Hi Boris, Davos is on the line with an important message

The Johnson administration can learn a thing or two about promoting social good from the corporate world

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks outside Downing Street in London on Wednesday. Reuters

A welter of scandals around British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has demonstrated the powerful importance of acting for social good.

Mr Johnson has allowed the culture of his administration to develop independent of the society it serves. Despite being gravely threatened by Covid-19 himself almost two years ago, he permitted his closest team to disregard the safety measures imposed to slow the pandemic. In doing so, he has removed himself from the mainstream.

Belief in the importance of promoting social good applies not only among people you know but across the world.

One of the most significant trends is in the business world, where the profit motive is now surrounded by wider goals. These include the health of the planet, reduction in inequality and concerns over the impact of innovation. As the Davos Forum opens a series of virtual meetings this week, these themes can be expected to surface again and again.

Mr Johnson’s lockdown parties were not only contrary to the spirit of the lockdown regulations that his administration promoted. There is a selfishness in the idea that the government headquarters, protected by the police, could be a haven for behaviour that was banned just outside the gate. Restaurants along Whitehall, which houses UK government offices in London, were at the time closed but no one seems to have drawn a parallel with what was happening inside the institutions.

A survey out last week from the World Economic Forum highlighted the importance of doing the right thing. The Global Risks Report 2022 showed just how much the pandemic has set the world on a new course. Respondents really wanted to show that what was important in business was the impact that the enterprise made on the planet and the people on it. The priorities it set out were crafted not only by the threat to health over the past two years but also the clear and present danger posed to the Earth from the climate threat.

The Davos meeting this year will not be held face-to-face because of the pandemic. But it will take place virtually, with the agenda revolving around how to reflect on the concerns of systemic failure and the pressures those big issues present.

The most severe risks to the planet over the next decade were clearly set out in the survey. Biggest among them was a potential failure to take climate action and the associated weather and biodiversity threats. Plus infectious disease outbreaks, erosion of social cohesion and widespread livelihood breakdown. The outcomes of the Cop26 and the expectations around Cop27 in Egypt and Cop28 in the UAE were mentioned by the big business respondents in a year when only the climate competed with health as the universal top concerns.

As an outlier, there was also an interesting look at the increased innovation that is taking place in space exploration and how it could replicate or compound global inequalities.

The scale of the biggest issues resonates not just among cabinet ministers and corporate boards. In fact, there is a complementary popular sea change in attitudes as well. A powerful wave of how people judge their leaders based on environment and social tests has grown measurably stronger throughout the pandemic.

Late last year, the London-based polling firm Ipsos Mori pointed to fundamental tests from changing popular attitudes, particularly among the youngest. “The combination of financial and health worries is manifesting itself as a 'control crisis' – where individual lack of empowerment is coupled with perceptions that surrounding institutions are also 'out of control',” an accompanying analysis said.

Terry Smith prepares to fly his plane from Southend Airport around the British Isles in two days re-enacting Battle of Britain pilot , Sir Keith Park's 1919 circumnavigation as part of a campaign to get a permanent memorial to the Second World War pilot. Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images
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Boris Johnson should have lived up to the discipline that the moment required

Tell that to Terry Smith, the money manager who controls more than $30 billion in funds, who was critical of the conglomerate Unilever for its environmental, social and corporate governance goals. Mr Smith complained last week that the focus by the management of the Magnum ice cream brand was hurting his returns. “Unilever seems to be labouring under the weight of a management, which is obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business,” he wrote in a letter to investors.

Mr Smith comes from an old-school City of London background where taking care of the basics is prized. Mr Johnson’s style of politics is also all about pushing through the basics and connecting with people through this very simple prism. But as a maxim, "it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to" is all very well when the consequences are nebulous – which isn't the case in the world we currently live in.

There seems to be little inclination from voters to turn a blind eye, though.

There are some suggestions that Mr Johnson’s team was powered by a saviour complex that justified its own behaviour behind closed doors. The truth is more simple: it was a hard time. But then, Mr Johnson should have lived up to the discipline that the moment required.

As a biographer of former British prime minister Winston Churchill, Mr Johnson was accused of transcribing his own traits to the war-time leader. What he did not recognise when he got the mantle of leadership himself was that every crisis is different.

The health threat is universal and personal, as are the climate dangers. Mr Johnson has been caught out by changing views.

Published: January 15th 2022, 2:00 PM
Damien McElroy

Damien McElroy

Damien is a  foreign correspondent who has covered politics and conflict across Europe, the Middle East, the US, Africa and Asia. Before joining The National in 2017, he worked for The Sunday Times and Telegraph titles as an editor and roving reporter. He started his career in China and has a degree in finance.