The Prime Minister has decided to go on holiday for a week. His summer break comes amid a major policy crisis. Hundreds of thousands of A-Level students received grades generated by Ofqual last week following the cancellation of the usual end-of-year exams due to the pandemic. Nearly 40% saw teacher predictions moderated down and those from disadvantaged backgrounds have been worst affected. Hundreds told The Guardian that they felt “utterly let down” while one has launched legal action against the exams regulator. Ofqual unveiled an appeals process on Saturday before withdrawing it just hours later, leaving thousands of pupils in the lurch. To make matters worse, GCSE results are set to be published on Thursday. And yet, amid this chaos, Boris Johnson is nowhere to be seen.
Absenteeism has been a trademark of his premiership. When flooding hit the UK earlier this year, causing widespread devastation and disruption, Johnson left it to his ministers to lead the response. Unlike with flooding in the run-up to the general election, when he took the chance for several choice photo opportunities, it took him 12 days to make a public appearance. The then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn branded Johnson a “part-time Prime Minister” as it came to light that while remaining conspicuously silent on the crisis in communities across the country, he had made the time to schmooze Tory donors at a party event.
More recently, The Sunday Times broke the story in April that – just as Covid cases were ramping up and the virus was gathering pace in the UK – Johnson missed five consecutive meetings of the government’s emergency COBRA committee. Michael Gove insisted that it’s normal for the Prime Minister not to attend these meetings – but it is common during a major crisis. Maybe he thought that this whole Covid thing would blow over. Regardless, it’s clear he wasn’t letter it cut into his personal time. “He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends,” one adviser told the paper.
This deeply held attachment to breaks and holidays is nothing new. Throughout his career, Johnson has been found missing in action at crucial moments. When riots broke out in London during his tenure as mayor, he told angry residents in Clapham: “I came as fast as I could.” The problem was that ‘as fast as he could’ to Johnson meant only deciding to interrupt his holiday three days into the public disturbances. And as Foreign Secretary he conveniently dodged a controversial vote in 2018 on Heathrow expansion – which he had previously pledged to oppose by lying down in front of the bulldozers – by taking a quick trip to Afghanistan.
Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green demanded today that the Prime Minister “get off his holiday and come and take charge” of the exams fiasco. But based on his record, I wouldn’t hold my breath. His tendency to be absent is a chance for Labour leader Keir Starmer to score an easy win over the Prime Minister in the eyes of the public. As Johnson continues to shy away from his obligations by running away at the opportune moment and burying his head in the sand, Starmer just needs to be present and clearly articulating Labour’s demands.