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.