Boris Johnson runs out of road as A-Level fiasco makes global headlines

A growing list of self-inflicted disasters is putting Britain's reputation for competence, and the prime minister himself, at risk

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Like his Roman hero, Emperor Augustus, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was all-conquering last December. An 80-seat majority in the general election meant he could wield imperial dictums to achieve whatever he wanted.

It is an entirely different picture today, intensified by the international fall-out from the fiasco surrounding Britain’s gold standard A-Level exam system.

The screaming U-turn over the results' downgrading is the latest in a long list of self-inflicted disasters that have befallen his government.

The car crash moment was of the government’s own making. After the pandemic forced the cancellation of final exams officials had months to ensure a robust alternative grading system.

Instead London has undermined what was supposed to be a “blue riband” British institution and an internationally recognised university entrance test.

At the start of this week the under-fire education secretary, Gavin Williamson, vowed to fight A-Level grade inflation -- the easier marking carried out by the pupils own teachers.

Now he has done precisely that by ditching a complicated grading algorithm - the results of which are shown in this chart - in favour of teacher-predicted grades.


But chaos has already descended with students either taking up places or being denied them with the original grades awarded.

Universities could pay the price

There’s a real danger now that the bungling will cause untold damage to universities that rely on more than 460,000 international students a year studying in Britain.

That represents 20 per cent of the student population and there is a strong chance the A-Level marking mess will deter foreign students from coming to a country already blighted by its handling of coronaviru. UK Covid deaths currently stand at over 40,000 -- the worst figure in Europe.

The loss of income – international students pay more – could see some universities struggle to survive. The large industry around international students with recruiting agencies, English language tutors and landlords are  all already suffering.

Mr Williamson lifting the cap on the number of students that universities can take will mean at least there’s a chance for more international students getting places.

But what many people see as inexcusable is exactly a rerun of the controversy in Scotland a week earlier.

What is also now becoming quite easily predictable is that there are going to be more opportunities for this government’s competence to be tested.

Clearly the pandemic has been a severe examination of all governments’ competency. But it’s getting difficult to escape the conclusion that the current British leadership is being found out.

Despite the horrendous scenes in Italy and staggering infection rates in Spain, the UK government dithered over imposing lockdowns. Britain has subsequently achieved the highest death rate and the worst economic fallout in Europe with a drastic 20 per cent drop in GDP. Then came the bungled travel corridors plan with country’s awarded the chance to host British tourists only for the decision to be reversed for France and Spain.

Dominic Cummings, the prime minister's chief of staff, was found out in and apparent breach of lockdown rules, which shattered the government's credibility, and another U-turn over a contact tracing app.

Now the undermining of A-Levels, what was internationally regarded as a highly respected institution, is going to further batter Britain’s fraying reputation for competence, a reputation that has yet to recover from the Brexit referendum. Britain is about to enter a final phase in Brexit trade talks that could cause yet more irreparable damage.

Mr Johnson’s method has been to charm his way breezily through it all. But even that is beginning to wear thin. The emperor’s clothes are becoming ever more transparent.