Christopher Hitchens once described how a leftwing journalist met Henry Kissinger at a party in the 1990s. He accepted that his editors had called the former US secretary of state a war criminal, but said Kissinger shouldn’t be upset: they would say the same about Bill Clinton. The bloodstained old bastard turned his expressionless eyes towards him and said: “Mr Clinton does not have the strength of character to be a war criminal.”
A similar reply can be directed at all who fear Boris Johnson’s dictatorial tendencies. The printable insults that stick to the prime minister – “incompetent”, “charlatan”, “slob” and so on – do not suggest he has the strength of character to become a dictatorial ruler. He’s more will-o’-the-wisp than will to power.
Incompetence can produce arbitrary government, however. Johnson’s failures are pushing this government towards extremism. There are two strategies for containing the second wave of Covid-19 and he has screwed up both. His advisers on Sage offered the first last week when they said that to avoid a “large epidemic with catastrophic consequences”, he should order “circuit-breaking” lockdowns at half term, and probably at Christmas and Easter, by when we may have a vaccine.
Johnson won’t do it. As he has been three weeks behind at every stage of the crisis, he may do a U-turn and lock down when it’s too late to make a difference.
For the moment, he is trying to force on the north of England restrictions that his own advisers say won’t work. “Force” is the right verb, because the government’s actions have destroyed the consensus on which the anti-Covid campaign rested. Rishi Sunak made the fatal mistake of beginning the withdrawal of emergency support for workers, self-employed people and businesses before the emergency was over. Johnson and Sunak want to close northern business. Because they cannot offer adequate compensation, they are condemning minimum-wage workers to a 33% cut. Northern mayors and MPs will not consent to it.
Johnson in all likelihood will impose his demands on Manchester and any city or county that defies him. Notice, however, that his dictatorial behaviour flows from government incompetence rather than a cunning design. Notice, too, that it is a response to the loss of public support. It’s not just Sunak’s calamitous decision to withdraw aid, or that the open defiance of mayors tells their voters the restrictions lack legitimacy. The failure to fire Dominic Cummings, the chaotic messaging that told us to eat out one minute and huddle indoors the next, the disbelief generated by the government’s inability to govern, are forcing this administration to become more authoritarian.
Readers ask why I have not joined lawyers and civil libertarians I usually respect and protested against the lockdown. I agree that, on paper, Britain has looked close to a dictatorship since the spring. The Westminster, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Stormont governments have criminalised vast areas of private and working life. Johnson is governing as far as possible without the consent of parliament and the police have sweeping powers.
And yet public consent has meant that Britain hasn’t felt like a dictatorship. The police have barely used their powers. Between 27 March and 21 September, they issued 18,912 fines for breach of coronavirus regulations. The French police, by contrast, had issued 1.1m by mid-May. The cohabitation of light-touch policing and draconian laws cannot last. Something has to give and it will not be police powers.
The second plausible anti-Covid strategy is to test, trace and isolate carriers. What if there is no safe and effective vaccine in early 2021? Or ever? Do we carry on with “circuit breakers” until the country is broken? East Asian states did not use lockdowns to beat the virus, but intense monitoring of their populations and state-enforced quarantine for the sick and their contacts. We are not living in a “bio-surveillance” state here because of the failure of the test-and-trace programme. The Treasury has allocated £12bn to it, comparable to what the government spends on nursery and university education. It has stuffed the pockets of rapacious management consultants and crony capitalists with links to the Vote Leave elite. The lavishly funded system has failed to deliver sufficient tests, been too slow to tell the infected they have the virus and made dunderheaded technical errors that meant almost 16,000 positive cases were missed.
I asked the Treasury press office how it could approve paying management consultants up to £6,250 a day to work on coronavirus testing systems while telling furloughed Mancunian bar staff it couldn’t afford more than two-thirds of the minimum wage. Answer came there none.
The greatest failure is the least talked about: the failure to isolate. The police and public health authorities check people who have returned from abroad. But nowhere in the police statistics is there specific mention of checks on people who stayed in the UK and either caught the virus or were in contact with someone who did. The National Police Chiefs’ Council spokesman did not know if checks had taken place. Probably not, was my guess. A study by Kings College London, which has not been peer-reviewed, suggested that only 18% of people with Covid symptoms had self-isolated. Official indifference to quarantine breaking will change as bio-surveillance belatedly arrives. Regulations issued on 20 September tell the police and NHS test-and-trace staff to enforce self-isolation, with fines of up to £10,000 on citizens who don’t comply.
All those billions will eventually make state surveillance possible. Even Johnson can’t blunder forever. If we could trust him, I wouldn’t object to protecting public health and the economy by allowing the house arrest of the sick. Britain isn’t China, after all. The trouble is it isn’t an open democracy either. This government can’t be trusted. It suspends and then bypasses parliament and fights all independent checks. Living under it will soon have the feel of a dictatorship: not because of Johnson’s strength but because his weakness has forced him to turn from playing the fool to acting the tough guy.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist