For a long time, a lot of people have been waiting for this government to be found out. Over 11 years, with each misfiring or disastrous policy, from austerity to Brexit to the management of coronavirus, an expectation has grown that at some point the Tories will be – must be – decisively called to account. So far, the electorate, the opposition and the media haven’t done the job. And the next election may be almost four years off. So the best hope for the government’s critics until then could be a public inquiry into Britain’s pandemic response.
The sheer scale of our loss from coronavirus – already almost twice Britain’s second world war civilian death toll – has meant that even Boris Johnson, who has based his career on avoiding accountability, has had to promise an “independent inquiry”. But that was nearly eight months ago. In the government’s view, the “appropriate time” for an inquiry has not yet come.
Yet anyone impatiently waiting for one – and perhaps anticipating how Keir Starmer, the former director of public prosecutions, might exploit its findings in the Commons – should be careful what they wish for. The last time a Tory government faced an official inquiry into a long-running, potentially politically fatal policy failure, things did not go as its enemies wanted.
The 1982-83 Franks inquiry – named after its chairman Oliver Franks – into how the British government dealt with the Falkland Islands “in the period leading up to the Argentine invasion”, as its broad terms of reference put it, is largely forgotten now. But while the six-month inquiry went on, Margaret Thatcher “genuinely feared that Franks might find against her and so force her out of office”, according to her official biographer Charles Moore.
Even more than most Tory governments, hers had sold itself to voters as strong on defence. But it spent its first three years dithering over the Falklands: appeasing and then blocking Argentina in sovereignty negotiations, announcing cuts in the islands’ defences, and then either missing or ignoring the growing signs that Argentina was preparing to seize them. This spiral of incompetence and wishful thinking was laid out in fairly damning detail in the report produced by the inquiry panel, which had Labour as well as Tory members and included no obvious Thatcher allies. It’s hard to imagine the Johnson government, with its reliance on cronyism, allowing its record on coronavirus to be probed by such a relatively balanced body.
Yet the Franks report still failed to come to the conclusion its findings merited. Instead, its otherwise clear language suddenly became cloudy and evasive: “If the British government had acted differently … it is impossible to judge what the impact on … the course of events might have been. There is no reasonable basis for any suggestion – which would be purely hypothetical – that the invasion would have been prevented.” The report concluded that the government did not deserve “any criticism or blame”.
Big British official inquiries, usually commissioned, staffed and designed by the governments they investigate, tend to be better at sorting out the facts than producing judgments that upset the status quo. Often these inquiries also seem to respond – in an indirect, impossible-to-prove way – to the political contexts in which they publish their findings. The 2016 Chilcot report into the Iraq war was strongly critical of a Labour government no longer in power. But the Franks report came out with Thatcher surging ahead in the polls after the recapture of the Falklands. When the SDP politician David Owen complained to a journalist that the report had been a whitewash, the journalist told him: “We won. That’s all they’re saying down the pub … The last thing they want is anyone arguing it could have been done differently.”
A coronavirus inquiry could happen against a similar backdrop: with the pandemic apparently receding, many people feeling euphoric rather than reflective, and the Johnson government even more popular than it is now. In such an atmosphere, the temptation for a Covid-19 inquiry to give the government the benefit of the doubt might be strong. The forgiving phrases of the Franks report might be deployed again.
Already, there are signs that many in Westminster want to depoliticise Britain’s virus experience. Last September MPs on the cross-party public administration committee published a paper arguing that “the primary purpose” of a coronavirus inquiry “should not be to apportion blame”, but “to ensure that the country is better prepared for any future pandemic”. It’s possible to accept the medical logic of this argument while feeling deeply uneasy about its political implications. Doesn’t the deadliest succession of government failures in Britain’s modern peacetime history need to have political consequences?
The government doesn’t think so, to judge by the absence of Covid-related ministerial sackings or resignations. Instead, in advance of an inquiry, senior Conservatives are beginning to try to undermine the idea that Britain has seen serious government failures over coronavirus at all. Last month, the health secretary Matt Hancock claimed that the country had “never had a national shortage” of personal protective equipment, only “individual challenges in access to PPE”. Also last month, after the high court ruled that Hancock had illegally failed to publish timely details of Covid-19 outsourcing contracts, the justice secretary Robert Buckland insisted: “Getting something wrong is not the same as deliberately flouting the law.”
With their usual shamelessness, and their usual help from friendly newspapers, the Conservatives are building a narrative: that their handling of the pandemic has been imperfect but essentially sound – a government doing its best in difficult circumstances, and achieving success in the end. For a country fond of stories about keeping going in adversity, it’s an appealing version of events. It’s also less frightening than the alternative: that faced with a foreseeable pandemic, our government has frequently been overwhelmed. Even some people with contempt for the Conservatives may be reluctant to reach that conclusion, given how much longer they are likely to be in power.
Perhaps it’s only an anti-Tory fantasy that a Covid-19 inquiry could badly damage or bring down the government. The modern media space may be too crowded, and the public view of politicians too jaundiced, for the slow, complicated theatre of even the most dramatic inquiry to have that much impact. Instead, the Conservatives’ opponents may need to be patient: to integrate whatever an inquiry eventually uncovers into their critiques of Johnson, and to be ready with a response if the inquiry ultimately exonerates the government – or is claimed by the Tories to have done so.
But Britons shouldn’t really need a public inquiry to have the Conservative approach to coronavirus explained to us. Its consequences are all around. They will last for decades, even if we’re past the worst of the pandemic. It’s up to voters, not inquiry panels, to take the appropriate action.
Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist