23 August 2020

Weekly briefing: Giving Boris a break


‘Boris Carries On Camping!’ screamed the front page of the Daily Mail on Friday, with the shocking revelation that the Prime Minister and his family had taken a summer break in a remote Highlands cottage. The paper went on to list the various crises that have been raging while the PM has been ‘enjoying his glorious isolation’ – from the exams row to the fact that Covid cases have ‘slowly crept up since early July’.

This kind of thing is par for the course in a political culture where deference to senior decisionmakers has long made way for a kind of mad hyper-scrutiny. There’s a ready audience for stories about an apparently insouciant, out-of-touch politician swanning about while the rest of us battle gamely to avert disaster.

It’s particularly easy to contrive this genre of outrage with Prime Ministers, whose limitless remit means there is pretty much always going to be a story or political development they could conceivably be chipping in on.

And sometimes the opprobrium may be justified. Australian PM Scott Morrison’s popping off to Hawaii while his country literally burned was about as bad a look for a senior politician as you could get – a mistake attested to by his grovelling apology on returning home.

In Mr Johnson’s case, however, this kind of criticism feels pretty confected. His longest period off work this year has been a stint in ICU, and it wasn’t that long ago that people were questioning why he had not taken more of a break to fully recover from coronavirus. That’s before we come to the birth of his son, after which he took no paternity leave.

Part of the motive for these attacks, of course, is the usual Boris Derangement Syndrome, a term coined by our own Robert Colvile for when the PM’s more swivel-eyed critics will find any excuse to pilliory him, perhaps chucking in a wild conspiracy theory for good measure – just type ‘Boris holiday’ into Twitter for a flavour.

But I think it speaks to a broader problem of what you might call ‘political presenteeism’ – the idea that something is only being done if a certain politician is in a particular place or making a statement.

Perhaps the most egregious example is when opposition parties table an Urgent Question in Parliament, then complain that a minister ‘cannot be bothered’ to change their schedule at short notice to reply.

Given the frankly insane nature of most politicians’ work schedules, the idea they are absent due to laziness or indifference always seems somewhat off beam. These criticisms can also backfire horribly, such as when Labour MPs attacked Vince Cable for having missed a vote on the minimum wage, only to discover he had been at his wife’s hospital bed at the time.

We saw another strand earlier in the year with complaints that Mr Johnson had not attended several Covid-related Cobra meetings, a charge also levelled at Nicola Sturgeon. Not to make the same mistake twice, the First Minister has now declared she won’t be taking any breaks ‘for the forseeable future’.

In both cases the underlying assumption, that presence at a meeting is a proxy for action, is mistaken. Indeed, as anyone who has sat through a long, largely irrelevant work meeting can attest, being ‘present’ can often detract from getting things done.

To put it simply, politicians can’t be everywhere all the time, and if they tried to be they wouldn’t be doing their job well. Taking the odd holiday to recharge a bit ought to be not just accepted, but actively encouraged – and one could well ask whether Ms Sturgeon taking no time off will ultimately be counter-productive.

So by all means criticise the policies, the cock-ups and all the rest of it, but when it comes to taking a holiday, perhaps we should give politicians a break.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.