Just before the 2019 General Election, Trump came to the UK to attend the 70th anniversary NATO summit, and to take issue, once again, with the nature of that alliance. Unpopular with the British electorate, and seen as perilous for a Johnson victory, the Johnson team ensured that Trump was kept as far away from team Johnson as possible.
With insurrection on the Capitol, and Nazi sympathisers claiming Trump was cheated out of office, Conservative spokespersons in the UK are again seeking to create distance between their man and Trump. In a bid to deny that the entrenched division and populism associated with Trump have invaded UK politics under Johnson, they put forward significant differences between the two leaders. But the very fact that the parallels are being so vocally denied suggests that they fear the similarities and the connection will be recognised.
Common characteristics were clear from the start: Trump is a known liar, as is Johnson; Trump is an entertainer, as is Johnson. And Johnson hasn’t always kept his distance: Johnson admitted to being intrigued by Trump’s tactics and use of social media. He even suggested that he might deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.
While we look on at the entrenched division and the violence in the US, we should take a long, hard and uncomplacent look at our democracy under Johnson.
This is the first of three articles where I take a look at the parallel perils of their leadership: what does their handling of the pandemic tell us about their leadership qualities?
Johnson v Trump – Part 1: management of the pandemic
Both Johnson and Trump prefer to give their audience the easy message: that this will soon be over. In April 2020, Johnson said we were “past the peak of the outbreak”, he hoped for a return to normality by Christmas 2020, and now by Easter 2021. This, even now, despite his advisers clearly telling us restrictions may well still be necessary next Winter. His suggestion in March against the evidence from Wuhan and from Italy that we might be able to take the virus on the chin, and his slowness to lockdown in March, September and December, against the scientific advice to keep ahead of the pandemic, and at odds with other European countries, have undermined the seriousness of the dangers that we faced as a society, causing untold unnecessary deaths and disastrous pressure on our frontline workers and hospitals.
Trump’s path in managing the pandemic has followed a very similar pattern to Johnson. In his bid to deny it was a problem, Trump was slow to lockdown and too fast to reopen, resulting in an estimated 36,000 extra deaths in the first wave. Once denial and delay were no longer possible, he attributed blame and encouraged xenophobia: “the China virus” he called it. While Johnson has not resorted to such overt xenophobia, his obsession with declaring the UK world-beating on test and trace and on vaccine management follows the same populist “us versus them” divisive tendency.
At the outbreak of the pandemic, the UK’s failure to heed the WHO advice to test, test, test allowed the virus to spread unchecked, and made it impossible to trace outbreaks before they became widespread. The fact that we stopped community testing in March 2020, in the face of this advice, and that we are now, some ten months after other island nations instituted testing at airports, only just beginning to test at our ports and airports is bewildering in its recklessness. The words “horse” and “bolted” spring to mind. One can only marvel at the optimism or pity the desperation in planning a trip to this plague island right now.
The result of Johnson’s desire to give good news at every stage, has been a series of unclear messaging, delay and U-turns, followed by an unassailable avalanche of bad news. Over 1,000 deaths a day, hospitals unable to cope, and 50,000 cases identified daily. The fact that we have spent the most of any country on a failed test and trace system, and yet have one of the worst outcomes, and are still not providing adequate support for those people who need to isolate is not a marker of optimism, but of profligate opportunism, cronyism and a dereliction of responsibility.
If we look at communication, we can see that both leaders have failed. Admittedly, the delusions of injecting bleach plumb unscientific depths to which Johnson has not sunk, but his declaration of an Independence Day and to Eat Out to Help Out over the Summer were foolish and premature. The newly constituted, ill-advised, outsourced and centralised Test and Trace service had only been in place for a month and was not tracing enough cases and contacts to understand where the virus was spreading. Equally, castigating the leader of the Opposition for wanting to “cancel Christmas” while in the knowledge that a new variant was spreading like wildfire across the country, have all unarguably contributed to a failure to take this pandemic seriously, and to understand the importance of stopping its spread. We are all Captain Hindsight now.
This failure of clear messaging has emboldened the covid deniers, the anti-maskers, the anti-vaxxers and the anti-lockdown commentators. Unable to deliver a coherent strategy, Johnson and Trump have appeased the far right sceptics, and encouraged an extreme fringe to influence policy, against the science and in the face of the overwhelming tragedy. Both Johnson and Trump encouraged the theories of the Great Barrington Declaration: Johnson invited the authors to Downing Street, despite its core theory being rejected as inappropriate, irresponsible and ill-informed by the mainstream scientific community. In so doing both leaders allowed doubt in the efficacy of restrictions to take hold and undermined the public health measures which would have ensured better protection.
Countries which have fared better under the pandemic are ones where the messaging has been clear and unifying, and where anti-maskers and anti-lockdown commentators are not empowered by the politicians in charge.
Protecting the vulnerable
It is not just in the failure to act ahead of the pandemic or their failure on communication that we find similarities in their style of leadership, it is also in their failure to offer protection to the most vulnerable in their societies and in their ability to incite division.
Coronavirus has shone a spotlight on health inequalities. People facing the greatest deprivation have been hit hardest by the virus. It has also exposed the structural disadvantage and discrimination faced by parts of the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. In the UK, statutory sick pay is around £95 per week, one of the lowest of all European countries, many people cannot afford to quarantine and as a result the virus spreads through these communities. When people are faced with the choice of staying at home or being able to feed their family, that is no choice. It is estimated that some 3 million people have been entirely excluded from any financial help in the UK, and the endless government failures to provide free school meals until Marcus Rashford shames them into doing so should give anyone cause to doubt their stated “levelling up” agenda.
Rather than measures to support isolation, the UK Government prefers a system of fines for non-compliance. It has shown a similar punitive attitude towards schools when it issued legal threats to local authorities who wanted to close schools in December, due to the rising number of cases.
Trump also showed his reluctance to fund people unable to work due to the pandemic, saying that the money would be a disincentive to returning to work.
In both countries we have seen a centralisation of power, where regions in the UK and states in the US are at odds with central government, for funds and for support, leading to resistance, division and a politisation of the pandemic.
When confronting a crisis of a magnitude not seen for 100 years, the common features of Trump and Johnson are failure, division and disaster. They have failed to act with necessary speed, failed to protect the most vulnerable, and failed to unite their countries in collective effort. Instead, they have created mistrust and division, all resulting in countless, unnecessary deaths: world-leaders on a shattering statistic for which neither would want to claim responsibility. And yet it is undeniably theirs.
In the next instalment of this series on Johnson and Trump, I will be looking at their leadership styles and their common desire to deny debate.