The U.K. Needs a Real Government, Not Boris Johnson’s Puppet Cabinet

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain on his first day back at work in London last month after contracting the coronavirus. Credit Frank Augstein/Associated Press
Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain on his first day back at work in London last month after contracting the coronavirus. Credit Frank Augstein/Associated Press

On the day a paler, thinner, notably less boisterous Boris Johnson returned to work after his near-death coronavirus experience, a Tory member of Parliament tweeted a GIF of a magnificent lion perched on a mountaintop, his mane blowing in the wind. “Good to see @BorisJohnson back at the helm!” he wrote.

This fawning sycophancy is not the norm in British politics. We haven’t, on the whole, run Trumpian courts, or implied that our prime ministers are kings among men. And yet, unusual and unwelcome as the adulation was, the tweeter had a point.

Mr. Johnson’s cabinet is so markedly weak, with so few politicians of intellect and experience, that the prime minister’s absence for nearly a month left an alarming void. A shifting cast of ministers stood in for him at the daily pandemic press briefings, with performances ranging from mortifying to faltering or defensive to occasionally, thankfully, competent.

The lack of depth in the cast around this cabinet table was mercilessly displayed, as was the nervousness of many of those obliged to face public interrogation at such a critical time. Some, like the new chancellor, Rishi Sunak, could handle their own briefs, but not one felt able or authorized to even begin to address the big questions Britain now wants answered: What is the route out of lockdown, and how should deaths be balanced against isolation, loneliness, futures and jobs? All those queries were diverted, with evident relief, to the stock response: We’ll have to wait until the boss gets back.

Against that background of anxious, stalling stand-ins, Mr. Johnson’s reappearance has, indeed, felt like the welcome return of a big beast. The country needs a leader. But his dominance is no accident. It’s the consequence of the deliberate choice he made after he became Conservative Party leader last year to expel principled opponents within the party and to surround himself with smaller characters, ones who will neither threaten nor challenge him, politicians chosen on the whole more for their malleability and their loyalty to Mr. Johnson’s Brexit project than for their talent.

Mr. Johnson’s calculation then was that the quality of his cabinet was pretty much immaterial. His priority was to deliver Brexit and economic policies that the Conservatives’ new Brexit-supporting voters were demanding. That would be driven by Mr. Johnson’s small team of political advisers in No. 10 Downing Street, led by his ruthless, controlling, Machiavellian chief adviser, Dominic Cummings.

In this centralization of power, a core group of insiders and allies would decide the government’s agenda and come up with the ideas and the strategies for carrying it out. The job of cabinet ministers would be to do, meekly, as they were told.

No opposition was permitted. Senior, able Tory politicians of independent spirit were passed over and exiled to the backbenches. Any cabinet ministers who imagined they were strong enough to subvert the new system had a harsh lesson in January, when its second-most-senior member, Sajid Javid, then the country’s finance minister and a Johnson ally, was ordered to fire all his advisers and replace them with those appointed by Mr. Cummings. He refused and was forced to resign. A fear of breaching the line has haunted the remaining ministers and encouraged timidity ever since.

The onslaught of the coronavirus has revealed how dangerous it is to deliberately weaken the cabinet in this way. In Mr. Johnson’s absence, his alternative power center at No. 10 could not hold. Not only did its principal members, including Mr. Cummings, fall sick themselves, but in this emergency, political advisers couldn’t take the place of an absent prime minister. Britain needed and wanted to see powerful public figures in the lead. What we got were politicians anxious about the future verdict of their puppeteers.

Britain needs better than this as it faces the most petrifying, unpredictable, multifaceted calamity in three generations. The breadth of the problem demands as much wisdom, competence and insight as can be brought into Downing Street. Last week, Mr. Johnson promised to consult widely, even with the opposition. He should extend that to where it counts, to a temporary cabinet and government of all the best and tested Tory talents.

Instead of contriving an obedient cabinet, he should model himself on those previous prime ministers who included rivals and ex-leaders in their governments, knowing that the vexations of resistance, argument and persuasion were a price worth paying for averting errors, clarifying problems, and learning from those who had been scalded by earlier crises.

Many ex-ministers would respond to a call to serve for a short time in the national interest. Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, could help expand the National Health Service. The former chancellors Kenneth Clarke and Philip Hammond and former prime ministers John Major and David Cameron could deploy their knowledge of financial crises and banks that won’t lend. Mr. Javid would be an infinitely better home secretary than the inadequate Priti Patel, and the critical backbencher Tom Tugendhat could run the Foreign Office. Mr. Johnson’s predecessor as prime minister, Theresa May, could use her best quality, her famed attention to detail, to oversee food and support for the shielded and vulnerable or the delivery of personal protective equipment.

Would this even be legal? Yes, easily: Technically, a member of the cabinet must be in the Parliament. Those who aren’t currently M.P.s could be appointed to the House of Lords, a step the prime minister is empowered to take. If the most anonymous and mediocre half of the cabinet were replaced by names like these, the caliber of the executive would soar overnight. Notable former politicians who didn’t wish to join — or were from other parties — say, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or William Hague — could form an advisory panel. If Mr. Johnson worried that his temporary coronavirus cabinet would impede Brexit, its members could agree not to interfere with that.

None of this, of course, is likely to happen. Mr. Johnson dislikes sharing the limelight. That’s one reason the most experienced member of his cabinet, Michael Gove, wasn’t picked to deputize for him while he was out sick. But it is in Mr. Johnson’s self-interest, as well as the country’s, to act, for one notable reason.

His path to the top has been based on a simple strategy: He’s not a knowledgeable, able, policy-driven leader. He’s an optimistic figurehead who prefers an easy life and gets competent people beneath him to do the actual work. That strategy risks falling apart now because neither Mr. Johnson’s narrow group of advisers nor the ministers he appointed for their loyalty are the people best qualified to handle the grave perils ahead. He should broaden his base and stop his chief adviser, Mr. Cummings, ruling by fear. Britain doesn’t require a lion in this moment; it needs a leader with the humility and confidence to recruit every necessary talent to this fight.

Jenni Russell is a columnist for The Times of London and a contributing Opinion writer.

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