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Johnson Is a Comic Opera PM – His Mistakes Killed Tens of Thousands
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Boris Johnson turns out to have privately yearned to adopt the same approach as Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro who publicly favoured allowing Covid-19 to rip through his nation. “Stop all this fussing and whining,” Bolsonaro told Brazilians, some 543,000 of whom have died in the epidemic. “How long are you going to go on crying?”

With similar callousness, Johnson is reported by his former chief adviser Dominic Cummings to have rejected a second lockdown last October after learning that the median age of the dead exceeded average life expectancy. “So get Covid and live longer,” he joked.

On 23 July 2019, two years ago today, Boris Johnson was elected leader of the Conservative Party, defeating the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt. Had Hunt been chosen instead, or almost anybody other than Johnson for that matter, then tens of thousands of people in Britain would not have died and hundreds of thousands of others would have escaped severe illness and long Covid.

Down the centuries, Britain has generally been lucky in its leaders in times of crisis. In calmer periods, it may not matter much who is nominally in charge of the country. But during the last two years of permanent crisis over Brexit and Covid-19, Britain has been led by a man of such poor and wavering judgement that it is difficult to find a figure of comparable incompetence in British history.

The best parallels with Johnson come not from the past but from the world of comic opera, my favourite comparison being with the Duke of Plaza-Toro, the bombastic upper-class conman in The Gondoliers by Gilbert and Sullivan. “He led his regiment from behind – he found it less exciting,” go the lyrics, but when any success is achieved – one thinks of the Covid-19 vaccination programme – then the shady duke swiftly claims credit for it.

Looking back over the last 18 months, it is clear that when it came to taking life-and-death decisions for the country, Johnson would have shown better results if he had relied on the flip of a coin rather than his own chaotic judgement. Errors are too frequent to list but they include fatal delays to both lockdowns last year, the failed though vastly expensive NHS Test and Trace, 39,000 dead in the care homes, and the easy passage to Britain given to the Delta variant by not blocking travel from India.

Lessons are never learned from mistakes, whatever the death toll. This was evident again this week, as the government managed to get the worst of all possible worlds by abruptly ending measures aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19 infection, while simultaneously asserting the necessity for 1.4 million people to self-isolate in order to stop the spread of the same illness. Britain is becoming a pariah state, with the US State Department issuing its highest-level warning, which simply says: “Do not travel to the United Kingdom.”

Johnson’s failings were no secret before or after he became prime minister, but just how bad and damaging he has been was confirmed with copious detail in the last few days by Dominic Cummings and by Sir Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust and an infectious diseases specialist, both of whom were at the centre of Britain’s response to the pandemic. Cummings’s stories of prime ministerial blundering are appalling though comical, but Farrar’s low-key description of “the absent prime minister” is damning.

How has Britain managed to end up with such a frivolous figure taking decisions that mean life or death for so many people? I have always believed since 2016 that the Brexiteers posed a far greater threat to Britain than Brexit itself. There was nothing irrational about leaving the EU in pursuit of greater national self-determination. Such attempts to assert national control, widely or unwisely, are common throughout the world.

The greater danger lay in the fact that Brexit had become the vehicle through which a coterie of opportunists and far-right ideologues had won power and would use it arbitrarily and incompetently.

I also hoped that their misrule might not matter too much since, as Adam Smith pointed out, “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation”. It seemed possible 18 months back that so long as the government elected in 2019 avoided a serious crisis – I was thinking of a war, not a pandemic – then they might not inflict too much damage. Nobody with an over-discriminate sense of smell would want to stand downwind from the present cabinet, but their wilder and more authoritarian schemes might be blocked by their own incapacity.

But Johnson and his senior lieutenants are not just the product of events specific to Britain like Brexit. They are associate members of an unsavoury club of populist nationalist leaders who have all mishandled the epidemic in their countries. Some, like the US under Donald Trump, had highly developed health sectors, but still suffered 604,000 dead. Others, like Narendra Modi’s India, did not have adequate medical resources but still calamitously underperformed what could be done – the official figure for deaths in India is 414,000, but a study by the Centre for Global Development and Harvard University says the true death toll tops four million.

The reasons for this common failure are clear enough. Populist nationalist leaders all claim to be combatting imaginary or exaggerated threats, but they are at a loss when it comes to coping with a real one like coronavirus. They peddle pipe-dreams, making contradictory promises of lower taxes to their plutocratic supporters and of greater state aid to the deprived. The cynical response of Modi and Trump – and now, it turns out, of Boris Johnson as well – has been to deny that any disaster is happening or to say that, if it is, then its scale is greatly exaggerated.


Johnson’s lethal blend of hubris, ignorance and incompetence is not confined to mishandling the pandemic. It was on show elsewhere this week as Britain demanded that the EU renegotiate the Northern Ireland protocol in radical ways that were inevitably rejected by the EU. The government probably calculates that ongoing friction with Brussels will not hurt it with voters.

In reality, the government’s objections to the dilution of British sovereignty stemming from the protocol also apply to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Intentionally or not, Johnson and his ministers are unravelling the agreement and destabilising the balance between the Catholic and Protestant communities. Step by blundering step, the government is reawakening “the Irish Question”, traditionally the most destructive political issue in British politics, which the Good Friday Agreement appeared to have put to bed.

Perhaps the best analogy of all for Johnson looking back on his two years in Downing Street is Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, always self-confidently marching forward to disaster and ignoring the chaos he leaves behind.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Boris Johnson, Britain, Coronavirus, Vaccines 
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  1. SafeNow says:

    “the bombastic upper-class conman in The Gondoliers by Gilbert and Sullivan.”

    For months now I have been posting my thought that the U.S. has a predilection to embrace what I have called “the con style,” and I am gratified to see you using essentially the same term, because I am a nobody in pajamas while you are an essayist. (Of course I did not invent the term.) One thing I like about the term is that can be interpreted two ways, and both are correct. One is the style of the snake-oil salesman. The second is the style of the convict. Examples abound here n the U.S., of course. A good case can be made that this attraction is the trunk and taproot of the unraveling of the U.S., everything else the branches and leaves.

  2. I feel sorry for the British. During WW 2, their leader would have sacrificed every man, woman and child to win the war. Now, their leaders would sacrifice every man woman and child to win what? Boris Johnson, Tony Blair, even Thatcher, upon careful thought were/are ALL frauds.

    • Disagree: Fr. John
    • Replies: @Fr. John
  3. Had Hunt been chosen instead, or almost anybody other than Johnson for that matter, then tens of thousands of people in Britain would not have died and hundreds of thousands of others would have escaped severe illness and long Covid.

    That’s horseshit Mr. Cockburn. By what process would tens of thousands lived instead of died had Hunt or anyone else but Boris been elected?

    I’m not a Boris supporter by any means, but I gotta hear how all those tens of thousands would have lived? Mr. Cockburn, you’re all in on the CoronaHoax, vaccines and the general fraud in play at the moment, obviously. Your wisdom in the face of evidence, especially against the vaccines and the death rates being covered up is charming. Once upon a time, you questioned the monsters.

    • Replies: @omegabooks
  4. The needless deaths occurred because Boris did follow the world establishment plan and it led to thousands of deaths and the death jabs. I suspect that his bout with covid caused him to bottle out and drink the establishment kool-aid and go along with eliminating liberty established since the magna carta and the rule of law, which Britain left behind when it gave up its sovereignty to the septics, i. e., the yanks, in the Assange case.
    Medicofascism will end up killing far more than the virus did. In fact, most of the deaths can likely be ascribed to the failure to employ remedies such as Ivermectin and HCQ, which worked extremely well where they were employed in order to go all in on the death shots and coercion, propaganda and bullying.

    • Agree: Proximaking
  5. @Jim Christian

    Cockburn is a woker….what else would you expect for a guy who buys into the whole covid-crapola narrative? The dude stopped critically thinking years ago. And his (likely) brother Alexander Cockburn’s Counterpunch site may even be woker! Anyone who supports the Great Reset narrative is a traitor to humanity, the ONLY “critical race” on Earth!

    • Agree: Jim Christian
    • Replies: @Jim Christian
  6. Had Hunt been chosen instead, or almost anybody other than Johnson for that matter, then tens of thousands of people in Britain would not have died and hundreds of thousands of others would have escaped severe illness and long Covid.

    Do any of you remember 2003? Do you remember how you looked around and it was like the Black Death? Are there zombies all over the place? No ?

    Because the UK death rate per 100,000 in 2003 was about the same as in 2020.

    “So get Covid and live longer,” he joked.

    What? Cockburn isn’t even going to debunk this? Is this ghost written by Chris Cillizza?

    Britain is becoming a pariah state, with the US State Department issuing its highest-level warning, which simply says: “Do not travel to the United Kingdom.”

    Oh no! The US government insulted me! What should I do ?

    The primary incompetence of most of the leaders in responding to the pandemic was not to blockade national borders, many of which were already more porous than they ought to be.

    The shutdown of the population was a ludicrous project that almost certainly caused much more suffering than the virus itself, if it even existed at all. Thus, the number of excess deaths (again, not even that many) cannot be separated from the psychological trauma of population-wide lockdowns.

    Mr. Cockburn should ponder the great Christian invention of science. Science works using what is called a control group, in this case a non-lockdown jurisdiction. Was there a noticeable difference between the jurisdictions that locked down and which did not? Between Sweden and Germany? Between Florida and California? Not really. Except that people in the free world are happier than they are living under tyranny.

    • Agree: Proximaking
  7. Boris is just another pawn. That he went along with suppressing medications that could have helped 70% of the 60,000 UK excess deaths for 2020 survive, tells you enough.

    That the author ignores his actual errors for something else – his one week of backbone when he was pushing for only pursuing harsh policy on the elderly – shows him to be blind.

    But in truth, if in my life I manage to convince even one person to quit the covid cult, I’ll feel accomplished – to my memory 9/11 made people dumb, but this thing has almost borne a zombie apocalypse out of only sheer human idiocy!

