Bronwen Maddox dissects The Government’s performance in 2020 – IfG’s Annual Lecture

The Director of the Institute for Government provided some much-needed expert analysis, unpicking the record and the decisions made by the Prime Minister and his ministers in a week where the former said his Government had done everything it could in response to the pandemic, and that he took ‘full responsibility’ for everything that his Government does. But what does taking full responsibility mean in the 2020s?.

“the incompetence and the mistakes by ministers have been on a phenomenal scale. They have also been repeated, and they have been over an extended period of time. And a hundred-thousand people have paid with their lives.”

On 12 January the original blogpost I wrote that the above-quotation is from had the number in the tens of thousands. Since November 2020, the number of people who have died untimely deaths as a result of the Corona Virus, where the deceased passed away within 28 days of a positive test, went from 50,000 to 100,000. That was the context that Ms Maddox was delivering her lecture in.

You can watch the video below, and read the transcript here.

Ms Maddox’s lecture can also be read in conjunction with Emma Norris’s article on why the lessons learnt exercises cannot wait (ministers have been in the media this week promoting the idea that ‘now is not the time’ for introspection and analysis on what went wrong) and Dr Alice Lilly’s article on how the pandemic has changed the functions of Government.

Johnson said his Government did everything it could. Ms Maddox responded that this is not the same as The Government doing everything that it should have done.

“But his government didn’t do everything it should have done. He and his team have handled some things surefootedly but some things extraordinarily badly – and they have made some mistakes again and again”

“What should he have done?”

Susanna Reid on Good Morning Britain listed a few things on TV the morning before.

The Housing Secretary was sent into bat for the Government, and took a hammering from Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid.

“Preparation pays off”

Ms Maddox credited the work done in planning and preparation by those involved, stating that this had paid dividends. The inevitable problem with planning for anything is that you only really appreciate it when things go disastrously wrong as a result of its absence. That is not to say the feeling is universal about Government planning. This from the Leader of Cambridge City Council, Cllr Lewis Herbert. (Labour – Coleridge).

As someone trained as a civil contingencies volunteer during my civil service days some 15 years ago, when the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 was enacted by Parliament, a significant amount of resource was dedicated towards emergency planning. Training days both in the office and far away were organised, and we undertook a full scale training operation simulating a pandemic outbreak. And yet when we were called upon to put into action our new-found skills, it wasn’t a pandemic, or a terrorist attack, or a major catastrophic weather event, but the country’s biggest industrial accident since World War 2. I was one of the people called up to man the Gold Command at Buncefield when the oil terminal went up in flames.

Obviously much has changed since then – not least the technology used in the responses. Gone are the dial-up internet connections for example. But the principles are still the same – especially on planning, preparation, and responding early and quickly when it is clear there is ‘a situation.’

Quick response: Escalating the news of Doctor Evil’s return in Austin Powers II (1999).

The problem with the CoronaVirus was that the Prime Minister and his ministers did not take the necessary decisions fast enough when officials raised the alarm early on.

“This crisis has exposed serious weaknesses in the way that Boris Johnson’s government makes decisions and how it works out what it plausibly can deliver. That has led to some of the worst mistakes of the past year and to many U-turns.”

Distracted by Brexit

I dare say that it wasn’t just The Government that was distracted by Brexit and the General Election of 2019, but the opposition parties as well. Johnson’s new Government:

“…was a brand-new government, fired up on a big election win to do Brexit and ‘levelling up’. No government would want to tackle this crisis, but one that had been longer in office might have found it easier to accept this brutal change of priorities.”

At the same time, Labour imploded into an inevitable post-election internal fight following a greater-than-anticipated defeat, and the resignation not just of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, but the retreat of his faction from the front line of politics. Think of how frequently his allies were being interviewed in the media before that election to today.

Furthermore, the Liberal Democrats also imploded, but perhaps for slightly different reasons. First of all, their leader Jo Swinson lost her seat in the Commons. Quite a come-down from staking her claim as a potential Prime Minister as she did in early November 2019. Sadly – and write this as one of the now few people who rated Ms Swinson having also met & interviewed her when she visited Cambridge, this is what she’ll be remembered for. But she clearly made too many bad calls and paid a very heavy political price both personally and also as a party leader. The unfairness of the voting system – one where the extra 1.3million votes resulted in *fewer* seats in Parliament compared to the previous election, for me reflects a further source of instability in UK politics. The result has been that opposition parties have not been able to fulfil their essential constitutional functions.

“What if…?”

What if the opposition parties had held firm in that late autumn of 2019 and had not conceded a general election to Boris Johnson, still on a high after being elected leader of the Conservatives? It is quite conceivable that in the face of an emerging pandemic and the failures made early on, the volatile Parliament of 2017-19 would have deposed of Mr Johnson who ended up leading a minority administration into the General Election, and replaced him with someone to lead a National Government, putting everything else on hold.

Ministers not accepting the blame

It is very difficult to get a sense of what the general public thinks of the performance of minsters and the Prime Minister due to the lockdown restrictions. All we have are our social media echo chambers which are inevitably poisoned by disinformation campaigns. Yet one theme that Ms Maddox has picked up on that many others have missed, is how ministers are over-stating the role of science in making their decisions as a means of deflecting the blame. And they are doing it in a very subtle way.

“The government has made a big point of always “following the science”. But it should have been clear that it needed to weigh “the science” – that is, projections of loss of life from coronavirus – against other health risks and the economic cost. It tried essentially to abdicate responsibility for these immensely unpalatable decisions by invoking science.”

There was a similar controversy in Cambridge with the closure of the Cambridge Market in Market Square outside The Guildhall when Cambridge City Council took the decision to close the outdoor market from 01 Jan 2021. (It has since re-opened with a limited number of stalls and much stronger social distancing measures in place). The difficulty of the judgement call faced by senior councillors is reflected by Cllr Herbert in this Cambridge Independent article, knowing he had market traders, ward councillors, and opposition politicians on his back (supported by 8,000 people who signed a petition) while at the same time receiving advice from senior public health officials on the risks at a time the death rate was rising and the beds at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge were filling up rapidly.

Ministers promising what they cannot deliver

Ms Maddox pulled up ministers over this repeated behaviour, noting the damage it was doing to public trust at a time when the public needed to have complete trust in the decisions being made by The Government backed by the force of law.

“Overpromising has been one of the government’s worst mistakes, as in promising an end to lockdowns, or schools returning, or gathering for Christmas, or what a tracing app could do. It is in danger now of overpromising what vaccines can do in retrieving daily life as it was.

Overpromising might stem from the prime minister’s personal desire to bring people at least some good news, but it has been damaging for public trust and parliamentary support.”

More on public trust and accountability

For me these go hand-in-hand. Otherwise what does it mean if a minister – or even a Prime Minister says “I take full responsibility” when nothing happens or changes afterwards? Waiting for a once-in-a-few-years general election to have a say is surely too blunt an instrument given all of the other things the electorate needs to consider?

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve noted how ‘in normal times’ a minister would be expected to resign over their conduct or policy failures. Or how some politicians would simply not have been reappointed so soon, if at all following a previous dismissal or resignation. Jenrick over Desmond/Westferry, Patel over bullying allegations, Cummings over the Castle, Williamson over the exams are the ones that immediately spring to mind. Hence my view that the enforcement of the Ministerial Code needs to be taken out of the hands of ministers and given to a body equivalent to the Civil Service Commissioners, or a Committee of the House of Lords or joint committee of Parliament.

‘The coming year – what government should do’

The big point I took away from Ms Maddox was on the vaccines. Her strong warning to ministers was not to sell the vaccines as a miracle cure that would return the country to a utopian pre-2020 time period. That won’t happen. The collective and extended trauma that we have all been through will take years to unwind. And where that leaves us collectively will be a very different place to where we were at the very end of 2019.

“One senior civil servant said to me that it resembled the scale of the task faced by the Attlee government after the Second World War. That is not grandiose. There is a calamity of mental health, just beginning to show up in statistics. A calamity of physical health, in alcohol use, in undetected cancer and untreated heart disease. And there is the catastrophe of what has happened to a whole cohort of pupils in school.”

This made me think about what Dr Hannah Fry said on The Last Leg on Channel 4.

“We found out in this pandemic that we like doing things where we are all squished together. It was the same with the Spanish Flu in 1918 – streets were emptied. Then in the 1920s they spent the entire decade building as many buildings as they can where you can squish people in – things like cinemas, concert halls, stadiums, dance venues! The Roaring 20s was really just about being near people.” Dr Hannah Fry, 15 January 2021.

Noting the Electroswing collective from Germany Tape Five recently released their Roaring Twenties contribution.

…though whether the 2020s will give Cambridge a new concert hall (as I called for here in 2017….remains to be seen!)

The sacrifice young people have made

The second-last point Ms Maddox made was about young people.

“The younger generations have sacrificed a lot in this crisis for a disease far less likely to kill them than it would those over 80. How to make that up to them is one of the next big questions – and there should be no doubt that in the end they will devise the politics to take some kind of recompense, if political leaders do not offer it.”

Since the 2010 General Election, young people in particular have been disproportionately hit by the policies of successive governments. The massive increase in tuition fees, the removal of Educational Maintenance Allowances, The closure of libraries and Surestart Centres, the cuts to education budgets, the ongoing mental health pandemic that ministers seem unable to get a grip of – and that was before the pandemic, the switch from jobs with decent terms and conditions to unstable zero hours contracts that bypass so many of the past gains made by trade unions and social reform campaigns, the failure to get a grip with the climate emergency to the extent that Extinction Rebellion was able to bring large parts of Central London to a standstill by occupying a handful of road junctions….and now the restrictions on the movements of children to the extent they cannot play together and are banned from playgrounds and playing fields…adults have *a lot* of repair work and making up to do.

I don’t believe that our political and civic institutions are fit for purpose to meet that challenge. The voting system is broken as demonstrated at the 2019 general election with the Liberal Democrats. Personally I prefer the London Assembly system – the Additional Member System which I think both Parliament and local councils should adopt. While First Past The Post generally benefits the Conservatives more than anyone else, Cambridge is one of those few places where the Tories get hammered by it every election. Despite polling around 10,000 votes at general elections, their votes are so spread out across the city that they have *no council seats.* This from a point in the late 1970s when they controlled Cambridge City Council and held the Parliamentary seat. The implosion of the Cambridge Conservative Association is a Ph.D thesis waiting to be researched and written.

Recent years have seen various abortive attempts at political change. The short-lived ChangeUK (crushed by the Liberal Democrats), Renew UK, and even the Brexit Party were all examples of that – the latter two nominally still going. (It remains to be seen what they do once the arrangements for the next local council elections are finalised). There’s also the Flatpack democracy movement that emerged out of Frome. But while we are all still under lockdown, it’s very difficult to see how these or any other movements are going to perform at the ballot box and beyond.

Civil service reform and devolution

Both of these subjects are inevitably very dry and technocratic. With all of these, I don’t think they should be left to ‘the experts’ or nerds like me who take a sometimes obsessive interest in such niche subjects. In previous generations such things were not left to small groups to deal with. We know this because the books are still for sale! Just before the Second World War, Penguin started publishing a host of books on current affairs and on the institutions of the state and civic society. If we want to involve more people in shaping the future of the institutions of state. That includes undertaking a mass public information campaign – whether involving the publications of refreshed or additional titles similar to those below, and/or using new communications technologies that allow for interaction from the comfort of our own home.

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