Writing this, due to print delays, prior to publication of Sue Gray’s report, two predictions, nonetheless. First, it will trigger a thunderous avalanche of front pages, a whistleblowing frenzy and several thousand aired interviews from embarrassed conservatives. Second, in the short term, it will not dislodge the Prime Minister.
I’m not saying those moments don’t matter. They do. The honesty of state officials and the independence of mind of senior civil servants are of the utmost importance. The publication of a photo clearly showing the Prime Minister happily toasting his colleagues at a party, despite telling the Commons there was no party that night and no rule had been broken, suggests real trouble ahead. The privileges committee, which is looking into whether Parliament has been lied to, may be more dangerous for Boris Johnson than anything before.
This includes the Met. Brian Paddick, the Met’s former deputy deputy commissioner, now a Lib Dem peer, told me this week that the police may not have thoroughly investigated the parties “because they didn’t want not upset No. 10”. They would have to explain themselves, he said. Meanwhile, junior officials, often women, were thrown to the wolves to protect male bosses. Everything is awful.
Well, the whirlwind of time brings its revenge. But something bigger is brewing. Westminster has been hypnotized for months by pursuing Johnson for breaking the rules and lying. This irresistibly sinister tale was full of thrilling twists and cliff-hangers. The latest pictures! The new rumor about letters to the chief whip! The humiliating failure of PC Useless, again!
Such a tale is meant to end one way, with the enraged culprit arrested in the final chapter, then expelled from power on the final page. The state is cleaned. Normal service resumes. The chairman of the 1922 Committee is carried on the shoulders of relieved, honest, ruddy-faced reporters, while Tory MPs toss rose petals to cheering voters. Honest brass and delighted charladies join hands and dance in the street. You get the picture.
Clearly, however, we have the small problem that the culprit refuses to cooperate in this moving and uplifting story. He squirms. But it sticks. It’s embarrassing for everyone.
However, we may have been following the lesser series of events all along. Try to forget the Borisodrama, at least for a while. Although we have all been looking in this direction, don’t we have a government anymore?
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Not really. Oh, we have ministers and state departments. We have young people walking around, smartly dressed, with big WhatsApp group memberships and big ambitions. We have command papers and suppers. We have media interviews and “grids”.
But we no longer have a government in the sense of a single national authority, which generally knows what is going on and which takes the nation in a clear direction. We have, instead, a general paralysis – a mush – a debilitating, exhausting formlessness.
What should be done is not done. As inflation ravages family budgets, ministers are unable to decide on an exceptional tax on energy companies. It is not a very difficult decision, nor even a very important one. You are doing something useful and popular at the cost of a little Labor mockery. Against that, you just swiped the only recognizable policy they have. How difficult is it?
Yet they cannot decide. When that dangerous social revolutionary Iain Duncan Smith suggests that it might be a good idea to increase Universal Credit to offset soaring fuel and food bills, the minister class panics.
And what about – well, everything else? What about the court system, where the backlog of English Crown Court cases is so large that magistrates have had to have the power to send people to jail for up to a year – a solution that can produce more calls and make the situation worse? The Law Society’s Stephanie Boyce and the Criminal Bar Association’s Jo Sidhu both say there simply aren’t enough judges, prosecutors or defense attorneys to cover the backlog. Boyce warns that unless things work out, “we won’t have a proper criminal justice system anymore.” Meanwhile, according to the chief inspectorate, inmates still spend 22 hours and more in their cells every day.
English rivers? Here is the Commons Environmental Audit Committee recently: “Only 14% of English rivers are in good ecological condition, with pollution from agriculture, sewage, roads and single-use plastics contributing to a ‘chemical cocktail’ that crosses our waterways. Not a single river in England has received a clean bill of health for chemical contamination.
The privatization of the water companies, with all the additional investments we were promised, does not seem to have helped. Despite a new environmental law, MPs noted “a lack of political will to improve water quality, with successive governments, water companies and regulators seemingly turning a blind eye to outdated dumping practices. sewage and other pollutants in rivers”.
If this is all starting to sound a bit Dickensian – turd-filled rivers, clogged courts – then let’s get to the teeth. Appropriate: Charles Dickens apparently had horrible problems with his rotting, wobbly teeth and the ineffective plates given to him to keep him eating.
Dickens would do better today. He got rich; dental care can now be fabulous in this country. But only if you pay for it: A recent and widely publicized Healthwatch study found that 80% of people struggled to access NHS dental care, including emergency care. We now have “dental deserts” for many working class people. Before the Covid pandemic, around 30% of us had a positive view of NHS dental care. It’s now down to 2 percent. Some 2,000 dentists have left the NHS.
The courts, the rivers, the teeth – three examples of areas where urgent action is needed from a government with a sense of direction and priorities. There are so many more, from hours of ambulance calls to military waste, from the dilapidation of main streets to the crisis in child services. In each case, more money is needed. But the British state is strapped for money, or so it thinks.
And that brings us back to the root of the problem, identified by Jeremy Hunt: “We have a high inflation, low growth economy, when we need a low inflation, high growth economy.
The inflation we know. When it comes to growth, with the war in Ukraine clouding the arithmetic, it’s harder to be sure. It is better to take a longer perspective because the BORN. data journalist Ben Walker recently did. UK GDP per capita growth since 2015 has been 10%, very low by European standards – Germany has managed 24% and France 18%.
Britain has long had a growth problem, but it is particularly serious today. Intellectually, Michael Gove’s upgrade program provides good answers. But we can’t ignore the elephant in the column. Far from triggering faster growth in our economy, Brexit has dampened our exports and exposed structural weaknesses.
Going back to my original point about a leadershipless government, there was initially one big idea, one story, one sense of direction. It was about “building back better”: post-Brexit government, rebuilding and regenerating Britain. Was not it?
Hampered by war and pandemic, grappling with debt and inflation, torn apart by feuds and distracted by his own ludicrous melodrama – what a downfall there has been. This government still remembers what it hates (the BBC, leftist lawyers, immigrants), but it has no idea where it is going. It’s history. Johnson’s secret weapon has always been his contagious optimism. He needs it now because all around him his government is becoming a kind of… what shall we call it? A dismay.