The Incompetence of Boris Johnson

This week we talk about the politics of incompetence: when does it matter and when can politicians get away with it. Have repeated u-turns during the pandemic damaged the government? Has Nicola Sturgeon had a better crisis than Boris Johnson or is it just competence theatre? Is the government's incompetence going to be enough to get Keir Starmer into Downing Street? With Helen Thompson, Chris Brooke and Chris Bickerton.


Talking Points:


Competence: does it matter? 

  • What kinds of incompetence are likely to do this government the most harm?
  • There have been a lot of u-turns in the policy and rules around COVID.
  • Are these u-turns or is the government improvising in an unprecedented situation?
  • The u-turns that do the most harm are those that are seen as a breach of trust.


The important context for u-turns in British politics is Margaret Thatcher’s 1980 speech to the Conservative Party Conference.

  • Her predecessor, Ted Heath, did not stick to the manifesto line in government.
  • She actually was making a u-turn in macroeconomic policy, but she had concluded that voters saw pragmatic chopping and changing as incompetence.
  • The difficulty for Johnson is that there’s a general perception that the government isn’t entirely on top of things. The competence issue comes back to the surface.


The internal market bill is being published and it will apparently renege on some aspects of the withdrawal act.

  • Being perceived as seeing yourself above international law is a risk for any government.
  • In the context of Brexit, this is the consequence of how boxed in the Johnson government was when it came into power.


COVID has revealed big differences between Westminster and the devolved governments.

  • Sturgeon in particular has pitched her government as more competent than the Johnson government.
  • Critics of the SNP say that this is theatre. 
  • But the handling of the pandemic may well feed into the SNP’s pitch heading into what appears to be an increasingly imminent referendum, which they are increasingly confident of winning.
  • But it’s not just the pandemic; it’s also the whole Brexit process.


Can Starmer use competence as a lever? Can you win power through competence?

  • The opposition is not in a great place to set the agenda. A number of very important decisions will be made in the next year or so that change the political situation.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of the Conservatives to replace Johnson.
  • Many of Johnson’s ministers are creatures of his politics.
  • What’s interesting about Sunak is that he doesn’t quite fit that template.



Mentioned in this Episode:


Further Learning: