Another dignified week for Boris Johnson’s administration, which now wishes to override its own Brexit deal by claiming not to have understood what it was signing when it signed it. Traditionally, this excuse is used by people who’ve just been subject to 72 hours of police beating; or by the harmless local weirdo who’s been tricked into confessing to a highly complex sex murder; or by the children of 96-year-old petrochemical tycoons who’ve left the entire family estate to a teenage stripper.
It is now being used by the British government’s alleged mastermind, Dominic Cummings, and by its sheepdog mascot, Johnson, who no longer even looks housebroken. Meanwhile, the same government would like you to believe that it would be notionally capable of pulling off the most sophisticated testing programme on the entire planet. This is the so-called Operation Moonshot, which would see Matt Hancock – literally Matt Hancock – preside over a hyperfunctional system for carrying out 10 million coronavirus tests a day using technology that hasn’t yet been invented. Leaked Whitehall papers estimate the cost at £100bn.
This week, Hancock announced he’d already spent £500m on the plan, leaving us just £99.5bn (NINETY NINE POINT FIVE BILLION POUNDS) short of a moonshot. Which feels less of a space rocket, and more of a reminder not to approach the firework when it doesn’t go off.
For some people it will always be too soon to call this one, but are we near the point at which we can conclude that Dominic Cummings is the Samantha Brick of statecraft? I wonder if you were ever familiar with Samantha. A few years ago, this previously obscure journalist torched the internet with a Daily Mail article so provocatively ludicrous that it would ultimately land her a slot on Celebrity Big Brother. As the headline put it: “There are downsides to looking this pretty: why women hate me for being beautiful”. The accompanying picture, of a perfectly ordinary 41-year-old woman, marked Samantha out as something of a Florence Foster Jenkins type: convinced of truly exceptional gifts where merely a lack of them lay.
And so with Cummings’ record in government. He seems to suffer from a sort of inverse dysmorphia. Instead of looking in the mirror and seeing the reality of the latest clusterfuck staring back, he sees a Steve Jobs or a Warren Buffett, or even a guy who remembers that the label is meant to go on the inside of his pants. As recently as January, Cummings was claiming there are “trillion dollar bills lying on the street” if you just knew how to run government properly. Has he found one yet? I bet you a trillion dollars he never does.
This week he was trillioning again, writing to the Department of Culture to inform them that the government wants to build trillion-dollar tech companies in the UK. And I want a Covid test closer than 300 miles away, but we’re all having to make our peace with stuff, aren’t we.
It’s not clear whether people like Cummings have best friends. One’s instinct is not, but if they did it would be very much the duty of that individual to look Dom in the eye and say: “Mate, with the best will in the world, what on EARTH about the last six months makes you think you can build the next Apple?”
Instead, the government is surrounded by enablers of its delusions, from imbecilic Tory MPs to panting journalists who still reckon it’s all some brilliant game of 4D chess, underpinned by a winning strategy as yet invisible to the plebeian eye.
No matter how much of a 360-degree shitshow the government’s handling of the pandemic or its own Brexit process has been, there are people even now claiming that every cock-up or exploding gambit is a genius tactic by our wisers and betters, brilliantly designed to achieve a very specific aim. I guess it makes these cheerleader analysts feel clever. Or to put it another way: every Rorschach blot looks like a fanny if that’s what you’re after.
Even when an individual as artless as Brandon Lewis stands up in the Commons and explains that the government is going to break international law, you won’t struggle to find someone going: “So clever. You wait and see.” Well, I’ll stick the kettle on, but can’t help feeling that Brandon is a somewhat miscast Lex Luthor. So far this move has sparked a showdown with: many of the government’s most loyal supporters; the people they’re supposed to be negotiating with; the America they say they want a trade deal off; several ambassadors; the grandees in the House of Lords who they’ll need to pass the lawbreaking law; the people, politicians and businesses of Northern Ireland; the chairs of multiple constituency parties; two separate factions in their own parliamentary party who were hitherto causing them no trouble; and many others.
The line that always gets wheeled out about master strategists is the famous one of the 19th-century Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich, whose attributed comment upon learning of the death of his great French sparring partner Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand was: “I wonder what he meant by that?” Let’s see it in action with our own overlords. Ooh, I’m a single mother in Bristol who needs a coronavirus test for my high-temperature child and I’ve just been offered one in Dundee – I wonder what they meant by that? Ooh, they had five months’ warning that students wouldn’t be sitting their exams but they still completely ballsed it up, making a generation of imminent voters loathe them even more than they were already going to – I wonder what they meant by that?
And so on and so on, all the way to: ooh, despite having miles more warning than anyone else, the government not only tanked the economy worse than anyone but also notched up the highest death toll in Europe – I WONDER WHAT THEY EFFING MEANT BY THAT?
There’s such a fine line, isn’t there, between statecraft and the-absolute-state-of-it craft. Still, no doubt all will become triumphantly clear in the fullness. In the meantime, do admire the emperor’s new tracksuit.