By Fayyez Patel – Contributor
With the news of a potential Covid- 19 vaccine being approved for mass production and the easing of current lockdown restrictions imminent, the need for strong leadership is essential in ensuring public confidence to follow the important guidelines as we enter a crucial stage of the Coronavirus pandemic. However, Boris Johnson has had two significant personnel issues to deal with in the last few weeks within his close circle of colleagues which could undermine his position of authority.
On the 12th November, it was announced that Mr. Johnson’s two most senior advisors, Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings, had been dismissed with immediate effect. This followed alleged internal disputes with other government officials; most notably the Prime Minister’s fiancé Carrie Symonds, who stepped in to voice her concerns over the level of influence the two have had in various government strategies. Very little is known about Lee Cain prior to these events other than his prominent role in the 2016 Vote Leave campaign and his act of activism in the run up to the 2010 general election, then as a Daily Mirror journalist, which saw him dressed up as a cartoon chicken following David Cameron around calling for him to appear in more televised debates. Whilst the Prime Minister has been criticised heavily over the last few months for his apparent reliance on his advisors, particularly Cummings, to take decisive action, his inability to keep a lid on tensions and maintain party unity only adds to the pressure he faces in appearing to be a strong leader through tough times of crisis.
It has been suggested that these inflamed tensions were just the tip of the iceberg, whereby the controversial Cummings’ role had fast become untenable in the wake of Joe Biden’s victory in the US Presidential election at the start of the month. As the key campaign director for Vote Leave, Cummings was appointed by the Prime Minister to help secure Britain’s exit from the European Union. As the months went by, it looked increasingly likely that no deal would be agreed with the EU, resulting in a hard Brexit; crucially renegading on the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and potentially causing hostility in Ireland once more following more than two decades of peace. This was, in effect, masterminded by Cummings and his team of Brexiteers in and around the cabinet who sought to agree a trade deal with the US; putting all their eggs into the Donald Trump basket. Once Biden’s (a man with proud Irish heritage) win became apparent, Cummings’ role in government was essentially redundant; he already faced widespread calls for his resignation – 59% of YouGov survey participants in May – when he admitted to breaking lockdown rules to take a 60 mile car journey eyesight test at Barnard Castle. ‘No deal Brexit’ relying on a US trade deal was no longer a viable option for Joe Biden would never allow the UK to tear up the GFA. Fast forward a little over a week and a Downing Street spat was the perfect opportunity for Johnson to, for once, take a stance against a now lame- duck Cummings and use the moment to gain some public credibility by banishing him and long- term ally Lee Cain from office. At least that’s what the government will spin the entire episode as, the truth is the Prime Minister desperately attempted to retain the pair, offering Cain to be his chief of staff – the ‘third most powerful [position] altogether’ after the PM himself and the chancellor of the exchequer according to Ian Katz of the Guardian – as one last push to keep the two in Downing Street. Johnson forever appears to be indecisive and relies on his trusted allies to make important decisions for him.
Perhaps somewhat more alarmingly, Mr. Johnson has again since come under fire for his backing of home secretary Priti Patel following an independent inquiry finding her to be guilty of bullying civil servants (somewhat ironically during ‘anti- bullying week’) and thus breaking the ministerial code for an unprecedented second time in the last three years. In 2017, she was forced to resign from Theresa May’s cabinet after the BBC had published details of a secret meeting between Patel and Israeli officials. Instead of doing the right thing again, she has used her boss’ weakness to feebly clutch onto her position, incredibly with the full support of the Prime Minister who had texted Conservative MPs to ‘form a square around the Pritster’ (the less said about this nickname, the better). This farcical support of workplace bullying resulted in Sir Alex Allan, the Prime Minister’s advisor on the ministerial code, tendering his resignation after his inquiry was significantly undermined by Boris Johnson. Whilst there is a need for solidarity between government ministers, convention dictates that a breach of the ministerial code should result in an automatic sacking from the government frontbench. Johnson’s failure to do this has once again made him appear to be controlled by Number 10, not in control of it himself.
Cross the parliamentary floor to the opposition; the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has attempted to show the increasingly divided electorate that he may be a beacon of hope to those looking for some sort of a sensible alternative to the current chaos at Westminster. However, he too has not been innocent in taking questionable decisions regarding high profile members of his own party. Rewind little under 12 months, Jeremy Corbyn had been handing a very sobering election result; the worst post- war Labour result with key issues taken against the leader being his indecisive stance on Brexit and very serious claims of antisemitism within his party. Whilst Starmer has kept his cards close to his chest in terms of Brexit, he has issued a stark message since taking over from Corbyn; antisemitism has no place in the Labour Party and there is absolutely a zero tolerance policy towards it under his leadership. Six months into his tenure, the biggest test of his commitment towards removing antisemitism; an EHRC report concludes the Labour Party ‘had broken the law with regards to its response to complaints of anti-Semitism within the party.’ This was met with ridiculous assertations from Corbyn who stated that the complaints were ‘dramatically overstated for political reasons.’ A virtual open goal for Starmer to further his political career; Corbyn was immediately suspended from the party pending further investigation. Likened to the moment Neil Kinnock revolutionised the party in 1983 by replacing the unpopular Michael Foot, Starmer’s historical removal of his predecessor has been widely acknowledged across all areas of the political spectrum as a political move above all to move the party away from its Socialist principles and the hard- left rhetoric synonymous with Corbyn’s tenure. Although Kinnock’s attempts to recapture support from the moderates among the electorate who had defected to Margaret Thatcher’s Tory party were in vain as far as his personal election success was concerned, it did pave the way for the Labour Party to return emphatically to office in the late 1990s with Tony Blair’s ‘third way’ approach, a distinctly different outlook to policies than traditional Labour leaders tend to propose. Starmer is supposed to be the ‘new Tony Blair’ according to his detractors – although this is just mere hyperbole from the Corbynite faction of the party who fundamentally reject the slight shift to the right Starmer has engineered to regain votes. However, not only has Starmer failed to make connections with any subsections of the electorate (something even Jeremy Corbyn managed as youth turnout surged whilst he ran for election) but he has also shown that his principles are easily compromised in order to further his own political career. When Jeremy Corbyn retracted his statement condemning the EHRC report, he was rightfully reinstated into the party, although Starmer stood firm in publicly claiming that Corbyn would not be given the party whip – a move, one would suggest, taken to appease anti- Corbyn sentiments, contradicting the EHRC recommendation of not allowing antisemitism to be used for political purposes. At a time when the Tory party has looked grossly incompetent, Keir Starmer has shown that Labour may not be a better alternative and above all has risked sparking a Labour civil war whilst doing very little to dispel the toxicity within his party.
Does Keir Starmer actually care about antisemitism or discrimination within his own party? Whilst his actions have proved to be strong in tackling antisemitism, a strong leader would be expected to tackle all forms of prejudice under their watch. In November 2020, it was reported that more than one quarter of Muslim Labour Party members have claimed to have directly experienced Islamophobia within the party, and more than half of Muslims in the party do not trust the current leadership to tackle the problem effectively. The Labour leader’s response? There hasn’t been one, to Starmer it would appear that discrimination only matters when there are high levels of pressure from media outlets and rival parties to do something about it. So, whilst Boris Johnson shows little evidence of strong leadership, Keir Starmer is yet to persuade anyone of his ability to lead through morally sound principles.