STEPHEN GLOVER: Exam silence heaps arrogance on top of incompetence

STEPHEN GLOVER: Why I fear Boris Johnson’s silence on this exam fiasco heaps arrogance upon incompetence

Where is Boris? We are told he’s camping in Scotland with fiancée Carrie Symonds and baby son Wilfred. It’s hard to imagine him banging in tent pegs, or hunched over a flickering Primus stove.

Maybe he’s not really camping and being bitten to death by midges but sheltering in a friend’s house on some pleasant Scottish estate.

Either way, he must be aware that the Government is embroiled in yet another crisis, thanks to the incompetent and uncontrite Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson.

I know prime ministers deserve their holidays like everyone else but it is surely not too much to ask whether Mr Johnson might spare a moment to say how sorry he is that the lives of thousands of schoolchildren have been blighted, and to reassure them that he will do his utmost to see that the mess is put right. 

Boris Johnson is pictured here at the VJ Day National Remembrance event in Staffordshire on August 15

A brief interview with the BBC would suffice. Some words to show that he regrets the angst of pupils and their parents.

Confirmation that, for all the evidence of chaos, this error-strewn Government is on the case.

But all we get are suggestions that, just as Mr Williamson has absolutely no intention of resigning for having presided over one of the biggest political cock-ups of recent years, so the PM has no plans whatsoever to sack him.

Why not? It’s not true, as some have suggested, that the Education Secretary was dealt an unplayable hand of cards when No 10 decided schools would have to close because of Covid-19, and so exams could not take place this summer.

Granted, any outcome was always going to be less than perfect.

But Mr Williamson blundered down the very worst path, ignoring the warnings of the Commons Education Select Committee last month that the disadvantaged might be penalised by an algorithm overruling teachers’ grades.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson faced calls to resign over the Government’s handling of  this year’s A-Level results

He failed to cross-examine Ofqual — the quango for which he has ultimate responsibility — over the flawed algorithm it was developing.

Indeed, his allies make the mind-boggling claim that it was first unveiled to him only eight days ago.

Even after the Scottish government abandoned a similar system in favour of teachers’ grades, Mr Williamson ploughed on regardless.

Only a revolt by students and numerous Tory MPs finally forced him to change his mind on Monday.

He was right to do so, but much damage had been done. Universities which had turned away students with insufficiently good grades now find themselves besieged by the same students, whose results have been marked up.

Less exalted institutions wonder how they will fill their places. Today’s GCSE results will probably create another rumpus.

Mr Williamson says he is ‘incredibly sorry for the distress’ that has been caused but he hasn’t apologised for having caused it.

His sadness is that of a man who sees a town destroyed by a tornado. He’s sorry, but it’s not his fault. If there is any blame to apportion, let it be Ofqual’s.


Sally Collier (left) is Ofqual’s chief regulator and chief executive. Roger Taylor (right) is the chairman of Ofqual

But it is his fault! He’s a hopeless minister who was given a Cabinet job after a previous disgrace because his machinations had helped Mr Johnson secure the Tory leadership.

Worse than ineptitude — for there are more serious failings in life than straightforward stupidity — is his shameless buck-passing, and dishonourable evasion of responsibility.

The mystery is why the Prime Minister should let him get away with it. It’s possible he won’t, of course.

Enveloped in Scottish mists, and struggling to keep Wilfred amused, he may be unaware of the extent of the damage Mr Williamson has inflicted on the Government.

More likely, he genuinely believes no great harm has been done. He probably thinks this is another media frenzy — he has witnessed his fair share of them over the years as a newspaper columnist —which will soon pass over.

There has been a pattern of insouciance since he became Prime Minister. Possibly influenced by his journalist-despising chief adviser and effective deputy, Dominic Cummings, he doesn’t like being told what to do by the media.

Dominic Cummings is the special adviser to Boris Johnson. Here he is pictured outside 10 Downing Street last week

So during the severe floods last February he remained holed up in the official country house of Chevening (Chequers was undergoing repairs), ignoring newspaper exhortations to show his face, though he did eventually appear brandishing a mop.

In a way, this determination not to be pushed around by journalists is admirable. It conveys a wish to be his own man.

But what if the media are reflecting public opinion? Then closing your ears for the sake of it becomes dangerous.

We could argue the toss over whether Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick should have resigned after it was revealed in June that he had bent planning rules in favour of a billionaire property developer who was a donor to the Tory Party.

The rather haughty looking fellow didn’t go, but a whiff of sleaze was left hanging in the air. 

More outrageous to my mind were Mr Cummings’s various infractions during the lockdown, which Mr Johnson did not at first take seriously, before bizarrely giving over the Downing Street rose garden to his adviser to make an unconvincing case. Whatever he had done, he couldn’t be sacrificed.

The Prime Minister’s political enemies made a lot of fuss both times, as was to be expected.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick faced calls to resign earlier this year after it was revealed in June that he had bent planning rules in favour of a billionaire property developer who was a donor to the Tory Party

What was noteworthy was the increasing disquiet of many on his own side.

It is the same in the case of Mr Williamson. Many Tory MPs and normally sympathetic newspapers are aghast.

And yet Mr Johnson seems not to care — or, to be precise, he appears, as he swats away concerns, not to share the values of many on his own side.

Apparent arrogance compounds Mr Williamson’s incompetence. It is as though the PM thinks there is no political disgrace from which it is impossible eventually to recover.

Here, I suggest, he is too much influenced by his own experiences. In his private life he has undergone countless public humiliations as his infidelities have been exposed.

People couldn’t help smiling when he was twice thrown out of the family home by his then wife. 

Other politicians would never survive such absurdities, but Boris always has, so brilliant is he at soaking up embarrassments, and encouraging people to laugh at his excursions before usually forgiving him.

But what has been true of Boris Johnson doesn’t apply to other politicians, and certainly not to Governments.

He will probably no longer be indulged now that he is Prime Minister. At the top of politics, bad and reckless acts have consequences, and can’t magically be wiped away.

To be sure, if Mr Johnson spares Mr Williamson, as he seems inclined to do, life will go on, and soon many of us will have forgotten the Education Secretary’s particular idiocies. But a residue will have been left behind.

This scandal will fuse with the accumulating evidence of cavalier and improper conduct.

Before long, the Government could be lastingly defined in the public mind as arrogant and unresponsive, as John Major’s administration between 1992 and 1997 acquired an irrevocable reputation for division and incompetence.

Such an outcome is not inevitable, of course. Boris Johnson can still show us that he doesn’t think he and his friends occupy a privileged moral universe. 

An excellent start would be to get rid of the abysmal Gavin Williamson.

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