If Boris Johnson was a better leader than he is, or if he had more intellectual grasp than he actually possesses, this could have been a week of vindication for the prime minister. Instead, a year after his general election triumph, Johnson is licking his parliamentary wounds, while his authority and judgment are being questioned within his own party as never before.
Tuesday’s Tory backbench revolt against the central issue of Johnson’s premiership – his handling of the pandemic – was brutal. A total of 71 Conservative MPs either rebelled or abstained. Johnson’s new tier system for England survived only because Labour also abstained en masse. Yet now Johnson faces something even worse, in the shape of the gathering likelihood that he will be condemned to repeat the whole humiliating ordeal when Covid cases spike again after Christmas and he is advised to bring in a third national lockdown to protect the NHS.
It could have been so different. In the past three weeks, three potentially game-changing vaccines have been submitted to the regulatory authorities. On Wednesday, Britain’s regulators authorised the roll-out of the first of them, manufactured by Pfizer. The timing was extremely helpful to Johnson. Not only did it help distract from the previous evening’s revolt. It was also trumpeted as an early Brexit dividend, as Britain getting a “head start” over the EU.
A better leader than Johnson would have grasped right from the start that the only way out of the pandemic would be through mass vaccination. In retrospect, this will be the global strategic takeaway from the grim experiences of 2020. In the future, “Hunker down, work on a vaccine and underwrite livelihoods” will become the principles that will dominate the pandemic planning that so many nations, Britain included, did not have in place when Covid struck.
It may have been tough to discern these essential pillars of pandemic policy when Covid began. But it wasn’t impossible. A majority of the public grasped them well enough from the start. Johnson could have grasped them too if he had chosen to. If he had done that, his strategy message this winter would have been much clearer, although more austere, than it has been.
Above all, it would have carried the authority not just of his office but of our accumulated collective experience. The vaccine news would have meant Johnson could say, “Stick with it. Christmas will be tough. But we can see daylight now, just as I promised. We are on the right course. We have come through so much. But we must not throw it away now.” Bolshie backbenchers would have been humbled into obedience by such resolute leadership.
Why did Johnson not follow this course when it was open to him? Why, in spite of the excellent news about vaccines, does he still face a possible third wave in the new year, with all the management and political consequences that this would entail?
Three aspects of any proper answer to this question have become familiar. The first is Johnson’s own character and political failings. He always finds it difficult to make choices and stick to them, preferring to have it both ways. The second is that managing the Conservative party has become like herding cats. Tuesday confirmed that the class of 2019 is not nearly as closely bound together by loyalty to Johnson as was once claimed. The third reason, meanwhile, is that the deliberately diminished resources of the modern British state were inadequate to provide the necessary resilience in the face of a crisis that, ultimately, only the state could deal with.
These problems have bled into the simmering tensions on the Tory backbenches in recent weeks, culminating in Tuesday’s revolt. The most toxic divide was caused by an English tier system imposed from Whitehall that takes no account of local communities and their different Covid experiences or needs, especially in counties including Kent or regions such as Humberside, both now in tier 3. This explains why the pro-European Kent MP Damian Green rebelled alongside the anti-European Humbersider David Davis on Tuesday.
Underlying this, though, is the failure over decades to build and live up to a proper relationship between central government on the one hand and devolved national, regional and local governments on the other. Johnson’s pledge to the rebels that he would take a “granular” approach to tier decisions when they are reviewed the week after next was meaningless, in part because local government in England has been systematically drained of power and resources for so long.
Tory MPs are also divided between those who believe that the government’s overriding priority must be to protect the public and those MPs who believe it should be to protect economic activity and enterprise. This issue cuts across the modern Tory party, in part because it can pit northern “blue wall” Tories against southern shire ones. More fundamentally, it pits small-government Thatcherites against active-government modernisers. Johnson has never succeeded in getting a firm grip on this dilemma.
In the end, however, Johnson’s strategic weaknesses and political difficulties need to be understood in the context of something that knits many of these conflicts and tensions together, but receives too little attention: a concept of freedom that connects both his roles as a leader of the Brexit campaign and as a leader who consistently fails to get a grip on an all-enveloping crisis such as Covid.
Johnson talks more than most Conservative leaders about freedom. The word has cropped up in many of his public statements through the Covid crisis and did so in the House of Commons yesterday. Johnson’s use of it is saturated in an old-fashioned but historically tenacious English notion of individual freedom as something that existed among the Saxons before the Norman conquest. More modern ideas, deriving from Hobbes or Spinoza, that freedom exists in practice within the security of a justly administered state or government of laws, do not seem to enter Johnson’s head.
This means that Johnson is permanently caught between advisers who tell him that firm measures are necessary to control the pandemic for the common good and his own instinctive belief that firm measures are somehow un-English, illiberal or even unmanly, when they are not inherently any of these things. He has been repeatedly caught in this trap: when the pandemic arrived, when he tried to ease the measures prematurely, when he had to confront the second wave, and now when he has got reckless about Christmas.
He will be caught in the same trap again if there is a post-Christmas spike. And he is offering a further hostage to fortune by his habit of insisting that vaccination should not be compulsory. Once again, lives and the public good will be sacrificed to an inadequate notion of freedom. It could all have been so different under a better leader. But Boris Johnson is never going to be that.
• Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist