This government is a shambles. More and more people say so: not just Keir Starmer but Tory backbenchers, not just Piers Morgan but the Financial Times, not just leftists on Twitter but the Daily Mail. The list of Boris Johnson’s failures – over coronavirus and in just about every other policy area – gets longer every week. Ministers are objects of mockery and contempt.
Government incompetence matters, especially during a pandemic. But it’s also an easy charge to make – almost too easy. It comes naturally to disillusioned voters, who don’t trust politicians anyway; to civil servants, with scores to settle after government cuts; and to journalists, who enjoy judging the powerful and describing Whitehall meltdowns.
Accusing Boris Johnson’s government of ineptness suits a broad range of political interests, too. All those inside and outside his party who warned for years that he would make a disastrous premier can now say, I told you so. Anyone who voted for a Jeremy Corbyn government last year – supposedly such a terrifying threat – can plausibly argue that it wouldn’t have been as chaotic as this. Meanwhile, supporters of the ambitious chancellor, Rishi Sunak, seemingly one of the government’s few capable figures, can suggest that he should replace Johnson sooner rather than later. And centrists of all parties can feel vindicated in one of their core beliefs: that managing the existing state machinery well is better than trying to radically change the system.
The Conservatives have gradually managed to detach their political fortunes from their failures in government
You could even argue that the current clamour for competent government has some things in common with its supposed opposite – the populism that helped put Johnson in power. Like populism, the call for competence appears to be above party politics. It feeds off widely held feelings of loss and outrage. And it often avoids saying how the country ought to be ruled, except in the vaguest terms – “competently” is not a programme for government.
Yet in spite of these limitations, you’d expect a demand for competence to be a powerful weapon against Johnson. The charge of ineptness has brought down many British premiers less calamitous than this one, from Edward Heath and Jim Callaghan in the 70s to John Major in the 90s to Theresa May last year. For decades, academics and political pundits have agreed that a degree of rigour in office is required for any British government to be re-elected. As the political scientists Jane Green and Will Jennings put it in their 2017 book The Politics of Competence: “Competence is a necessary condition of electability.”
But that was before Johnson took office. Last December, after a brief first premiership dominated by parliamentary defeats and undignified concessions to the EU over Brexit, he won the biggest Tory majority for 32 years. This year, despite all their further blunders, the Conservatives have held on to almost all of their large 2019 vote share, according to the polls.
Most startling of all, the proportion of people still planning to vote Tory is significantly higher than the proportion who think the government is competent. This seemingly impregnable Tory base helps explain why ministers as hopeless as the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, haven’t resigned or been sacked – and also why their expressions of contrition are so cursory when they are confronted about their mistakes by the press. Appearing competent – at least in the way that term is conventionally understood – is no longer a priority for Conservative voters or politicians.
Instead, the government has other projects: centralising power, limiting parliamentary democracy, rewarding party donors such as property developers, and awarding public sector contracts to companies with Conservative connections. In these tasks it has so far been pretty effective – you could even say competent.
The cleverness of all this shouldn’t be overstated. The quite widespread belief among non-Tories that every episode of government chaos is part of a Dominic Cummings masterplan – a diversionary tactic or a deliberate disruption – credits him and the Conservatives with more cunning and calmness than they have, when a lot of what’s happening is political opportunism. Even much more able and strategically minded Tory governments, such as Margaret Thatcher’s, struggled to manipulate the frequently random flow of political events. Often, a Whitehall meltdown is just a Whitehall meltdown; and Johnson’s discomfort when called to account for them by Starmer in the Commons feels too strong to be faked.
Yet it’s undeniable that the Conservatives have gradually managed to detach their political fortunes from their failures in government. The last time a Tory administration was terminally damaged by an episode of incompetence was more than a quarter of a century ago, in 1992, when Major’s sterling policy collapsed on Black Wednesday.
Many observers, and especially Labour ones, concluded that competence in office was politically essential. “What counts is what works,” declared Labour’s successful 1997 election manifesto, and the party governed Britain accordingly, producing modest, workable solutions to the country’s large problems, such as tax credits and the minimum wage. But many Britons barely noticed these policies: the Labour vote fell sharply at the 2001 and 2005 elections, and the party lost power in 2010.
In office since, the Tories have produced a succession of policies that are more ambitious but less practical – austerity, reorganising the NHS, universal credit, Brexit – and their vote share has risen at each election. For a large minority of Britons, it seems, exactly what the Conservatives do, or fail to do, in government doesn’t matter, as long as there’s a sense of underlying momentum towards a loosely defined rightwing goal, such as a smaller state or a “global Britain” that can dump the EU and keep out migrants. In a sense, Tory voters have become more like the caricatured leftists they often like to deride: prepared to support a messy government as long as it seems radical.
Despite all the disruption their decade in power has brought, the Tories have continued to claim during elections that only they can bring order. “Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice,” tweeted David Cameron in 2015, “stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband.” The same line was trotted out against Corbyn last year. In both elections, it was effective. Shamelessness remains a Tory trump card.
There are a few signs that their contempt for competence may finally be catching up with them. A YouGov poll this week, one of the first since the exam-grading fiasco, shows a significant shrinking of the Tory lead over Labour. But it’s still a lead. It’s hard to imagine a Labour government holding on to one in the same circumstances.
When parliament returns next month, rather than just telling the government to “get a grip” – what would Starmer say if it did? – the Labour leader needs to start showing that the Tories’ incompetence has deep political roots: in the complacency that comes with being in power too long; and in the unsuitability of many Tory ideas, barely changed since the Thatcher era, to today’s world.
He will also need to persuade a lot more voters than Labour did at the last election that contempt for the government is not enough. Sometimes, it’s a displacement activity: a substitute for the harder job of working out – whether you’re the Labour leader or a potential Labour supporter – what sort of government we should have instead. Laughing at “bumbling Boris” and “failing Grayling” is easy. But in the end, the joke’s on us.
• Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist