Credits: Air Force Master Sgt. Angelita M. Lawrence / Flickr

There is a reason why Lord North has long been described as the most incompetent prime minister in British history: the pot-bellied statesman lost Britain its American colonies. During his time in office, North failed to grasp aspects of Britain’s policies towards America, downplayed the threat of the American separatist movement and stubbornly ignored warnings about the impending War of Independence. In the end, Westminster ceded control of its thirteen American colonies, lost thousands of British soldiers and found its prime minister forced out of office by a motion of no-confidence.

Boris Johnson and his cabinet have found themselves in a similar predicament. They have failed to demonstrate a clear grasp of Britain’s COVID-19 rules. They have ignored several warnings from experts to lockdown Britain earlier in an effort to prevent unnecessary deaths. And they have, like Lord North, failed to take the threat seriously enough. Now Britain finds itself with 75,000+ COVID-19 deaths, an NHS at critical capacity and a second national lockdown. Johnson’s incompetence has far exceeded that of Lord North’s.

The desire to appoint Brexit yes-(wo)men has been at the core of the problem. No longer are cabinet ministers appointed on merit, talent or skill. What matters for the government is upmost loyalty; a commitment to the blustering, incoherent vision of a Johnsonian Britain and a commitment to hard-right ideology.

Johnson’s aim to possess complete control of the government infrastructure and avoid an autonomous treasury like the Blair-Brown years was understandable. But in a national crisis, what matters is not a loyalty to ideology or a prime minister, but an absence of group think. What is required is collective intelligence, collective creativity and a collective ability to innovate and look for solutions during a pandemic. Not much can do more to undermine one’s leadership than surrounding one’s self with yes-men who fear expressing dissent, or who smile but silently plot your downfall.

It is for this reason why leaders of liberal democracies are constantly challenged. For it is only by challenge and scrutiny that they can identify their blind spots, examine their misjudgements and learn from their shortcomings. Statesmen avoid catastrophic mistakes by listening to experts and critics — not by ignoring them or surrounding themselves with incompetent ministers who fail to question their decisions.

Many will say it is easy to snipe the government’s response from the sidelines. After all, governing is harder than commentating. But has there ever been a single example of when the cabinet has chosen to act early, and be pre-emptive rather than reactive? The problem has not been each individual bad decision. The public understands it is a novel virus and mistakes are inevitable. The problem has been the pattern of bad decisions. Johnson has long abandoned the precautionary principle. In its place is an operation that occurs on a margin of hopefulness, in an effort to please everybody. Experts tell the government what is required. The leader of the opposition agrees. The government falters. The inevitable happens. And the government ultimately ends up following the advice anyway.

The Conservative Party was once known as the party of the economy and “competence.” But this no longer holds. Johnson may have thought himself clever in filling his cabinet with pro-Brexit incompetent loyalists — but in the end, it will ultimately lead to his downfall.