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From the file

Halloween 2020 | Leaks, delays, mistakes and recrimination. This Halloween, there was nothing scarier than the British government’s handling of the second lockdown

The PM’s day of horror

Monday 16 November 2020

This week’s Tortoise File concentrates on the 24-hour period in which Boris Johnson first decided on, then announced, a second national lockdown. The calamities of those hours are still causing chaos today


In his introduction to John Reed’s legendary account of the 1917 October Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, the historian A.J.P. Taylor observed that great upheavals are “tumultuous affairs, difficult to follow while they are on. The participants are too busy to write down their experiences at the time, and the victors are too busy afterwards.”

Though scarcely comparable in scale, the bedlam in Downing Street in the past week has yielded a similar problem of perspective – a Westminster soap opera, instantly framed as a battle of the sexes in which two women outwitted and politically trounced two men.

On Friday, Dominic Cummings, chief adviser to Boris Johnson, and Lee Cain, his director of communications, were instructed by the prime minister to clear their desks and leave Number 10. This has been almost universally characterised as a victory for Allegra Stratton, the prime minister’s new official spokesperson, and Carrie Symonds, his fiancée – both of whom, it is true, had grave reservations about Cummings and Cain that they made repeatedly clear to the PM.

When Johnson was shown evidence in phone texts that there had been a briefing campaign against Symonds and himself from the Cummings-Cain camp, the fate of both men was sealed. After several days of skulduggery, unsourced feuding, and toxic gossip, the two Downing Street aides – both comrades of the PM from their days together in the 2016 Vote Leave campaign – were given their marching orders.

Dominic Cummings finally departs Number 10

Cummings, ever the self-dramatist, ensured that photographers were provided with one of the political images of the year as he left the front door of Number 10, carrying a box of his belongings out of the glare of the Downing Street reception area and into a twilit future.

An extraordinary spectacle, for sure – and one that, many ministers and advisers contend, symbolises a “Great Reset” in Johnson’s premiership; a pivot from the machismo of the Vote Leave gang to a more inclusive, collegiate and welcoming style of government.

We’ll return to this claim. But the more important question is whether this characterisation of what has just happened in Downing Street is the full story – or even the heart of the story.

In this week’s Tortoise File, we trace its roots further back, to the 24 hours from the afternoon of Friday 30 October to Johnson’s announcement of the second national lockdown on 31 October. A true Halloween horror, in which the absolute inadequacy of a particular system and style of government – in the midst of a pandemic, no less – was laid horrendously bare. And the prime minister was forced into precisely the sort of personal confrontation and strict action that he goes out of his way to avoid.

Cast your mind back a fortnight or so to those two days of epic incompetence in which the nation waited to discover whether it was, indeed, to return to lockdown after a few months of partial liberation (combined with tougher restrictions in specific areas).

For much of October, the PM had been scorning the idea of a “circuit-breaker” national lockdown in England – a plan that was, in fact, already being implemented in Northern Ireland and Wales (though not in Scotland).

Now, and much against his libertarian instincts, the PM was starting to think that he might have to execute a screeching U-turn. His chief medical officer, Professor Christopher Whitty, and chief scientific officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, were steering him clearly in that unpalatable direction. So too were Matt Hancock, the health secretary, and Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister.

As one ally of the PM puts it: “Boris’s mind was not made up on the Friday morning [30 October]. But he knew he had to convene a crunch meeting that day and hammer it out.” What followed was a parable of everything that is wrong with his government – and everything he now needs to address if his premiership is to do more than limp on towards the next electoral reckoning.

Michael Gove, a member of Johnson’s Covid Quad, strides towards Downing Street

Tomorrow, I’ll present an audio report on what exactly happened during those fateful hours, and why they are symbolic of much more than personal enmities and gender conflict. We will be focusing on the Halloween horror this week because it is fundamental to the Tortoise approach of identifying the deeper currents below the sea-foam, to search for the signal amid the noise. The noisiest moments – the briefing wars that fill social media and make the best headlines – are not always the most truly significant.

Let’s begin with the people: it is hard to exaggerate the importance of personality in politics. Indeed, it is often true, as Ronald Reagan and his team liked to say that “personnel is policy”. But that is rarely the whole story.

It is more accurate to say that the ferocious feuds and tensions between senior politicians both exacerbate and disclose much deeper, tectonic problems that disturb the responsible exercise of power and the direction of government.

And gender? Yes, the performative machismo of Cummings and Cain did not endear them to Symonds and Stratton. But to reduce what has happened since the Halloween fiasco to a victory of the “girls” over the “boys” is hopelessly sexist. It also ignores the fact that plenty of men within Downing Street, in Whitehall and Parliament were heartily sick of being called idiots by the Kray Brothers of Vote Leave.

In a broader sense, there has been something deeply tasteless about the playground politics of the past week: a squall of briefing and counter-briefing while the nation reels from the second wave of coronavirus, the economy groans under the pressure of this second lockdown in England, and businesses brace themselves for the outcome of the Brexit trade talks with Brussels – deal or no deal?

The name-calling in Number 10 has felt disrespectful to the point of disgusting on days when, as announced on Friday and Saturday respectively, there have been 376 and 462 new deaths from Covid. It has also obscured the systemic problems that have beset the Johnson government during 2020.

Cummings and Cain, both veterans of the Vote Leave campaign

It is these structural flaws that the Halloween horror show revealed vividly and in tightly compressed form. As I describe in my audio essay tomorrow, it all began with a meeting of Johnson’s Covid Quad: himself, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Matt Hancock, and Michael Gove.

What was meant to be a serious and conclusive deliberation by the key players instead dramatised the ever-widening gulf between those who believed tough health measures were needed – Hancock and Gove, aided by the scientists – and Sunak, who made no secret of his reservations about the inevitable cost of a second lockdown, both to the Treasury in the additional rescue package that would be required and to the medium-term prospects of the economy as a whole.

Johnson wavered, his freedom-loving instincts bristling at the prospect of such restrictions. He was also conscious of the political price he would pay personally if he performed a U-turn of this magnitude, having been so bullishly opposed to such suggestions in the weeks before.

The crucial figure brandished by the scientists was that the daily death toll might rise to 4,000 a day in December if emergency action were not taken. Shocking as that forecast undoubtedly was, ministers failed to scrutinise the data and projections being presented to them – much too preoccupied with sticking imaginary pins into voodoo dolls of one another to focus on the forensic stuff.

Johnson left the meeting leaning towards lockdown, but hoping to reserve his position over the weekend when he could take stock and sound out experts and confidants, with a view to an announcement – if he decided to green-light the plan – some time on Monday.

In truth, this was a naïve expectation. Hundreds of people are involved even in the preparations for such a national measure and modern digital devices mean that a story of this magnitude rarely stays secret for hours, let alone days.

By early evening on Friday 30 October, the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, ITV’s Robert Peston and Sky’s Sam Coates were on the case, and – at 9:46pm – the Times tweeted its front page with the forbidding headline: ‘National lockdown looms.’ The Daily Mail also ran with the story.

Whatever hopes the PM had had for a short period for reflection were now dead. The question was only how he could best handle the political fallout and limit the damage of what was now bound to be a rushed job.

At 7:07am on Saturday 31 October, Kuenssberg tweeted that the worst-case scenario was a daily death toll of “over 4,000 deaths”. Johnson, doing nothing to disguise his fury from aides, called a virtual Cabinet meeting and set a snap press conference for 4pm.

He also launched a leak inquiry to find out who was the so-called “chatty rat”. To make clear how angry the PM was, security specialists were tasked with checking the phone data of senior ministers, and investigating more than 70 other suspects.

But there was more rage than reason to this. As one of the PM’s Cabinet allies told me: “It was transference on a massive scale. Boris wanted to stamp his authority on the government precisely because it was one of those moments when, you know, you feel things are spinning out of control.”

The Cabinet meeting was little more than a grumpy announcement of a fait accompli and the press conference – repeatedly delayed until 6:47pm – was a presentational flop, let down by the world’s worst slide show by Whitty and Vallance and the PM’s own delivery. At precisely the moment when a Churchillian sense of national mission and collective urgency was most needed, the PM seemed subdued, reduced and apologetic.

