The concept of ‘elite control’ has from time to time been a closer approximation to the realities of governing in the United Kingdom.
What, nonetheless, is virtually unique about the Johnson Premiership is the degree to which its policy style is most accurately described as a unilateralist one, consultation more often than not a matter of simply going through the motions for the sake of appearances.
Those networks that are tolerated take on an ultra-partisan form. It means there is arrogant disdain for those who know what the issues are and how they might best be addressed.
Also symptomatic is the removal of senior civil servants considered to be policy sceptics, along with executive and non-executive public appointments skewed in favour of those with shared mindsets. Indeed, at times it has seemed as if Johnson’s Government is intent on neutralising any potential sources of dissent.
The police have little or no confidence in Home Secretary Priti Patel.
The Government’s so-called ‘crime plan’ for example:
- Launched with little or no discussion
- Led senior police officers to express scepticism about a largely evidence-free and extraordinarily superficial set of policy proposals
- Thus a perfect description of the modus operandi: ‘weird and gimmicky’.
The teaching profession regards Education Secretary Gavin Williamson with little short of contempt
Health Secretary Sayid Javid is already a disaster zone as far as health workers are concerned
The Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has left highly successful creative industries filled with despair.
Four Ingredients in the Cocktail of Poor Governance
Firstly, there are the erratic policy swings, all too well documented.
Secondly, slogans become a substitute for substantive policy merit. This applies even to the fundamentals of Johnson’s 2019 general election campaign.
- Get Brexit Done: Brexit is not ‘done’ but instead a running sore, with a desperate search underway to identify opportunities it may present.
- Levelling-Up: after more than eighteen months this pitch still has no definitional clarity, criticised for complete lack of policy coherence.
There is an even more infamous case, going back to the very genesis of Johnson’s Premiership. In July 2019, on moving into Downing Street, he as good as announced a ready-made reform plan for social care tucked in his back pocket. Two years later, nothing; absolutely nothing, as ministerial agreement continued to founder.
Thirdly, politicians are responsible for taking account of policy interdependencies in pursuit of enlightened self-interest (leaving to one side any ethical considerations) which ordinary citizens cannot be expected to compute.
Merely pandering to populist prejudice serves only the cause of cynical political calculation. Yet, this is precisely what governments giving precedence to short-term electoral dividends do. Johnson’s Premiership provides a classic case of this phenomenon in the self-defeating cuts to overseas aid in the midst of a global pandemic.
Fourthly token consultation, hiding the reality of top-down control, not only leads to poorly-conceived policy but then feeds into problematic policy implementation and policy outcomes. How many ministerial initiatives intended to mitigate the worst consequences of COVID-10 turned out to be a pale reflection of declared policy objectives, not least in a struggling education domain?
Yet, when a country is so misgoverned, repercussions are not immediate and precipitous. It is a gradual, cumulative decline until disruption to everyday life becomes too endemic to avoid. That is a process now unfolding in the UK, with slow rupture to supply chains and economic markets, reflecting the combined effects of a hard Brexit and botched pandemic.