Readers of a certain age will remember the ads for Carlsberg – a mid-range lager that decided to advertise its ability to transform the mundane into the exceptional with the slogan “possibly the best lager in the world”. We now seem to have a Carlsberg government.
The phrase of the year is “world beating”. We would be protected from Covid-19 because we had a world beating NHS, the Prime Minister assured the country when he began to get interested in the pandemic in early March.
By the end of the month that had morphed into a message that we had to stay home to protect the NHS, rather than the NHS playing its more traditional role of protecting us.
On 12 March the Chief Medical Officer announced that the UK was giving up contact tracing and instead confining testing to hospitals – because our testing and tracing system was desperately second division.
Then we went through the “ramping up” stage (ramping up is another candidate for phrase of the year) to get to Matt Hancock’s target of 100,000 test by the end of April, and then the PM’s target of 200,000 by the end of May.
The UK Statistics Authority has taken the government to task over the arithmetic gymnastics it has gone through to deliver that target.
But tests alone are not enough – so the rhetoric was lifted up a few notches to promise to deliver a “world beating test and trace system” which was supposed to be live from 1 June. It’s live but clearly in a development stage.
The “game-changing app” has been downgraded to a nice-to-have-if-we-can-but-not-essential, a cherry on the cake. We have miles to go before the UK can point to a better system than South Korea, Taiwan or Germany.
The latest promise came in Michael Gove’s announcement on how the UK border would not be ready for the end of transition on 31 December 2020.
Having assured Parliament in February that rather than the no deal plans, the UK would have a fully functioning border when we leave the single market and the customs union, he has had to revert to the no deal plan for the first months of 2021.
The new plan means that rather than be fully operational immediately, the border will be introduced in stages: from January traders will have six months to file customs declarations; routine animal and plant health documents will not be required until April; and the full system only applies from 1 July.
That is realistic because of Covid-19, and a lot of businesses, which have not been able to prepare because of the pandemic, are very relieved.
However, although the UK government only needs to be ready on one side of the border, UK businesses have a harder job – being ready for what will probably be a full border on the EU side.
But to sugar the pill, Gove went on to say that although the short-term approach to border management would be to turn a blind eye and wave trucks through, these actions “lay the foundations for the development of the best border in the world by 2025”. It’s not clear who is the South Korea of borders at the moment – but HMRC officials reckon that the French have done a pretty good job with the new smart border at Calais. “As good as France” may not have the same resonance – but sounds a much more reasonable aim.
There is a case for saying that stretch targets are motivating, and that without the big number testing would not have been ramped up – though it undermines the message when ministers then fiddle the figures to say they delivered.
There is a case for saying that ambition is inspiring. This is a government that likes to portray the potential for Global Britain to regain its rightful, big, place in the world, a country which can do things better than when we were shackled to the EU.
(This is possibly not the place to remind you of the earlier promise that the trade deal with the EU – bogged down after four negotiating rounds – was going to be the “easiest trade deal” in history.)
But the government needs to recognise that trying to be “world beating” and failing is a poor substitute for being competent. Good enough really is quite often good enough – indeed those who are charged with getting systems in place will know that that is the realistic basis on which to plan.
But ministerial insistence on articulating their goals in campaign like slogans means that real achievements are undervalued – and that valuable time and effort has to be dedicated to trying to provide ministers with cover when plans fall short of the hype.
This is not a policy and delivery Olympics. Silver is not the biggest disappointment in government – indeed ‘sensible’, ‘proportionate’, and ‘functional’ are all hallmarks of a good government, particularly one which has to make difficult trade-offs about money and effort.
The continual need to “beat the world” is a sign not of strength but of weakness. Its flip side is a refusal to admit mistakes – to continue to insist that ministers made the “right decisions at the right time” and that plans are on track even when they patently are not.
Other, more mature and experienced governments seem more willing to admit that they got things wrong rather than keep on digging in.
The government has suffered a sharp decline in trust over recent weeks – though that seems more immediately attributable to the Cummings scandal than its handling of Covid-19.
It now faces an opposition under Keir Starmer which is holding it to account, and pushing it to match its actions to its words. The political price for failing to deliver is rising.
The big question is whether a government led by someone who made his living out of words not deeds can close the gap between its rhetoric and actions. The first (and easy) step is to dial down the rhetoric. We are told that Whitehall is readying itself for the inevitable public inquiry. This might be a good place to start.
Everyone – even Carlsberg – got their joke. They relaunched their campaign adding “not” to their strapline.
By Jill Rutter, senior research fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe.