson’s lost “mojo” — even speculation that he may choose to call time on his premiership sooner rather than later. He attributed this chatter to malicious, embittered remainers. He’s wrong. The prime minister consults his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, about the mood of his MPs and the public. He’d probably learn more if he consulted his MPs and the public about his chief adviser.

Things could improve. There may be a Covid vaccine. Maybe even sooner than expected. The chairwoman of the UK’s vaccine taskforce, Kate Bingham, suggested to me it might — just might — pass its safety tests by the end of the year, though early 2021 was more likely.

The prime minister may rediscover his brio. And there may well be a Brexit deal, despite Johnson’s seeming insouciance on the subject. According to a Bloomberg report last week, EU leaders took a decision to help the prime minister out by depicting the outcome as a triumph of his leadership and negotiating skill. Johnson is known to enjoy a joke, sometimes at inappropriate moments. Yet I doubt he’d appreciate the irony of that.

Of course, it is possible that this crisis might have been handled worse. But, if I’m being perfectly honest, I can’t immediately see how that might have been accomplished.

John Pienaar is a Times Radio presenter

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