There was always that question-mark over Boris Johnson. Is he a highly intelligent, astute politician who likes to play the clown? Or is he really a clown, a chancer who got lucky in timing his run to get to No.10? The latter seems most likely: but, as this government lurches from one cock-up to the next crisis, retired headteacher Bernard Trafford wonders how even this PM can bear such incompetence. And is that why he’s hiding? Meanwhile, his ministers, mired in muddles and messes, prove Boris is no Machiavelli.
As regular Voice of the North readers will know, I’d been charting the government meltdown over public exam results. After Thursday’s GCSE grades, and news that yet another U-turn has delayed publication of BTEC results, you might have expected another rant. And you’ll get one, if you read on: but this goes deeper than the one topic. It follows on from my previous piece about sheer incompetence.
Of course, there’s no requirement for any politician, let alone a PM, to be like Machiavelli. Indeed, use of the adjective Machiavellian is generally taken to be pejorative, redolent of ruthlessness and low cunning. Nonetheless, I expect that Boris did, at some stage of his gilded youth and education, read The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), and gain some pass knoweldge of its thesis.
Machiavelli was a successful Florentine diplomat who fell out of favour and was exiled from Florence by the ruling Medici family in 1512. The Prince is, in effect, a handbook for an autocratic ruler. Much of it describes the behaviours of the “wise man” or “wise ruler”.
What got the work a bad name (apart from sheer misrepresentation) is its blunt realpolitik. For example, it advocates ruthless cruelty, including the killing of the prince’s enemies, if such behaviour protects the state and its ruler, warning that kindness can be perceived as weakness.
You might say that Boris followed Machiavelli’s advice when forming his cabinet. Out went anyone suspected of disloyalty to him and his Brexit agenda. The ongoing and less-than-stealthy centralisation of power from government departments into No.10 follows a similar course.
But Boris turned his back on Machievelli when he brought into that cabinet the yes-men (and women) who would reliably dance to his tune. The Italian author insists that the wise prince surrounds himself with the cleverest advisors, not flatterers who make him look good by comparison:
“The choice of servants is very important to a prince… the first opinion which one forms of a prince, and of his wisdom, is by observing the men [sic] he has around him. If they are capable and loyal he will be considered wise, because he knows how to recognize their ability and to keep them faithful. But when they are lacking in those qualities, one forms a bad opinion of the prince, for his first error was in choosing them.”
Every time a minister ignores expert advice, then dithers and makes U-turns, as those in education have done recently, I think of Machiavelli.
Such an incompetent bunch – apart, possibly, from Chancellor Rishi Sunak, on whom the jury is still out – cannot help but make us “form a bad opinion” of their leader. If there ever was a cunning Boris plan, led by his vision and charisma, it’s been sunk: not by the Covid-19 crisis, but by his team’s constant bungling.
What of his senior advisor, Dominic Cummings, sometimes characterised, if not as his Machiavelli, then as his eminence grise (Leclerc, the shadowy assistant to Cardinal Richelieu). His selfish breaking of the lockdown rules and subsequent shameless self-justification were not the actions of a Machiavelli but a catastrophic, spectacularly selfish misjudgement.
Backing Cummings instead of sacking him and supporting his useless education ministers brands Boris feeble and indecisive.
Come to that, where is Boris? Hiding. Sure, even a PM must be allowed a bit of holiday. But when all hell breaks loose, the leader should be on the spot, as Machiavelli confirms:
“… if one is on the spot, disorders are seen as they spring up, and one can quickly remedy them; but if one is not at hand, they are heard of only when they are great, and then one can no longer remedy them.”
Boris was never required to be a Machiavelli, nor to meet his exacting (and brutal) standards. Yet he should be something. Clownish rather than clever; buffoon, not ball of fire; on current form he’s nothing – and nowhere.