Are we nearly there yet? It is the backseat question that haunts long journeys, except in Britain’s pandemic road trip the impatient whine comes from the driver. Boris Johnson was itching for a release from the moment the ordeal began. He was absent from early meetings of the government’s emergency response committee, unpersuaded that Covid-19 counted as an emergency. Only when presented with dire consequences did he engage with the need for a lockdown, writhing into submission like a toddler being strapped into a car seat.
Now the prime minister feels the journey must be nearly over, but finds it hard to judge this without a definite destination. The virus will not surrender and give him the satisfaction of declaring a victory day. Impatience for life after Covid does not resolve the problem of how fast to go. Infection rates are promisingly low, but simulating pre-pandemic normality too hastily risks reversing those gains.
There is no perfect calibration of the rules, only judgment calls of the kind that Johnson is notoriously ill-equipped to make. There are few neater illustrations of his incoherent governance than a traffic-light system for managing overseas travel that expanded from the traditional three colours to a shaded spectrum, unknown in any highway code, that included green, green watchlist, amber, amber-plus and red.
The same problem bedevils vaccine passports. They exist in the hazy netherworld between things that are briefed to the press and actual government policy. Johnson is reported to be irritated by what he sees as a lackadaisical uptake of the jab in younger people. He is also ideologically indisposed to anything mandatory, and afraid of rebellious Tory MPs whose convictions on that front are non-negotiable.
This leaves ministers treading an awkward line between invitation and coercion. The idea of denying unvaccinated university students access to lectures was floated then dismissed. There is confusion about the practicality, ethics and parliamentary arithmetic involved when the state compels people to have injections that they might otherwise refuse. Dominic Raab characterises the government’s approach as “a little bit of coaxing and cajoling”. That implies something less enforceable than law.
The public has been more tolerant of the state micromanaging its movements over the past 18 months than the Tory MPs who claim to speak for the nation. Jacob Rees-Mogg says vaccine passports are “not a British way to behave”. He objects on the grounds that “ancient freedoms” would be imperilled. That is only true if the law ends up badly written by a government that cannot be trusted with extraordinary powers – a valid concern with Rees-Mogg in the cabinet. He was Johnson’s main accomplice in the plan to unlawfully dissolve parliament as an expedient to accelerate Brexit.
In that instance, outraged remainers were frustrated by British complacency when the constitution was violated. With Covid regulations, it is the Tory libertarians who are disappointed that the public will not meet them in highest dudgeon.
Compliance with Covid rules has been generally strong and self-policing. The initial decree to stay at home was obeyed to a degree that surprised even the ministers who issued it. The threshold of national goodwill was tested not by the draconian law but the perception that it was selectively applied. Dominic Cummings’ excursion to Barnard Castle and Matt Hancock’s extramarital office snog were tangential to the business of government, but those episodes damaged Johnson more than any other feature of his pandemic record; more than the deaths that might have been avoided by better decision-making from Downing Street.
The prime minister does not escape blame for the fatalities, but that anger is strongest among people who were ill-disposed to Johnson before the pandemic. The same goes for corruption. Voters who were already primed to think the worst of any Tory government find their sourest expectations vindicated by the chronicles of venality: contracts awarded to cronies; Whitehall capture by lobbyists; secret cliques of high-rolling donors; cash for access; opaque funding schemes for the prime minister’s flat and foreign holidays.
None of the chumocracy charges have detonated with the force of stories that lockdown rules were flouted. That isn’t surprising. The Cummings and Hancock adventures were personal – a punch in the guts to everyone who had abstained from hugging their grandchildren or buried their dead by Zoom.
But there is a slow burn to sleaze. The common theme is arrogance with power and a view that following the rules is for little people and mugs. The whole business of VIP fast lanes for public procurement and backstage passes to Whitehall cuts against a sense of orderliness and decency that is baked deeper into British culture than the abstract freedoms that Rees-Mogg would trace back to the Magna Carta.
In the hierarchy of things that cost a government its support, a law that is unsound in principle comes below a feeling that the rules are arbitrary. A recent dip in Tory poll ratings is doubtless connected to the sense that the government is making it all up as it goes along. And that comes below the greatest offence of all, which is that rules are not what they seem, applied slyly in a way that lets cheats prosper.
The prime minister is sincere enough about liberty and too inattentive to detail to make a consistent authoritarian. His is a more infantile brand of tyranny that demands control yet is afraid of responsibility. It is a trait that flows not from any doctrine, but from the temperament that sees rules as a personal discomfort and treats duty as an invitation to defiance. Johnson wears the responsibilities of his office much as he wears his clothes: askew for theatrical effect.
That performance is integral to his appeal, but the quality that voters first find attractive in leaders can be a predictor of their undoing. There was a maverick charm in disregarding protocol and cutting legal corners when the purpose was getting Brexit done. The same ethos is more obnoxious when applied in service of Tory donors or indulgence of rule-bending allies.
No violation of constitutional principle could appal the British spirit more than queue jumping. That tendency may not be the most prominent aspect of Johnson’s government, but it is a persistent enough feature to breed resentment over time. It is a problem that will outlast the present policy dilemmas of the pandemic. The current challenge is choosing the right rules. But the origin of uncertainty and incoherence, as with corruption, is a prime minister who is himself governed by the principle that rules do not really matter.