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One more item on the Johnson charge sheet: pathetic cowardice

Posted on August 28, 2020

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I started my teaching career in 1976 when the entire world was in black-and-white. Since that time there have been 17 ministers for education of varying quality and ability. Some have vanished into the mists of time without ever really troubling the scorers – Damian Hinds and Gillian Shephard, anyone? Others have done enough to make themselves recognizable to the wider public; Blunkett, Balls and Alan Johnson. One of them – just the one, mind – had actually been a teacher, Estelle Morris and one was Michael Gove. We’ll come back to him in a minute.

In a way, you should be able to judge the performance of these ministers in the same way that football fans think about referees: if you don’t notice them, they’re probably having a decent game. To be honest, until a few weeks ago, if that had been the sole criterion, then the current incumbent, Gavin Williamson, might be basking in the glory of a successful career. Not now. The utter, unspeakable fiasco of the exam results means that somehow, this grey nonentity may have gained just enough notoriety to get himself picked out in an identity parade.

Which is possibly where he should be anyway. Just over a year ago, Theresa May (c’mon, of course you remember who she is) sacked him from his role as defence secretary, believing that there was compelling evidence that he had leaked details of a confidential security meeting about allowing Huawei to develop its 5G network in the UK. The fact is that May was probably having her doubts about Gavin’s grasp of geopolitical issues once he had expressed the view that relationships with Russia would be improved if Putin would ‘just shut up and go away.’ Anyway, whether or not he was the leaker, his adherence to the creed of Brexit meant that Boris Johnson awarded him with the education post. Honest Gavin picked up the job and the salary, even though for a while, he may have been pocketing both his payoff from his sacking as well as his meagre weekly wage.

Like everyone else in that array of talent which is Johnson’s cabinet, Gav was dealt a bad hand when the pandemic came along. When schools closed at the end of March, it was the proper thing to do. But it’s an ill wind that blows no good for somebody and so at least he had plenty of time to contemplate how the difficult issue of examination results, due out in five months’ time, could be handled. That’s nearly half a year. To do one of the basics of your job. One of the predictable, certain, immoveable facets of your job.

All of which has resulted in just one question on the lips of anyone even remotely interested: how come he hasn’t been sacked (again)? You don’t have to be Nostradamus to work out why. Next week, children will be going back to school and, for the main part, that’s what everyone wants. But there will be problems. Infection will spread, some form of local lockdowns may well be necessary and plans and arrangements will have to be put in place when this happens. The government’s track record of the last few weeks (and I apologise for invoking the notion of tracking, so obviously beyond the competence of another of Johnson’s buddies, Matt Hancock) tells us that this will be badly handled. If I were Gavin, I wouldn’t be planning on any office renovations. The execution that should have come during results’ week is just pending until back-to-school hits the buffers and a fall-guy will be needed.

In the meantime, in an act of spectacular, cringing cowardice, the only P45 issued from number 10 (assuming Johnson isn’t on another of his rolling holidays) has been to the chief civil servant at the Department of Education (DfE), Jonathan Slater. Not the high-profile (if temporary) minister: a paid functionary of the state. Let’s be clear. This government harbours deep-seated, visceral hatred and mistrust towards civil servants. The witchfinder general in this regard is the free-spirit that is Dominic Cummings – the cuckoo introduced to the DFE nest by Michael Gove and who has stayed on to burrow his way into the ear of those in the cabinet, most of whom he openly despises. In his impenetrable blog posts, Cummings defines himself as an iconoclast, sweeping away the fossilised thinking of unelected (yes, really) mandarins. The truth behind this cavalier nonsense, dressed up as refreshing modernity, is bland and prosaic.

Civil servants deal with detail. If this decision is made, what are the knock-on effects elsewhere? If this policy is implemented, how much will it really cost? Can we predict lasting benefits from this pronouncement, or will effects be short-lived? Boring, dull, pesky, obstructive, necessary detail. Now, if there’s one thing we know about Boris Johnson, it’s that he’s big on optimism and bluster but when it comes to the nitty-gritty, even his most loyal advocates can’t pretend that it’s his cup of tea. So when Dom whispers to him that he can be rid of these restricting pen-pushers at a stroke, he sighs with happy relief. Off he goes to baffle kids with some bumble about mutant algorithms and sacks the bloke who might just have the knowledge and expertise to stop it happening again.

A few days ago, the Prime Minister invoked the notion of ‘moral duty’ when it came to parents sending their children back to school. This blog post is too short to list the multi-dimensional litany of Boris Johnson’s moral failures, but if I were looking for guidance on how to live my life the right way, my first port of a call would not be at the door of a weak, cringing coward.


You’ll have noticed the football reference in this piece. If you’re a proper fan, or if you know one, have a look at my new book about being a football supporter. Almost, but not quite, politics-free!



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