Coronavirus

Adam Boulton diary: We treat our Prime Ministers badly

BY Adam Boulton | tweet adamboultonSKY   /  11 April 2020

You don’t need to be Lady Bracknell to consider a Prime Minister in intensive care in the midst of a national crisis to be a most unfortunate turn of events. And that’s before you add in Health, Scottish, and Cabinet Office secretaries, the Chief Medical Officer, the Prime Minister’s closest advisor and his pregnant fiancée all of whom have also been stricken to some degree by Covid 19.

No other nation has had a leadership team struck down comprehensively. It has all set me wondering about leadership and whether we here treat our politicians and especially our Prime Ministers properly. I fear that we do not treat them with the respect we should although I know that many people will disagree. I suggested that Boris Johnson should be allowed a few weeks off to recuperate at Chequers after he leaves hospital, only to be greeted with spiteful tweets that he should be denied access to a second home like anyone else and immediately report for duty.

There is an egalitarian streak in the British character that a Prime Minister should be treated just like anyone else. Just look at the decades spent arguing whether our head of government should have a plane at his disposal. This rather overlooks the fact that “prime” means something, the Prime Minister is first among equals. As we are finding out the hard way now it inconveniences us all when he or she is inconvenienced.

Take the accommodation first. The leader of our government is crammed into a row of seventeenth century townhouses. It is an irony that Professor Neil Ferguson, the official advisor on epidemics from Imperial College, may well have been the super spreader in government but it does not excuse all his victims coughing and spluttering in a cramped meeting room, long after the public had been told to observe social distancing. Next, the Prime Minister, a man not known for taking care of himself at the best of times, was left to fester in isolation in a half furnished upstairs flat. His contacts with health professionals were over the phone or computer link. Of course there is no such thing as an appointed Downing Street physician, we wouldn’t want out Prime Minister to get up themselves would we?

The man elected a few months ago with such a strong personal mandate should be leading on the vital social and economic issues thrown up by the pandemic at home and on the international stage. Instead, the UK has become an international laughing stock. The imminent upgrade of Parliament, should provide an opportunity to build a modern functional Prime Minister’s Office and residence like the Kanzleramt in Berlin. But it will never happen here.

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Love him or hate him, President Donald Trump is demonstrating the influence a national leader can have. Trump’s modus operandi is to find a scapegoat and play the blame game. Even when he described the Coronavirus outbreak as a hoax not so long ago, and the US suffers one of the worst outbreaks beset by many shortages of equipment similar to the UK, Trump takes no blame and is pointing the finger at China and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Even when the President is making nice, as when he boasted he might satisfy the UK’s alleged request for ventilators, he was scoring off us, contrasting America’s supposed strength with our weakness.

“The WHO really blew it”, @realdonaldtrump tweeted, “For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China centric. We will give that a good look.” This turned out to be a typical deployment of bait and switch. Having threatened to cut US funding to the UN health body he later explained that he was only thinking about it.

The WHO provoked Trump’s enmity when it criticized his earlier scapegoating measure closing the US border to China as ineffective. He is right that the US pays the most in WHO subscription. USD 57.9m a year, compared to 28.7m for China and 10m from the UK. But the WHO reckons the US should pay nearly twice that. The Chinese leadership has also stepped up providing leadership for some voluntary operations where the Trump Administration, unlike its predecessors, has drawn back.

From its leader the Ethiopian microbiologist Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus downwards, the WHO seems to have decided that China looks like the more reliable partner going forward. WHO has been noticeably unwilling to challenge China, even accepting Beijing’s claim that Covid-19 could not be infected person-to-person. Taiwan, the independent island claimed by China, has not been mentioned or monitored, even though it has reportedly been a global leader coping with the virus.

China is bidding to be a global superpower, just as Trump is retreating into America First. The most consequential decision shaping our world after Coronavirus will be whether or not the American people re-elect Mr Trump on Tuesday 3 November.


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