Sunday 25 July 2021

Looking Back at the Wreckage

On the occasion of his ascension to office, I congratulated readers for surviving his first day as Prime Minister. Two years on from that blasted day, relaying the same message is enough to make one queasy because so many have not made it. Because of him. And many more are set to lose their good health if not their lives entirely unnecessarily. Any retrospective of the turbulence since that July day in 2019 does so in the shadow of death, of between 129,000 and 150,000 deaths. Ignoring it, putting out of sight so it's out of mind is disrespectful of all who have died. It's also a testament to the success the Tories have enjoyed that these do not weigh heavier on politics.

What has happened with Covid was always going to happen with Johnson as the head of the government. No one knew what was about to befall the world a couple of summers ago, but were one to venture a thought experiment back then about how Johnson would handle a hypothetical pandemic, I'm confident most would have forecast the debacle we're living through. The lack of timeliness, the half-arsed measures, and then the giving up trying to contain the virus because it's too much trouble, all could easily have been seen coming. This was because Johnson was a known quantity, a heap of fecklessness and laziness loosely tied up in a sack of skin. Everyone knew he would be a disaster even if Covid hadn't happened, but even this was infinitely preferable to the establishment in its centre left, centrist, and right wing guises than have their class cede a sliver of power to the forces Jeremy Corbyn was able to muster.

Johnson is a terrible Prime Minister and certainly the worst of my lifetime, which coming after Theresa May and Dave is no mean feat. But he started as he meant to go on. He has been consistent, whether Dominic Cummings has been inside the tent or outside it, consistently reckless. This wasn't a feature that distinguished his spell as part-time London mayor. His limitations were obvious, but he got the bodies in to cover for him. He confined himself to fronting things up and pursuing "opportunities" with Jennifer Arcuri. If the bull-in-a-china-shop proclivity did manifest, it was with his being accidentally controversial on purpose, like crudely caricaturing Muslim women in such a way to provide guaranteed succour to racists. But getting good old Boris plaudits from the press and the most backward sections of the electorate.

The recklessness for which he is known is product of a set of political circumstances. The 2017 general election showed the Tories their only route to a viable majority: being champions of Brexit. This was underlined by the evaporation of support in the 2019 European Union elections, but also showed what might be possible if they could unify leave voters. The other key take-home was seeing how Labour also suffered as its electoral coalition was prised apart by the hard remainism of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. Uniting a leave vote as Labour was simultaneously split by remain was an obvious opportunity, and Johnson went for it. His immediate problem, despite being the leading face of Leave three years previous, was the dithering and splits among the Tories themselves. He had to establish credibility among Tory voters who had flirted with UKIP and the Brexit Party, and appeal to nominal Labour supporters who'd lent their votes to Nigel Farage too.

The strategy was as obvious as it was clumsy. Winning the Tory leadership contest meant being as Brexity as possible, which Johnson opted to do. He couldn't be bothered with most of the hustings as they'd only confuse matters, but he was keen to emphasise how getting Brexit sorted would be his number one priority, even if it meant sacking people and flouting the law of the land. After winning handily against the equivocating and remainy Jeremy Hunt, he took a wrecking ball to to the pro-EU opposition in the Commons. Parliament was prorogued, grandees were unceremoniously booted if they refused the line, and he sailed close to the wind of defying the law. It was all pure theatre, confrontation contrived for a very political spectacle. And it worked. The excitable types camped outside the Palace of Westminster were representative of millions watching the shenanigans unfold on their screens and the pages of their papers, and what they saw wasn't chaos. Instead it was something altogether more sinister: the attempt by the metropolitan elite to thwart their vote. Johnson's strategy was a reckless gamble, but it worked because the opposition stayed divided, Labour was led by a thoroughly demonised figure, and it was committed to setting aside the 2016 vote. The stars aligned with long-term demographic changes and the Tories won big. Boris Johnson, inveterate liar and the most untrustworthy man in politics turned out to be as good as his word, or at the very least ostentatiously demonstrated he was a better champion of democracy than any number of decents. And understanding this, sticking with Brexit in spite of the medical emergency has remained a high of not his government's highest priority.

There's a lesson there. If a politician says something and then does it, millions will stick by them. Especially if its popular and divisive. Unfortunately, this determination to get the EU business done as far as the popular imagination were concerned has not carried through to pandemic management. But what has is the recklessness. Reluctant to shut down and eager to open up again, and contracting Covid himself by refusing to following his own government's official advice, where the Tories have succeeded it's from adapting, without credit, suggestions made by Jeremy Corbyn in the dying days of his leadership. But the holes in their support schemes, their condemnation of entire sectors, the refusal to countenance holding down infections and performing a dangerous experiment on this country's population all speak to Johnson's default setting: laziness.

The recklessness then springs from two different sources. In the first phase of his premiership, it was the hyperactivity of getting Brexit done. And in the second, dating from the arrival of Coronavirus to these shores, it's lethargy. Johnson was prepared to burn the house down to put together a renewed voter coalition in 2019. And in the pandemic-blighted 2020 and 2021 he couldn't care less. Public health came second up to the very point necessity forced his hand. Once the immediate pressure is passed, he tries to pretend as if Covid is a minor inconvenience. Just like now. It's not like he's raring to go. The tedious talk of levelling up remains hot air, his promises to sort out social care are nowhere, and very little of the promised transformation of the country is in evidence.

The best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour. On all things Brexit-related, such as the Tory rediscovery of the Northern Ireland protocol they designed and signed, expect the usual bombast and brinkmanship. But on everything else, neglect is the watch word. How can anyone expect Johnson to put the effort in to address the country's multiple problems and challenges when the cataclysm of virulent disease has proven stubbornly unable to bring out the Prime Minister's best. Reckless indifference has guided his government, and that's not about to change - no matter how many people it endangers and kills.

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1 comment:

Blissex said...

«This was underlined by the evaporation of support in the 2019 European Union elections,»

Those elections were nearly irrelevant both because nothing was at stake, and turnout was so low, mostly just a protest vote. There was no LibDem-ChangeUK landslide at the national election in 2019, for example.

There was an interesting lesson from 2019 though, that many of the 30-35% of tory voters who are "Remainers" switched to the LibDems in the EU election, but switched back to the Conservatives in the national election, because their vote-moving issue is rentierism, not EU membership. Same happened for Labour.

Asa a rule EU membership or exit is a vote-moving issue for many more "Leavers" than "Remainers", for many of the latter EU membership is a "nice to have", not a "must have".