The prime minister presides over a presentational flop

Rarely had Johnson felt so lonely or so ill-served. On Sunday that weekend, the Telegraph revealed that the projection of 4,000 deaths was based on out-of-date statistics. Scores of disgruntled Conservative MPs formed a Coronavirus Recovery Group, signalling their dissatisfaction with the Government’s pandemic strategy and, with varying degrees of hostility, with Johnson himself.

It was now truly dawning upon him that the system he had put in place when he became prime minister, designed to deliver Brexit and win a general election, was no longer fit for purpose. “Take Back Control” and “Get Brexit Done” were punchy, effective slogans. But you cannot defeat a pandemic with slogans alone. You need huge systems of formidable complexity to be built at pace, and – crucially – overseen by ministers, officials and advisers who work together civilly rather than by competitive abuse. You need collaboration, patience, grip and management, rather than the “shock and awe” in which Cummings and his friends specialised.

Even revolutions – Thatcherism, to take an obvious example – are hard-won and incremental. They take many years, with many setbacks along the way. Cummings personifies the modern insistence upon instant gratification which led him to be unforgivably rude to people who did not deserve it, and to move fast and break things – not in itself a bad thing – but without building anything much in their place. He longed to build his own NASA Mission Control in the Cabinet Office, but seemed more interested in exploding rockets than moonshots.

What is not clear is what will take the place of the culture that he and his gang brought to Downing Street. Much of the talk of a “pivot” or “Great Reset” over the weekend was based on the false hopes of exiled Tory factions, or on a complete misreading of what has happened.

First, the notion of Johnson returning to the politics that won him two terms as London Mayor is an electoral non-starter. He was able to prevail in the Brexit referendum and in the 2019 general election – conquering Labour’s “Red Wall” – precisely by showing that he understood that the rest of the United Kingdom is not like London. “The idea that we are going to fill Number 10 with scented candles and yoga mats and whale music is just rubbish,” says one senior survivor of last week’s purge. “This is all about making the existing agenda work better.”

Second, the expulsion of Vote Leave does not mean, intrinsically, a softening of the UK’s position on Brexit in trade talks. At the time of writing, David Frost remains HMG’s lead negotiator as the countdown towards the 31 December transitional deadline ticks on. Fisheries and “state aid” – market-distorting government subsidies – are still the principal stumbling blocks to a deal.

It is true that the prospect of the Biden presidency has emboldened Brussels, where Johnson has always been seen as a client of Donald Trump. But it is a mistake to think that the PM will not risk a no-deal outcome simply because Cummings has gone, and Trump is going.

This, third, leads to a final question that may never be fully answered. Cummings did not end up in Downing Street by accident. He was selected by Johnson to perform specific tasks and for specific reasons. He wanted ClassicDom software to be fitted to the Number Ten mainframe because it suited his purposes.

Johnson attends a weekly Cabinet meeting. He has now had to return to self-isolation after meeting an MP who tested positive for Covid-19

What software will the PM install in its place? The answer depends upon how far you think this prime minister believes in more than just the acquisition of power and its retention; that there is a serious purpose lurking beneath the great game of getting as close as possible to his childhood ambition of becoming “World King”.

Does Boris Johnson have what it takes to construct a governing machine fit for our times? Does he have the patience, temperament or character? Is the man who loves to wing it willing to go back to first principles and build from the foundations? The man who – having survived a brush with death at the hands of Covid in April – now finds himself self-isolating again.

Think again of that terrible 24 hours, and the systemic collapse that marked Halloween 2020. A day of unforgivable collisions: ministers bickering, media meltdown, a disgruntled Cabinet, drift, unsteadiness and indecision – all public, all in the middle of a pandemic that has already claimed more than 50,000 British lives.

All laid bare, pitilessly so; revealing, above all else, that this government can not survive many more such days.

Next in this file

Lockdown meltdown

Lockdown meltdown

Fear, delays, mistakes and recrimination. On 31 October, we looked to Boris Johnson’s government for certainty – they served up a nightmare

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