The Hallett Inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic unveils dysfunction in the UK government, revealing intersections with Brexit. Testimonies depict Boris Johnson’s incompetence, a toxic culture, and how Brexit hampered pandemic planning.

T he Hallett Inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic still has a long way to go, but the evidence it is taking is already revealing an extraordinary picture of the British government at the time and, in the process, much about Brexit. It is tempting to say that it is not revealing much that many of us did not guess, but, apart from the fact that there’s much in the detail that is fresh, there is an important difference between ‘guessing’ and seeing hard evidence laid out in documents or given by witnesses under oath. And, actually, what is emerging is even more dire than could have been guessed.

What we could guess

Of course, it is not an inquiry into the handling of Brexit, but it has long been clear that there were multiple intersections and interactions between that and the handling of COVID. I discussed many of them during the pandemic period, including in what is still the most-read post on the blog, from April 2020, which also gives links to some of the other places they are discussed by me and others. Some of those posts contain details which are now irrelevant, but the overall picture that is emerging confirms what is perhaps the central point made in that April 2020 post:

“What both Brexit and coronavirus reveal are some fundamental flaws in the way we are governed and the political discourse around it. The populist explosion of this decade, of which Brexit was a prime example, has bequeathed a way of governing which is impervious to reason, and incapable of engaging with complexity. It isn’t just chance that we have a woefully incompetent Prime Minister, a dud stand in [i.e. Dominic Raab], and a cabinet of mediocrities, propped up by a cadre of special advisors with few skills beyond contrarian posturing.

“They are 
the legacy of Brexit. They were brought into power by Brexit. But all the things which secured the vote for Brexit – the clever-but-dumb messaging, the leadership-by-slogan, the appeal to nostalgic sentiment, the disdain for facts and evidence, the valorisation of anger and divisiveness, the bluff ‘commonsense’ and the ‘bluffers’ book’ knowledge – are without exception precisely the opposite of what is needed for effective governance in general, and crisis management in particular.”

What ‘the people in the room’ are telling us

I’ve quoted that at length not to say ‘I told you so’ (and, in any case, I was hardly the only person saying similar things at the time), but because it serves as a fair summary of what we have been hearing recently at the Hallett Inquiry. As Andrew Rawnsley, Chief Political Commentator of The Observerwrote in his column last Sunday, “the testimony from the people in the room” has shown that Johnson was “comprehensively incapable of doing the job”. But, Rawnsley continues, it wasn’t just Johnson who failed, it was the cabinet and senior civil servants, and the blame for that lies in part with Dominic Cummings and his Vote Leave team.

Cummings’ own self-serving and obscenity-strewn testimony to the Inquiry, in both its written and, especially, its oral form, showed his utter contempt for ministers and civil servants, whilst in itself giving a glimpse of the bullying and misogynistic culture which, as confirmed by Helen MacNamara’s evidence, permeated the inner workings of the administration. MacNamara, the most senior female civil servant at the time, makes it clear that this culture was not just morally grotesque, but substantively and substantially impaired the quality of decision-making.

Moreover, although it may appear unconnected, or at least less malign, I think the “unbelievably bullish approach that everything is going to be great”, which MacNamara says characterised the early days of the COVID crisis, is inseparable from the vicious machismo she describes. The blokey boosterism, which is also instantly recognizable as being identical to Johnson’s approach to Brexit as well, is the affable face that quickly contorts to hate-filled thuggishness, at least behind closed doors, when it encounters any challenge. Unsurprisingly, this culture was not just misogynistic but semi-racist, “laughing at the Italians” and in doing so being not just laddishly unpleasant but, again, substantively damaging the COVID response by jeering at what could have been useful lessons.

It must be beyond question that Johnson and Cummings were jointly responsible for this culture and all that came with it, though no doubt others played a part, and they had presumably transferred it over from the Vote Leave campaign operation. More generally, for all their well-attested differences, Johnson and Cummings were conjoined, enablers of each other and enabled by each other. Cummings is quite explicit about this in his evidence, as well as showing a shameless contempt for democracy, declaring that “we” (by which he seems to mean the Vote Leave cabal) had the right to pick and choose who would be Prime Minister, and that “we” installed Johnson despite knowing how unfit for office he was. [1]

Meanwhile, it was, of course, Johnson who appointed Cummings as his Chief Adviser and gave him such latitude of powers, a latitude which amongst other things, led to the resignation of the then Chancellor Sajid Javid, just as the pandemic was starting. And it was Johnson who expended so much political capital to keep him in post after the ‘Barnard Castle’ scandal. They were two cheeks - one flabby and purpled, the other scrawny and pockmarked - of the same backside, and what lay between them, connecting them, defining them, was Brexit.

