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Boris Johnson chairs Cabinet meeting, Picture: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, linked at bottom of article

Boris Johnson chairs Cabinet meeting, Picture: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, linked at bottom of article

As parliament returns, no one should believe Johnson’s promises of safety at school or work, argues Sean Ledwith

Boris Johnson reconvened his cabinet of none of the talents yesterday after the summer recess. As usual, the emphasis was on spin rather than substance as the meeting took place in a spacious office at the Foreign Office, rather than inside Number 10, in a pathetic attempt to reassure British workers that returning to work is totally safe. Johnson’s speech was full of his default bluster and boosterism with the addition of some probably unwise nautical imagery:

In the last few months we’ve been sailing into the teeth of a gale, no question.And I am no great nautical expert but sometimes it is necessary to tack here and there in response to the facts as they change, in response to the wind’s change but we have been going steadily in the direction, in the course we set out and we have not been blown off that course.

What he should have gone to say is that the reason the storm of the pandemic has been so hard-hitting in the UK is that the captain of the ship is hopelessly out of his depth and his officers are a combination of the clueless and the corrupt. As if to underline the point, Johnson’s Defence Secretary Ben Wallace shook the hand of a colleague just prior to the meeting, seemingly unaware that for months no one has been shaking hands! Another one of his ministers provided a more realistic assessment of the state of the government in another unguarded moment before the meeting: Back to the madhouse.

Minister for finding scapegoats

No single individual currently personifies the incompetence of this administration more than hapless Education Secretary Gavin Williamson who appeared in the Commons yesterday in a risible attempt to excuse months of chaos and confusion in his department. Williamson has presided over a delayed shutdown of classrooms in the spring, a botched attempt to reopen them in early summer, and most spectacularly, a virtual meltdown of the exam assessment system last month.

Rarely in modern UK history has one politician managed to reduce a ministry of state to such a shambles in such a short space of time. Incredibly, Williamson is still in office and seems to be spending most of his time looking for scapegoats to distract from his own ineptitude. Last week, Sally Collier from the exams agency Ofqual and Jonathan Slater, the top civil servant at the DFE, both quit in a transparent attempt to create political breathing space for Williamson.

Despite the blithe assurances of Williamson and his boss, millions of parents, children and teachers remain wholly unconvinced of the safety of classrooms as the new term commences. Scottish schools, which have been open for a fortnight, are already reporting a significant surge in infections and some classes have needed to be sent home to isolate again. The government has no contingency in place for how schools are supposed to cope once the pandemic starts to overlap with the annual flu season in the winter. A credible track and trace system would help differentiate the two illnesses but the UK version has become a byword for failure and incompetence.

Cummings’ purge

Williamson’s mini-purge of education policy-makers was undoubtedly supervised by Dominic Cummings who has made no secret of his agenda to subject the upper echelons of the civil service to a so-called hard rain. Slater is the fifth permanent secretary at a government department to get the chop in the last seven months. We should be under no illusions that Cummings – who also attended Johnson’s reconvened cabinet yesterday – is motivated by a neutral desire to improve delivery or efficiency. Slater is going not just because of the exams fiasco but also because he advised against the premature full reopening of schools at the start of June that was initially demanded by Johnson and Williamson.

At the Home Office, Philip Rutman accused the execrable Priti Patel of bullying in his resignation statement. Simon McDonald‘s departure from the Foreign Office was prompted by the merging of that department with International Development. This culling of civil servants is covered with the fingerprints of Cummings’ unhinged agenda to embed a hard right and technocratic elite at the heart of the British state who owe loyalty to him personally. The perils of this centralisation of power in Number 10 will become even more apparent as Johnson and his team of incompetents threaten to take us right back into the eye of the pandemic storm in the winter.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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