June 11 2024
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Shopping Trolley Government

Shopping Trolley Government

Governments can get away with being haphazard and chaotic.  Decisions can be made on the fly and off the cuff, with scant regard paid to evidence or expertise.  Provided it has the majority it needs in parliament, almost anything goes.  It is not the same in the courts.  For judges and lawyers, discretion and flexibility is minimal and constrained.  Evidence and expertise is paramount, with rules governing every element of the process.

This dichotomy was made real this week when Dominic Cummings, provocateur and sometime prime ministerial adviser, appeared before the Covid Inquiry.  He gave his evidence slouched in a chair, wearing a crumpled white shirt, his collar gaping loose, the barest nod to decorum his thin black necktie hanging loose.  Opposite him was his examiner-in-chief, Hugo Keith KC, dressed – as he has been throughout this inquiry – in a well-cut dark suit, a crisp shirt buttoned to the collar, his tie tied taut, and a small poppy pinned to his lapel.

Cummings’ evidence revealed just how chaotic a government can be while still – on some level – fulfilling its necessary functions.  Throughout the pandemic, the UK was governed by a ‘shopping trolley’, Cummings’ longstanding nickname for the prime minister he helped put in office, Boris Johnson (one later taken up by senior civil servants and ministers).  Some of the most important and complex questions of policy ever faced by a peacetime government were being answered by a triumvirate of lying incompetents, with Johnson flanked by Matt Hancock as health secretary and Rishi Sunak as chancellor.  Keith’s questions to Cummings were soaked with contempt.  He questioned whether Cummings’ tendency to denigrate government officials with the most visceral of terms was likely to have improved morale or performance, and whether his latent misogyny was a feature or a bug of his management style.  Cummings’ responses – that this motivated staff and that he treated everyone with contempt regardless of gender – were met with an almost raised eyebrow.

Nothing seems likely to come from this inquiry. It is the world’s most well-resourced and well-funded blame game.  Hours and hours of preparation and questioning for the most senior figures then in government to try and pass the buck, with Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson – the two most self-regarding and hubristic figures in a government well-stocked with them – still to appear.  Everything that has been disclosed so far was on some level already known, whether the fact that Johnson was easily distracted and easily manipulated, needing core issues distilled in WhatsApp messages for him to process them, or that Matt Hancock’s opinion of himself was so high that he was ‘loving’ the pressure and responsibility that came from being health secretary during the pandemic.

What it may serve as, however, is as a cautionary tale about the risks of prioritising the desires of party members over the instincts of the legislature.  Few Conservative MPs ever wanted Johnson in Number 10, but they gave in to pressure from the membership, putting him on the ballot. They knew he was shallow and lazy, interested in the trappings of power more than in exercising it responsibly. Claims that Johnson was the right prime minister at the wrong time are attempts to justify what was always a calamitous decision.  Every prime minister faces an occasion that they must rise to.  Johnson’s was just a particularly precipitous one.

This does not mean electing a staid, responsible leader comes without risks.  We have been given a taste of the problems a cautious, lawyerly attitude can bring in Starmer’s response to a question on Israel’s besieging of Gaza.  Rather than take the door marked ‘exit’ by condemning Israel’s severing of communications, water and resources, Starmer chose a more circuitous route.  He acknowledged the need to abide by international law, but was half-hearted on whether ‘cutting off power, cutting off water’ was a prime facie violation.  Such vacillation on whether Israel’s siege violated international humanitarian law may have been accurate – sieges are not presumptively unlawful – but politics has little time for legalistic nuance.

The response from Labour’s left-wing was swift and definitive.  Over one third of MPs have called for a ceasefire, with some of the shadow cabinet tip-toeing on the edge of collective responsibility in not backing the leadership.  Earlier this week, protesters massed outside of Chatham House as Starmer delivered a speech expanding on his reasoning.  Waving Palestinian flags and serenaded by the rattle of a snare drum, protesters screamed into megaphones, accusing Starmer of being a war criminal and of being complicit in the deaths of Palestinian children by failing to call for a ceasefire. ‘Every time Starmer lies, a Palestinian child dies’.  The nuance of his speech was ignored. Anything less than unfettered support for Palestine ‘from the river to the sea’, as the protesters chanted, was evidence of his betrayal of the Labour left and of the socialist cause. To them, Starmer is a hypocrite, willing to condemn Putin and to acknowledge that Russia has committed war crimes, but unwilling to levy the same accusations at Israel.

British politics has been led by the nose by chaotic extremists for almost a decade.  Fringe Eurosceptics found themselves on the inside in 2016, unexpectedly able to make decisions that they had fantasised about for decades and – even more unexpectedly – left dealing with the ramifications of those decisions. The natural apogee of this tale was the elevation of Boris Johnson, the golden calf of the radical right. With Starmer’s impending premiership, we will see a return to restrained lawyerly government, led by process and evidence rather than the gut desires of his party’s most radical members.  Much of his party, obsessed with principle over discourse and dogma over nuance, will rage at every compromise and every non-partisan act.  So far, Starmer has been firm in disregarding their siren call.  The bloody aftermath of the pandemic exposed in the Covid Inquiry shows us the importance of continuing to do so.

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