Brexit, too, explains the uselessness of the Cabinet which, as Rawnsley says, the Inquiry is showing to have “failed to act as a collective decision-making body and a restraint on a dangerously dysfunctional Prime Minister”. How could it have been otherwise given that, as Martin Kettle wrote when Johnson appointed his first Cabinet, it consisted of “mostly second-rate ideologues, many of them with negligible records of ministerial achievement and several of them with very dubious political ethics. All the positions of power are held by Brexit extremists. The rest are political hostages to the hard Brexiters.”

It was, of course, Boris Johnson who appointed Dominic Cummings as his Chief Adviser and gave him such latitude of powers.

The undermining of the civil service

As for the role of the civil service, part of what is at stake here was, as MacNamara’s evidence disclosed, changes that Brexit had wrought on the processes and machinery of government. But there is certainly more to it than that. Rawnsley points out that the Hallett Inquiry shows Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, to cut an “abject figure”, but his appointment to that role, in the middle of the COVID crisis, was partly because his predecessor, Sir Mark Sedwill, was seen by Johnson as “too much of a Europhile” whilst Case was described as a “Boris Johnson ally”. It has also been reported that he had originally been brought into Number 10 as Permanent Secretary at Cummings’ behest. [2]

It wasn’t just a matter of a Prime Minister smoothly, if ruthlessly, appointing a more congenial or compliant Cabinet Secretary. On the one hand, Cummings’ written testimony (p.59, para. 276) reveals the utterly chaotic manner in which Sedwill’s ejection began. On the other hand, other evidence to the Inquiry shows that, Johnson ‘ally’ or not, Case, prior to taking over that role, had confided to Sedwill that he had “never seen a bunch of people less well-equipped to run a country”, referring, apparently, to Johnson and his special advisers. [3]

Crucially, this particular episode was itself part of a wider picture in which many senior civil servants had already left, or were leaving or being sidelined, because of a perceived lack of commitment to Brexit. Indeed, in my post of 28 February 2020 – the date is important as it is just as the COVID pandemic was developing, and shortly before the first lockdown – I recorded in detail how the civil service was under attack for supposedly being anti-Brexit, with reports of a ‘hit list’ of senior civil servants the government wanted to expunge. It was not long afterwards, in June, that Cummings made his threat of a “hard rain coming” for the civil service. That was, of course, only the latest instalment in a process which had been going on since the referendum, and, in Cummings’ case, stretching back to his days as a special adviser to Michael Gove in the Department for Education, when ‘the Blob’ first emerged as a term of abuse in British politics. The title of my February post is also worth noting – ‘Brexit is going feral’ – given that evidence to Hallett last week shows that, just four months later, ‘feral’ was exactly the term applied to Johnson’s government by Case, and apparently endorsed by Sedwill.

It’s vital to recall this vitriolic attack on the civil service from Johnson and Cummings, and Brexiters generally, because it is quite as important as, if not more important than, the related issue, which is getting far more attention, of how Hallett is showing that Brexit was prioritized over tackling COVID. It wasn’t just that Brexit overloaded the bandwidth of the civil service, Brexiters also undermined the civil service as an institution. Even now, Cummings presumably includes the civil service amongst the “insiders” who “refus[ed] to accept the referendum result” who he blames for the lockdown having been necessary at all. For, on Cummings account, it was this alleged “refusal” that meant that Brexit created the “constitutional and political crisis that consumed a vast amount of the focus of the core of the state 2016-2019”.  Unsurprisingly, as Anthony Robinson observes, this account conveniently ignores the role of the Vote Leave campaign in creating this crisis.

Frost (as always) muddies the waters

In a similar way, like Billy Bunter to Cummings’ Flashman, David Frost responded to MacNamara’s evidence that the government focused on Brexit to the exclusion of everything else from July 2019 with the justificatory bleat that “we were in the biggest constitutional crisis for a hundred years”. He also asserted that the claim that ‘no-deal Brexit’ planning got in the way of pandemic planning does not accord with the facts because the Brexit deal was completed in October 2019 (i.e. before COVID), and the Transition Period meant that “there was no economic shock and no new arrangements to prepare for during the height of the COVID crisis”.

As so often with Brexiters’ claims it is complicated to unpick them, and Frost is particularly prone to tendentiousness. The only constitutional crisis between 2016 and 2019, and certainly between July and October 2019, was the unlawful Prorogation of Parliament, for which Johnson and Cummings were entirely responsible. Frost makes it sound as if this crisis was something the government heroically struggled against when, in fact, it was something the government created. It’s true that there had been a rolling political crisis since at least the 2017 election but, stripped of all its great complexity, that was not a constitutional crisis but a simple reflection of there being no parliamentary majority for any particular form of Brexit, just as was the case in the country. [4]

It’s also true that this political crisis still existed until the December 2019 election, and the Inquiry has already heard evidence that the work streams implementing provisions from the 2016 Exercise Cygnus on pandemic planning had been largely halted by no-deal Brexit planning. However, it is not true the completion of the Brexit deal, in the sense of the agreement with the EU of the text of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) in October 2019, ended no-deal planning. Firstly, that WA was not agreed by parliament until after the election. Secondly, even when it had been agreed, it initiated a new phase of no-deal planning – this time concerned with the possibility of there being no future terms, or trade, agreement.

This also means that it is either completely dishonest or totally ignorant for Frost to say that there were “no new arrangements” to prepare for during the COVID crisis of 2020. There were. Whether or not there was to be a trade deal, it would mean completely different trading (and other) arrangements compared with being in the single market, customs union, and other EU entities, once the Transition Period was over. Which of these two outcomes would prevail was not known until Christmas Eve of 2020 and so, throughout the year, there was the prospect of at least major change, and possibly of major disruption, to be prepared for. That was as true for businesses and other organizations affected as it was for the government.

David Frost makes it sound as if this crisis was something the government heroically struggled against when, in fact, it was something the government created.

The (non-)extension of the Transition Period

Moreover, Frost fails to mention that, until July 2020, the UK had the possibility of seeking to extend the Transition Period, something which the EU would almost certainly have agreed. Doing so would have helped the UK to deal with COVID, by taking away the urgency of the negotiations and the imminency of the changes that the end of the transition would bring. It would also have helped the UK to deal with Brexit, by deferring completion of the trade deal until the exigencies of the COVID emergency were over. For although the focus of attention arising from the Hallett hearings is how Brexit got in the way of dealing with COVID, it is equally the case that COVID got in the way of dealing with Brexit. For Frost to use the Transition Period as a defence against there having been such mutual impacts whilst ignoring his government’s refusal to extend the period, which would have reduced or contained them, is absurd.

As I wrote in June 2020, the decision on whether to extend the Transition Period wasn’t the last gasp of the battle over whether Brexit would happen, it was the Brexiters’ first challenge to show that they could govern Britain after leaving the EU, rather than just campaign for Britain to leave the EU. It is a challenge they comprehensively failed, because they were (as they still are) locked into the idea of defending Brexit against ‘betrayal’. Never mind that, by that time, Britain had actually left the EU, and that could no longer be prevented: they just ploughed on.

In doing so, they not only pulled time and attention away from dealing with COVID, they also ensured that COVID-battered businesses had no time to prepare for the end of the Transition Period. Even if Brexit were not intrinsically a huge folly, they ensured that it came into effect in the most unpropitious of circumstances, and they did so with absolutely no justification beyond the stiff-necked false pride that the period could not be extended even in the extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic.

The COVID government was also the Brexit government

The Hallett Inquiry is beginning to uncover the deep dysfunctions in the way that the government handled the pandemic and, almost as a side-issue, showing some things about Brexit. But the real significance of the Inquiry for Brexit is that the government it is exposing to view is exactly the same government that before, during, and after the pandemic was handling Brexit. So, although it is not an Inquiry into the handling of Brexit, it is surely inconceivable that the way it handled COVID does not also apply to Brexit to some degree.

For, self-evidently, these dysfunctions did not arrive with the pandemic but pre-dated it, at least as far back as Johnson and Cummings coming to power (though, as noted, some features, especially the denigration of the civil service, go back further). It is inconceivable that the factionalism and infighting, the misogyny and the vapid boosterism, were not all occurring in the period when, after Johnson came to office, the Withdrawal Agreement and, especially, the Northern Ireland Protocol, were still being negotiated. It is certainly true, by definition, that the government dealing with the COVID crisis in 2020 was the same as that which was undertaking the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) negotiations during 2020. And, although Cummings departed in November 2020, it was still the Johnson government, with all the flaws Hallett is revealing, which, throughout 2021 and until he resigned in June 2022, was embroiled in the ongoing row with the EU over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

There are already plenty of reports that show how little Johnson understood about the practicalities of Brexit. To take just one example, he reportedly “slumped in his chair” when “the penny dropped”, during a meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker in September 2019, that his ideas about the Irish border were totally unworkable. But we now know that this same Johnson, during COVID, seriously suggested being injected with the virus on live TV to show its harmlessness, and seriously asked whether the virus could be destroyed by blowing a “special hairdryer” up the nostrils, actually circulating a YouTube video of someone demonstrating this ‘cure’. Patently someone so dull-witted, or, more accurately, so lazy-minded, as to do these things would be equally incapable of grasping even quite basic things about Brexit, let alone its more complex details.

Similarly, the Inquiry is revealing how during COVID Johnson was flip-flopping daily, or even hourly, on both the overall strategy and the detailed measures for dealing with the pandemic. So it is surely reasonable to assume that he behaved in the same way on detailed issues in relation to the Withdrawal Agreement and the TCA, and also on the big questions about them, most especially whether to allow there to be one or both versions of no-deal Brexit.

It is also surely reasonable to assume that he flip-flopped in the same way during the long period when it was rumoured that he would, or would not, invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol and, subsequently, whether he would pass and make use of the Northern Ireland Bill to pull out of the Protocol in its entirety. Relatedly, we already knew that during the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations at least one senior Tory thought that “the Irish really should know their place”. So, learning now about how the Johnson administration jeered at the Italian response to the pandemic, it hardly strains credulity to suppose that it was similarly contemptuous of the Irish position on Brexit and the Protocol. 

Whilst Johnson is the most obvious culprit here, the same applies to his entire administration, including his feeble and mediocre Cabinet and his team of arrogant and bumptious Vote Leave Special Advisors, both during and after the Cummings’ period. If, as the Hallett evidence so far suggests, the entirety of this administration suffered from multiple deficiencies in handling COVID, then it is inconceivable that it became super-competent when dealing with Brexit. And whilst it might be said that the pandemic was a wholly unusual and complex problem, the same is true of Brexit. If they differ, it is not in that but in the fact that COVID was a crisis imposed on the UK, as it was on other countries, whereas Brexit was imposed by, indeed created by, the Brexiters, many of whom were by this time running the country. So they were incapable of dealing with either, but with Brexit they had the added culpability of having caused it.

We may never have a Public Inquiry into Brexit, and if we do it will have to encompass different issues and cover a longer period than Hallett. Yet, even without that, Hallett is providing a glimpse of just how rotten the Johnson period of Brexit was – the period, don’t forget that ‘got Brexit done’. If, as COVID data expert Professor Christina Pagel argues, Hallett has already “laid bare the government’s dereliction of duty”, we can hardly imagine that the very same government at the very same time was the epitome of care and competence in its handling of Brexit. But the cases are different. We didn’t have this government because of COVID, but because of Brexit. In this sense, Brexit was the ‘original sin’ for which we paid twice over. Once by having an utterly useless government when COVID hit, twice by having an utterly useless government to deliver Brexit. And that is before even considering the price inherent in Brexit itself. [5]

PMP Magazine

[1] This is not to say that Johnson could not have become Prime Minister without Brexit (and Cummings). Simon Wren-Lewis’s blog last week has an interesting discussion of this.

[2] Because for the purposes of this post I am splicing together different parts of testimony to Hallett it may be confusing as to what jobs Simon Case was doing at different times. In May 2020 he was appointed as Downing Street Permanent Secretary, a role that had been unfilled since being vacated by Sir Jeremy Heywood in 2012 (it had in any case only been created in 2010), who became Cabinet Secretary until his retirement in 2018, when he was succeeded by Mark Sedwill. Then, in September 2020, Case was appointed Cabinet Secretary, replacing Sedwill.

[3] The Cummings’ evidence referred to in this paragraph is confusing in that it suggests that Sedwill was initially sacked in May 2020, and subsequently refers to Case as having been Cabinet Secretary in July. This doesn’t square with the public record of posts held, but it seems to be that the outcome of the botched sacking was Sedwill’s resignation and that, by July, it had been decided that Case would be his successor even though he wasn’t formally in post. There is much more detail on all this in Beckie Smith’s report in Civil Service World. Another confusing issue is why, if Case was indeed a Johnson ‘ally’ and Cummings had supported his appointment in May 2020, did he speak about them in the disparaging terms quoted here? A possible answer is that it is because that quote comes from July 2020, by which time he had come to witness the chaotic nature of the administration.

[4] Frost, especially, has been vociferous in insisting that this political crisis was also a constitutional crisis, because it enabled, on occasion and most notably with the 'Benn Act' of October 2019, the House of Commons to take control of its business from the Executive. But this was absolutely consistent with the Constitution: Parliament is sovereign, and the Executive only has power to the extent that it commands a parliamentary majority. As regards ‘no-deal Brexit’ in the sense of no WA (the subject of the Benn Act), it did not.

[5] Part of that price is the damage to trade, and another Brexit story last week is the publication of a woeful IEA report denying that damage. Fortunately, Professor Gerhard Schnyder has done an excellent, painstaking job in exposing its numerous and profound flaws. I know from experience that undertaking that kind of detailed debunk is a hard, time-consuming business, because such reports contain nested layers of falsity or misunderstanding. But it really matters, not least because such reports gain so much traction including, in this case, endorsement by Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch.


Text: This piece was originally published in Brexit & Beyond and re-published in PMP Magazine on 16 November 2023. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Flickr/Number 10. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)
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