*** DEBUG END ***

Paul Vallely: Incompetence is a threat to democracy

10 November 2023

Paul Vallely draws lessons from both a new play and the Covid inquiry


I AM afraid you’ve missed Project Dictator — a wild absurdist satire that shows how a society can slide from democracy to dictatorship through the vehicle of clownish populism. It’s just finished touring UK theatre, and is playing abroad. But the Covid inquiry is due to run here for another three years, and it offers parallel lessons on anarchy in government.

A series of Downing Street insiders and senior civil servants have exposed a frightening chaos at the heart of government during the height of the pandemic. A succession of senior advisers — who disagreed on much, didn’t trust one another, and were not all even on speaking terms — agreed on one thing: the government of the day was dysfunctional and divided. There were no proper mechanism for PPE procurement, no real measures to protect care homes, and no coherent or consistent system on when to lock down.

The man at the helm, Boris Johnson, was weak and indecisive”. He so “often changed his mind” that he was known to aides as “the shopping trolley”, because of his propensity to veer suddenly from one side to another. Government became “rather exhausting” and even “impossible” under a man who, at one moment, said that coronavirus was “not a big deal”, then said that it was “just nature’s way of dealing with old people”, and even asked the nation’s top scientists whether you could kill Covid by blowing a hairdryer up your nose.

Mr Johnson, who “cannot lead”, was calamitously ill-suited to be PM during a pandemic. But his party stuck with him, in the face of mounting evidence, because he was seen as, by a mile, the Conservatives’ unparalleled “vote-winner”.

Project Dictator begins with a plausible politician who tells the people that he is sick of everything that has gone wrong in our system, and launches a platitudinous plan, “I can solve the problem/s”. But his proposals on inflation, the cost of living, and climate change are merely vacuous soundbites, and soon his formerly loyal sidekick, Jeremy, begins to heckle. He tells his boss that his speech is boring, and turns to address the audience, panto-like, to ask them whether they want something that’s more fun.

Soon, the audience are keeping balloons in the air, supposedly to solve the energy crisis, painting a portrait of the sidekick (now wearing the uniform of a circus ringmaster or tinpot dictator), and chanting “I believe in Jeremy.” But the actor’s immensely skilful wooing of the audience turns uncomfortable when he tells us to denounce people in the next seat who do not seem to be fully “on board” with the leader. It is only when Jeremy begins, nastily, to pick on one individual in the audience that we realise our complicity in allowing ourselves to have been so manipulated.

We knew that Mr Johnson was a clown, but only now is the true level of his incompetence being laid bare. It took Conservative MPs an unconscionably long time to get rid of him, but, eventually, they did so, before his egomania could venture into the messianic territory of dictatorship. But, around the world, no fewer than nine countries have become dictatorships in the past two years. And, in the United States, the re-election of Donald Trump increasingly seems a terrifying possibility.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear alongside your letter.

Forthcoming Events

Church Times/RSCM:

Festival of Faith and Music

26 - 28 April 2024

See the full programme on the festival website. 

Early bird tickets available


Church Times/Sarum College:

Traditions of Christian Spirituality

January - May 2024

This is a five-part series on major strands of the Christian spiritual tradition.

Book individual session tickets or sign up for the full programme


Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)