The Guardian view on government drift: the rot starts at the top | Editorial

There is a limit to the number of times any product can be relaunched before it becomes clear that the basic design is flawed. That is also true of governments. Boris Johnson is braced for a poor Tory performance in Thursday’s local council elections and is determined to move on briskly.

A new parliamentary session opens next week, giving the opportunity to set out the government’s agenda in a Queen’s speech. There is also talk of a ministerial reshuffle to freshen the appearance of the cabinet. That will have limited effect, since Mr Johnson will not sack himself. He might still usefully replace some of his underperforming ministers.

Top of that list is Priti Patel. The home secretary might not be the least competent person in cabinet (though she has a claim to the title), but her department is one where poor leadership has some of the most drastic consequences. Ms Patel presides over a dysfunctional, demoralised bureaucracy that is neither capable of managing the nation’s borders to meet the demands of Conservative voters nor of implementing humane refugee policies to meet the requirements of human decency. Mr Johnson is clearly not bothered by the moral implications of Ms Patel’s increasingly callous policies towards desperate people crossing the Channel in small boats. He might yet lose patience with her inability to make any of the schemes work.

In the meantime, the programme for accepting Ukrainian refugees is a shambles, imposing cruel uncertainty and spiteful administrative caprice on a category of migrants towards whom the government, unusually, has an official policy of compassion.

A new home secretary might at least put that notional sliver of generosity to effective use. But the underlying problem is systemic across government. It derives from a failure to distinguish between the announcement of a plan and its enactment. The agenda for government is written with an eye on the following morning’s headlines, without regard for what is required in delivery. There is little distinction between a slogan and a policy. That has been the fate of “levelling up” – a concept that was meant to define the purpose of Mr Johnson’s administration post-Brexit, but that still lacks meaningful content. There will be some use of the phrase in the Queen’s speech. But in the absence of a structured economic plan for regional rehabilitation or any courage in the Treasury to use tax-and-spend levers to finance ambitious social policy, voters will notice only the downward levelling imposed by a cost-of-living crisis.

That failure cannot be remedied by a change of chancellor – a prospect widely discussed as a way for the prime minister to signal a change of direction. The reality is that Mr Johnson himself is the origin of the malaise. It is the prime minister’s lack of focus and principle that leaves the government bereft of a coherent agenda or a purpose other than sustaining the career of the man in No 10. When appointment to the cabinet requires willingness to indulge Mr Johnson’s serial dishonesties and flatter his rhetorical inanities, it is hardly surprising that the calibre of ministers is low. This weakness can also be traced back to Brexit – a project that achieved electoral success by stirring economic grievance while making remedies harder. The consequence is a government more skilled at causing diversions when things go wrong than it is capable of putting them right.

It is a method with diminishing returns. Mr Johnson’s cabinet badly needs upgrading with some competent administrators. But the prime minister is running out of people to blame for his personal failures, and voters have lost patience with his excuses.