A Government aided by “superforcasters” who struggle to see into next week, particularly terrible at forecasting the consequences of their own actions.
Andrew Rawnsley www.theguardian.com
When Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner published their much-discussed book, Superforecasting, one admiring reviewer thought it contained essential lessons for governing. He wrote: “Forecasts have been fundamental to mankind’s journey from a small tribe on the African savannah to a species that can sling objects across the solar system with extreme precision. In physics, we developed models that are extremely accurate across vastly different scales from the sub-atomic to the visible universe. In politics, we bumbled along making the same sort of errors repeatedly.”
Presumably in the hope of improving the government’s powers of prediction, Dominic Cummings, for he was that reviewer, put Superforecasting on the summer reading list that he issued to ministerial advisers. Alas, it does not appear to have enhanced the ability of the prime minister, his visually challenged colleague or anyone else in this government to see into the future. These are members of a regime that struggles to see into next week. They are particularly terrible at forecasting the consequences of their own actions.
The expression on the face of Number 10 is that of a man who never looks where he is going and is then constantly surprised to find that he has stepped in dog excrement. There is an ever lengthening list of things that they could be reasonably expected to have anticipated and yet didn’t. They did not foresee that using an algorithm to depress the A-level grades of thousands of young people would distress them and dismay their parents. They did not foresee that a campaign fronted by an eloquent football star to extend the provision of free school meals would strike a chord with the public. They did not foresee that applying a surcharge to foreign-born workers staffing the NHS would cause a massive backlash.
Multiple debacles, rebellions and reverses have even some of those who were once Boris Johnson’s most fervent cheerleaders in despair. This persistent blundering has flowed from a fundamental inability to read the public mood or get on top of events. Throughout the coronavirus crisis, the government has been constantly behind the curve. How did Mr Cummings put it? “We bumble along making the same sort of errors repeatedly.”
They are no better in their specialist subject of Brexit. When Mr Johnson signed the withdrawal agreement with the EU that he sold to the British public as “fantastic”, he failed to foresee that he would soon afterwards describe the agreement as so dreadful that he would have to threaten to break it. When he made the declaration that he was ready to violate international law, he failed to foresee that this would trigger condemnation from every living former prime minister and many senior Brexiters.
In normal times, this inability to anticipate the consequences of its own decisions would be an embarrassing trait in a government. In the context of the Covid catastrophe, it is a deadly characteristic. When infection rates were surging across Europe at the outset of the pandemic, ministers did not foresee that it would be folly to allow race meetings and football matches to carry on as normal. Among other things they did not foresee was the fatal consequences of decanting elderly patients from hospitals into care homes without first checking whether they were free of the virus.
Seven months into the pandemic, and with alarming signs of a swelling second wave, some have learned from the benefit of experience. Scientists have a better understanding of the virus and doctors have improved their methods of treatment. Yet the government’s skills of prognostication are not showing a matching degree of improvement. As the number of hospitalisations accelerates upwards, roughly doubling every eight days, it has again been found wanting in relation to testing for infection. There is particular anger among MPs and those they represent in virus hotspots, where it is particularly vital that testing happens rapidly, that people are being told there are no appointments available or that they will have to travel hundreds of miles to get a swab.
In response to the outcry, Dido Harding, the Johnson-appointed head of the testing effort in England, tried to argue that the system is the victim of an unanticipated surge in demand. Not so. This spike was both predictable and predicted. Since the early summer, the government has been urging people to return to the office and bring “bustle” back to high streets. Many Britons have been travelling around the country or holidaying abroad. The reopening of schools has brought the usual seasonal spread of start-of-term coughs and sniffles. You didn’t need to be the world’s smartest epidemiologist to anticipate that a large expansion of social contact would increase the potential vectors of infection for disease. And that, in turn, would lead to a surge in demand for tests.
Sometimes ministers have foolishly implied that the public is at fault for putting too much stress on the system. It is true that there are people without symptoms seeking tests because a family member or workmate may have contracted the virus. It is entirely natural that people will take a precautionary approach. “Play it safe” has been the thrust of government advice for months. That has been accompanied by repeated ministerial exhortations to remember that the disease can often be asymptomatic, especially among younger people. Public expectation that the system would have the capacity to provide a test to anyone who wanted one has been further fuelled by the constant prime ministerial hyperbole that the government is building a “world-beating” system. In mid-July, Matt Hancock implied universal availability by urging people to get tested if they had “any doubt” about being infected. Now the health secretary plans to ration access.
The testing chaos, coming in the wake of so many other fiascos, has the Tory press beginning to wonder whether Mr Johnson is fit to be in Number 10. “WHY ARE THEY STILL FAILING THE TEST?” demands the Daily Mail. “Losing Track” and “Johnson Adrift” were the lead editorials on successive days in the Times. The cover headline of the most recent edition of the Spectator, which is usually very friendly to its former editor, asks “Where’s Boris?” and is accompanied by a cartoon depicting him alone in an oarless boat on a heaving sea.
This echoes the wail of Tory backbenchers that the prime minister needs to “get a grip” and “rediscover his mojo” and “give us a sense of direction”. The implication is that the remedy for a wretched performance is for Mr Johnson to impose more of his personality on the government.
This has it precisely the wrong way round. His character is the central source of the repeated inability to anticipate and address challenges. All governments absorb the character traits of the person at the top. The person at the top of this government doesn’t think through the consequences of his actions, is cavalier about detail and bored by complexity, prefers the quick hit of a snappy populist slogan to the steady slog of competent administration. All this was known about him long before the Tory party made him its leader. His flaws as a prime minister are a revelation only to those who wilfully ignored his biography and his record.
He has spent a career living for today and letting tomorrow take care of itself. Colleagues and ex-wives can testify to his compulsion for over-promising and then under-delivering. He has been a gusher of dramatic and bogus predictions of what his government will achieve – “a moonshot” this, a “game-changing” that – because spouting wildly boosterish claims is so much easier than getting stuff done.
Funnily enough, the book Superforecasting identifies one of the core reasons why this government is failing. “The worst forecasters were those with great self-confidence who stuck to their big ideas,” wrote Mr Cummings himself. They are lousy at understanding the world and coming to good judgments about it. “The more successful were those who were cautious, humble, numerate, actively open-minded, looked at many points of view.” Now, which is a better description of the Johnson-Cummings method of government? “Cautious, humble, numerate, actively open-minded, looked at many points of view”? That doesn’t sound like them at all. “Great self-confidence”, which leaves them stubbornly wedded to their “big ideas”? That’s much more like it.
Their biggest idea of the moment is that leaving the EU’s single market without a deal would be fine even in a double-whammy combination with a re-escalation of the coronavirus crisis. Bear in mind his previous record as a soothsayer when the prime minister confidently predicts that a crash-out Brexit would be a “good outcome”. I hazard a guess that this is his most calamitously wrong forecast of all.
- Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer