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13 September 2021

A decade of Boris Johnson would be disastrous – but Labour’s failures could allow it

The worst Prime Minister in living memory could very easily win two more terms.

By Martin Fletcher

There it was, bold as you like, on the front page of Saturday’s Times. “Boris Johnson Eyes Another Decade in Power” the headline proclaimed. “Cabinet ministers say that Johnson wants to outlast [Margaret] Thatcher’s modern record of 11 years in power,“ the paper’s political editor explained in the story below. It put me right off my breakfast.

What a ghastly prospect – ten more years of government by gimmickry, empty promises, fatuous photo ops, misleading slogans, headline-grabbing stunts, jingoism, U-turns and policies decided on the hoof by a deeply unserious but omnipotent Prime Minister who ignores his cabinet and has reduced parliament to a rubber-stamping operation.

He has squandered the goodwill of our former friends and allies in Europe, undermined our “special relationship” with Joe Biden’s America, cut our foreign aid budget, demonised migrants and asylum seekers, reneged on international treaties, courted deeply unsavoury characters such as Donald Trump and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and left Britain scorned, isolated and largely friendless in the world. France’s President Macron is reportedly so exasperated by Johnson’s conduct that he will not even meet him.

A Prime Minister who constantly wraps himself in the Union Jack has jeopardised England’s 314-year-old union with Scotland, risked Northern Ireland’s fragile peace, and destroyed the UK’s social cohesion with his hardest of hard Brexits and cynical culture wars. A record 61,851 race and hate crimes were recorded in England and Wales last year.

Through Brexit Johnson has created a whole new stratum of job-destroying red tape for British businesses. He has forfeited our automatic right to live, work or study anywhere in Europe, and prompted thousands of Britons to seek citizenship in EU member states. Brexit has caused shortages of labour, food, construction materials, blood test vials, sewage treatment chemicals, Nando’s chicken, Ikea furniture, Percy Pigs and much else besides. 

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Asked by Sebastian Payne, the author of Broken Heartlands, to identify Brexit’s benefits, Johnson cited the Covid vaccination programme, freeports and “scuppering” plans for a European Super League. Unless I’m greatly mistaken, we could have done most of that as an EU member state.

Johnson’s debasement of Britain’s political culture is harder to quantify but no less reprehensible. The man David Cameron once described as a “greased piglet” tells shameless porkies – even in parliament. He acts unlawfully. He wants to restrict the right to vote and to protest. He rewards cronies with jobs, peerages and lucrative government contracts, and presides over rampant influence peddling. He has destroyed the concept of ministerial responsibility by refusing to sack ministers for incompetence, dishonesty or misconduct.

He evades accountability to parliament, the media or anyone else. He seeks to subvert the independence of the civil service, judiciary, BBC, Electoral Commission and various watchdog bodies. 

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If Johnson can achieve all that in two years. just imagine what destruction he could wreak in ten. And here’s the really frightening thing. He may be the worst Prime Minister in living memory, but he could very easily win two more terms given the parlous state of Britain’s opposition.

There is much that I admire about Labour’s Keir Starmer – a man of decency, honesty, intelligence and integrity. I understand that the pandemic has made his job much more difficult. But even I am beginning to lose confidence in him. 

Seventeen months after assuming the leadership he has still not united his party, curtailed its interminable navel-gazing, or consolidated his position. He has still not found a way to skewer a thoroughly rotten Prime Minister. He refuses to so much as mention Brexit despite all the manifest problems that it is causing. His failure to produce an alternative to what Johnson had the effrontery to call a social care “plan” last week (in reality it was just another huge injection of taxpayers’ cash into the NHS) was simply inexplicable.

Thatcher and Tony Blair used their opposition years to develop a coherent programme for government, but Starmer has yet to establish what his Labour Party stands for. The 14,000 word “credo” he is reportedly planning to publish this week will be welcome, but what’s the bumper sticker? He would have been very good prime ministerial material in the 20th century, when politics was still a serious business, but is he showman enough for the 21st? It sometimes seems as if the most effective opposition to Johnson comes from his own backbenchers, or from outsiders such as the footballer Marcus Rashford.

Labour may have inched past the Conservatives in the latest opinion poll, but other factors combine to make it all but impossible for the party to win the 128 additional seats it needs to gain a majority at the next election. Scotland is a lost cause. Nigel Farage no longer splits the right-wing vote. The progressive vote is increasingly divided between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, but infuriatingly neither Starmer nor the Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey will consider any form of electoral pact. Boundary changes, the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and the grotesquely misnamed Electoral Integrity Bill will all favour the Tories too.

The tragedy is that the majority of British voters – including millions of moderate Tories – hate what Johnson has done to their country. Had there been a single personable, articulate and charismatic opposition leader capable of rallying that divided and dispirited majority, Johnson would not have survived two years, let alone have a chance of ten.