When John Crace became the Guardian’s Political sketch writer I wondered how he could possibly fill his predecessor’s shoes. It takes considerable skill to be faithful to the truth and funny at the same time.
As those who read him regularly will, I think, agree he has more than managed it, adding along the way a deeply moving element of his awareness of his own human frailty.
His conclusion to yesterday’s Prime Minister's Question Time, in which Johnson tried to play the common sense card, was typical (and the whole piece is well worth reading and a wholly fair summary of proceedings) :
In other times it might have been uplifting for the opposition benches to see the prime minister so comprehensively dismantled. But there was little cheering or a sense of satisfaction, because in a time of crisis you rather hope the country would have a leader in whom you could believe. Someone you could trust to make at least some of the right decisions. But we have Boris. Incompetent, unprepared, selfish, lazy, amoral, and just not that bright. And no matter how many times Starmer batters him with an indefensible charge sheet at PMQs, Boris will remain prime minister for the duration.
That is balanced, plays to his audience and at the same time is cuttingly accurate.
It’s also worth remembering what common sense is defined by the Tories to be. We have a source for that. William Hague ran to be Prime Minister in the 2001 general election under the banner:
Time for Common Sense
As his manifesto said (and it’s worth recalling it):
We present here the most ambitious Conservative programme for a generation.
Its aim is to release the wisdom, decency and enterprise of British citizens. We can achieve that by handing back to individuals and families the ability to shape their own lives and communities.
We will free entrepreneurs to build businesses and to create prosperity, free those who use public services to choose what is best for them and free those who work in our schools and hospitals and police service from endless political interference.
We want to set people free so that they have greater power over their own lives. That is what I have always believed.
From 2010 this is, of course, what the Tories did. Their common sense was to pass control back to those who thought themselves able to take it.
What Hague forgot to mention was that his party would be indifferent to the needs of those who did not have the means to do so. Or simply could not, for whatever the cause of the constraint, and in our world they are many of them.
And what he also made clear was that he would run away from government, saying:
But there is something else too. I value those aspects of our national life which are bigger than individuals and families. That is why we will nurture our towns and cities, our countryside, our local institutions, our charities, our democracy -- for they make us who we are as a nation.
NHS reform was the result of that and delivered an organisation incapable of planning for a pandemic. By gutting it of common purpose and making it a fractured organisation it was left unable to manage.
But Hague said:
Our programme is rooted in the instincts of millions of people whose beliefs are mocked by Labour. It is rooted, in other words, in common sense.
It shouldn't be necessary to make an appeal to common sense.Yet the common sense wisdom of the mainstream majority, on crime, or on taxes, or the family, or on Europe, is under threat as never before.
Labour does not understand our country and cannot value what it cannot understand.
This meddling and interfering Government is eroding our freedoms as well as weakening the institutions that give us a sense of common purpose.
At this Election Britain has a choice between a Labour Party that trusts government instead of people and a Conservative Party that trusts people instead of government.
I am not uncritical of Labour: and in pointing this out I am not saying that the Labour Party is free of mistakes. The Labour government elected in 2001 most certainly was not, as we all now know. I am instead pointing out a philosophy that persists in the Conservatives today, and which has left it and its leader quite unable to know what to do in the face of a pandemic.
They do not trust government.
They do not trust anything government does, even when they do it.
So they choose to do nothing.
And as a result we got delay, dither, and deliberate inaction in February, leaving this crisis unmanaged even when it was apparent that this would result in many of the most vulnerable dying, as they have.
I think that this country does believe that government can give us a common purpose.
And it does know that when the chips are down that we do need leadership, action in the common interest, and protection for all. And we know that there are occasions when that requires we suppress our own interests.
Those are values that Hague said were alien to Tories.
I’ll leave others to decide whether those are the beliefs that left Johnson appearing incompetent, unprepared, selfish, lazy, amoral, or just not that bright, as Crace put it.
But I do know that the mindset Johnson clearly shares with Hague is hopelessly out of touch with the needs of this country now.
Hat tip to Bryan Rylands for the 2001 manifesto