Dear Prime Minister, dear Boris
Just over a year ago I wrote an open letter congratulating you on your election as leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party and your appointment as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In this letter I encouraged you to take a different approach to the negotiations with the EU over Brexit and I encouraged you to maintain your self-belief and the ability to rouse positive spirit. I said “Do not worry, Boris about what the media says”. However, I must confess I’m beginning to see that I was wrong. I think you do need to worry about what the media says when all of them, practically without exception, are saying on a daily basis that your government is in chaos and reeks of incompetence. Sir Nicholas Soames, grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, who is both your hero and mine, has said that the present cabinet is the worst he’s seen in his lifetime. The distinguished historian Sir Max Hastings has said it’s the worst in a century.
This week I attended a Zoom call together with 500 other people in the eastern counties of England in which you took questions for half an hour in Loughborough University which you were visiting. The session was chaired by your Chief Whip, Mark Spencer, and the questions had clearly been preselected as in registering for the event each of us was asked to submit the question that we would put you. This is a perfectly legitimate process but I would have thought that something as simple as that could still have been managed in an efficient way. Instead, of the 13 questions no less than four were about the recent crisis in schools, two coming from schoolboys affected by the crisis. One was about the US election in which you correctly said that you could not take a view. What was the point of including that question? There were no questions about the pandemic or the resulting economic crisis. You answered some questions very well indeed, particularly on China where you distance yourself from David Cameron’s apparent policy of trying to change China through engagement. You said, in my view correctly, that we need both to engage in collaboration and partnership where that can be mutually beneficial but that we had to be robust and stand-up to be counted when China broke international law. You were also typically robust over the Labour Party where you memorably said that their whole economic view of the world is not viable.
However, even the choice of questioners seemed to have been mismanaged. I have nothing against any of the individuals but only two of the 13 questioners were women and this greatly enraged many of the women on the call as the chat room overflowed with observations about the apparent bias in the sample.
It is clear, Prime Minister that you are an outstanding political campaigner. You won two mayoral races in London which has a natural majority for the Labour Party. You were the foremost campaigner in the successful Brexit campaign and on becoming Prime Minister and finding that the House of Commons had become a block on progress you called a general election and won a very handsome majority of 80. But the qualities that are required to win such campaigns are not the same as those that are required to conduct the business of government and execute difficult but necessary changes. You cannot be blamed for the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic though previous governments can certainly be blamed for a lack of preparedness for such an event. But you must take responsibility for the sloppy handling of the crisis which has led to numerous delays and one of the worst rates of mortality on a per capita basis in the world. Your daily messaging of “Stay Home; Save the NHS; Save Lives” has had three perverse effects. People have stayed home, more than in most other countries, which is killing large parts of the economy. The NHS has not been saved, it has been distorted with many more deaths expected from other illnesses where appointments and treatments have been cancelled or delayed. And lives have not been saved with one of the highest rates of deaths per million in the world.
Your government over a relatively short period of time has conducted numerous U-turns, recently over the exam grading fiasco, further extension of the ban on landlords initiating eviction proceedings against renters, mass testing for coronavirus, the NHS contract-tracing app, free school meals in the summer holidays, the visa surcharge for foreign NHS workers, residency rules for families of deceased foreign NHS workers, electronic voting in the House of Commons, reopening primary schools for all pupils in the summer term, quarantine for people returning from overseas, and allowing Huawei to supply equipment to 5G mobile phone networks.
It may be that a government is correct to stand resolute in defence of a particular policy because of its certainty that it’s right for the country and will be justified over time. At other times it may become clear that a policy that looked right in theory won’t work in practice and it is then sensible to change course. But your government has often carried on defending way past the point where it’s clear that it wasn’t working either in theory or in practice.
A government that constantly changes its mind or frequently gives in when under pressure simply appears weak and will soon lose public confidence. In the opinion polls, which of course you see, Labour is closing the gap while Kier Starmer, the Labour leader, is seen as someone who would make a better Prime Minister than yourself. I actually see no evidence for that latter point as you said on the Zoom call this week that he doesn’t so much U-turn as not take a point of view at all. In hock to the unions he has not even supported you on the call for the schools to reopen.
But even with your majority in parliament I believe that when it reopens in the coming week you will find it very difficult to keep full support from your backbenchers if you cannot get a grip of your cabinet and make sure that you are not sending out your backbenchers to defend unpopular policies that are then junked.
There is also a very worrying trend that your ministers refuse to accept the moral consequences of their failures by resigning while you, or your advisers or someone anyway, has made several senior civil servants resign in the last few months. You need the civil service to be motivated to execute your programme. As an example the decision to close Public Health England in the middle of this pandemic is absurd. It was not responsible for the delay in introducing the lockdown at the start of the pandemic nor did it make the decision to send elderly patients out of hospital into care homes without first testing for the virus. These two catastrophic decisions, which are firmly the responsibility of your government and its advisers, are responsible for the high mortality rate. It may be that your personal experience of the virus has affected your judgement. The rate of infection is not the critical issue but rather what you should look at is the number of hospitalisations and the number of deaths. Your decisions on almost a daily basis to insist on imposing quarantine on people returning from countries many of whom have a better record of managing the pandemic that we do defy logic. Switzerland has one of the best health care systems in the world. They have a very high rate of testing and so have found more cases than we have per 100,000. Gibraltar has tested 95% of its population and no doubt you will take them off the green list for the reason that they are doing a better job of track and trace than our miserable efforts.
Your decision to hold a daily press briefing in the manner of the White House is extremely unwise. It suggests that your preferred style of government is presidential which if true would be abandoning the constitutional principles of parliamentary government by which this country has been governed for hundreds of years. You will find that the broadcasters will not fully cooperate in the way that you wish and may only cover your broadcasts on the basis of news value. This puts pressure on you to make sure that there is some tasty news item in every broadcast and that will lead to even worse decision-making without proper consultation and thinking through all the elements. So I predict that if you go down this route the number of U-turns will multiply rather than reduce.
I am particularly concerned about the White Paper that you recently introduced on planning reforms. These appear to go further down your route of centralising power, exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. Planning is best understood at the local level and if there are issues with local authorities then the answer is not to restrict their power but to make sure they are properly financed and the best way of doing that is to allow them to raise taxes at the local level. Your White Paper will certainly lower the delivery of affordable housing since the plans raise the exemption level from developments of 10 units to those of 40. The White Paper simply doesn’t deal with problems but creates new ones. Already about 90% of planning applications are approved, and there are currently more than a million houses granted planning permission over the past decade that haven’t yet been built. In the Conservative government’s own Letwin review in 2018 it found that the main driver of lack of supply and slow construction rates isn’t the planning system but the rate at which new houses can be built and sold without bringing down local prices, thus reducing incentives for builders to build.
You may even find that most opposition to your proposals comes from your own party as it is likely to increase building in the suburbs which largely elect Conservative MPs rather than in the cities which largely elect Labour MPs. Indeed when Labour’s Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott proposed a very similar model to your plans back in 2002 senior Conservatives attacked them as “Stalinist”.
I’m afraid that the obsession that politicians have with top-down management and centralisation almost always means their efforts backfire. I hope you can learn this lesson quickly; otherwise your premiership is not going to be remembered for the Golden Era that you spoke of at its beginning.
With best wishes