    • Agree: Proximaking
  8. jsinton says:

    Lockdowns don’t work, are impractical to a functioning society, and are not intended to “save lives”. They are a tool to impose control, wreck havoc and fear, and prod you into the jab. What killed “tens of thousands” even millions was the suppression of common sense health methods such as hydroxycholoriquine and invermectin, We are being destroyed by the people behind the curtain, not the puppets on the string line Gao Bai Dan and Johnson. Cock is an idiot.

  9. How can you possibly write a piece about Johnson’s failures without mentioning the Western world banning the use of Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine?

    Johnson is a muppet and the only question is whose hand is jammed up his backside and the backside of every Western “leader”?

    Who banned these cheap drugs because it had been known for years they worked? Find them and you find your genocidal maniacs. We already know who their muppets are.

    • Agree: Fr. John
  10. @omegabooks

    Well, I notice he didn’t get back to me with the ‘thousands would have lived’ narrative.

  11. anon[358] • Disclaimer says:

    Had Hunt been chosen instead, or almost anybody other than Johnson for that matter, then tens of thousands of people in Britain would not have died and hundreds of thousands of others would have escaped severe illness and long Covid.

    Cockburn appears to have just read The Man in the High Castle, and joined the Philip K. Dick school of alternate historical clairvoyance. The problem with alternative history is that it is not subject to experimentation.
    But the belief that all things depend solely on the wit and competence of the ruler on duty seems antiquated and inappropriate for evaluating the modern world. Liberal historian warmonger Niall Ferguson, in a recent work Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, noted this, and described it in an interview:

    Ferguson: The liberal journalists already hated the populist leaders, and then the populist leaders made themselves easy targets. That made it easy to blame them for the problems. Trump made it especially easy, because he made mistake after mistake after mistake. But, in truth, that’s not why half a million Americans have died. The key reasons for the excess mortality are not presidential decisions. They are the failure to ramp up testing and totally ineffective quarantines, as well as the lack of contact tracing, isolation of the infected, and protection of the elderly. Those were all mistakes made at the state or public-health bureaucracy level.

    The same was true in the UK. If you had put any other prime minister in Boris Johnson’s position, you wouldn’t have had a different result. We have to stop telling ourselves that if only we had had leaders who had ‘followed the science’, we would have been fine. If we tell ourselves that by getting a new president or prime minister we fix the problem, we’re in trouble. That’s why I rushed the book out before the pandemic was over: we are in serious danger of learning the wrong lessons.

    In an article published in Unherd, Ferguson wrote:

    In practice, as any serious student of modern government knows, the critical decisions in a public health crisis are not made at the top: it is the scientific advisers and principals of the relevant agencies who must decide on the seriousness of the threat and the policy response to recommend. A president or prime minister becomes involved only if there is a fundamental disagreement within the relevant group of expert and officials, or between the Cabinet-level principals. If there is a consensus in favour of a “herd immunity” strategy, as appears to have been the case in London in the first two and half months of 2020, then a prime minister is highly unlikely to overrule that consensus, regardless of whether he is being distracted by a book deadline, a disgruntled girlfriend, or an outsized interior décor bill.

    It is regrettable to see how journalism everywhere becomes more and more caught up in ideologies, and uninterested in understanding the real world.

  12. Fr. John says:
    @Dr. Charles Fhandrich

    ” During WW 2, their leader would have sacrificed every man, woman and child to win the war.”

    IF you are referring to Winston Churchill, no more self-absorbed demagogue has existed.

    He destroyed the British Empire, as the price to defeat Hitler…. and both were in the pay of ‘international bankers’ to do so.

    Neither man was good for their nation, after all is said and done.

    • Replies: @Dr. Charles Fhandrich
  13. Fr. John says:

    Boris Johnson is merely the UK equivalent of Donald J Trump… added to an addled old monarch who is both heretical and senile. No wonder God is judging us both, as failed, covenant-breaking nations.

  14. MarkinLA says:

    I remember people, who thought they knew everything because they listened to the media, telling me how stupid I was because I didn’t believe in this or that and said we cannot just shut everything down for people who already have one foot in the grave anyway. I had one question about the lockdowns and that was – What if there is no cure and this is something we just have to live with? This is beginning to look more and more like it.

    We simply have to face the fact that life has to go on as close to normal as possible regardless of whether some people might die prematurely. Young people cannot give up their entire best most productive years unless you can tell me exactly when it will end and no one can.

  15. BigTony says:

    Fresh air and exercise and you’ll live longer. If Sweden and Florida are the nightmare scenarios we just might get through this.

  16. dvorak says:

    Dom Cummings also said that Whitehall was completely incompetent in the crisis, and concludes that Whitehall should be shut down and replaced.

    Cockburn won’t report this because Cockburn is an establishment toady.

  17. @Fr. John

    I couldn’t agree more with you about both Churchill and Hitler. What did they accomplish but to bring to grief millions of people?

  18. MEH 0910 says:

  19. FUBSY says:

    If only the PM of Sweden had been in 10 Downing Street. Oh, the humanity!

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