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5 October 2021

How Boris Johnson has perfected the art of blaming the public

It’s a sign that something has gone very wrong when public servants decide it is our fault if they fail to do their jobs.

By Rachel Cunliffe

It is natural in times of crisis for people to look to the government to fix things. What usually happens then is that the government – made up of people who were elected on the basis of serving their country – tries to figure out how to make things better. 

Boris Johnson’s government, however, is trying a different approach. Asked yesterday about the supply chain disasters and labour shortages that may leave supermarket shelves bare in the run-up to Christmas, the Prime Minister replied: “Those businesses, those industries are the best solvers of their own supply chain issues,” adding that “government can’t step in and fix every bit of the supply chain”. 

His words echoed those of the newly appointed Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who also argued that the disruption in supply chains – which industry experts have been sounding the alarm about for months – is nothing to do with layers of red tape and complex rules that have come into force as a result of Brexit, nor the end of free movement. “I don’t believe in a command-and-control economy, so I don’t believe that the Prime Minister is responsible for what’s in the shops,” Truss told a Conservative Party conference fringe event. So if there are shortages of turkey and presents and pigs in blankets this Christmas, don’t blame the government for failing to heed warning calls; blame the shops. 

It’s a neat way to turn bad news around – almost as neat as telling drivers desperate to stock up on fuel that they are the problem. Though Johnson has admitted he was warned back in June about the potential issues in road haulage, his message throughout the crisis has been to berate motorists for “panic buying”, and to tell them to only fill up “when you really need it”. The fact that up to 90 per cent of petrol stations in England’s major cities were at one point running dry is irrelevant – the focus is rather on the people who are worried about stocking up to get to work or see relatives in hospital or transport goods. 

You almost have to admire the government’s brazenness: fail to avert a crisis people have warned about for months, then blame the public for noticing it.

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To be fair to Johnson, measures are finally being taken now, with short-term visas issued for HGV drivers and the military called in to help move fuel to where it needs to be. And it is not as if any government could have prevented the recent disruption entirely. Other countries are facing similar driver shortages and squeezes on energy, and the logistics crunch is due to a range of factors – from Covid unlocking to China’s power outages.

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But there is no denying that the extra friction from Brexit is having an impact (as business leaders repeatedly warned it would), both on supplies and on staff. More importantly, contingency plans could have been made over the summer – on driver visas, on storage, on support for industries – to ease the pressure now. Instead, the Tories are washing their hands of responsibility and trusting that somehow it will all sort itself out, with Johnson telling the Today programme this morning (5 October): “This country’s natural ability to sort out its logistics and supply chains is very strong.”

You can imagine what the line will be if this natural ability falls short. No petrol at the pumps? Blame drivers. No turkey for Christmas? Evil supermarkets. Chronic shortages of workers, from fruit-pickers to care staff to butchers? It’s probably the fault of the free market, or of young people who don’t know how to do an honest day’s work. Maybe it’s because they’re too woke.

This allergic reaction to accountability has been under way for some time – from both the government and other public bodies. Cast your mind back to September last year, when pupils flooded back into schools triggering an entirely predictable spike in demand for Covid tests. Not our fault, said Test and Trace boss Dido Harding, who insisted she didn’t believe “anybody was expecting to see the really sizeable increase in demand” – as though parents trying to get tests so their children could safely attend school were putting unfair strain on the system. 

Or recall the harrowing poster campaign unveiled midway through the winter lockdown, where passers-by were urged to “look into the eyes” of Covid patients struggling on ventilators and think hard about their choices – choices such as turning up to work and buying food. At a time when the government was not requiring employers to allow staff to work from home, and when financial support for people self-isolating was inadequate, the focus from No 10 on castigating individuals for the spike in hospitalisations and deaths was (as I wrote then) “placing the collective blame for this crisis on the public and absolving itself of culpability”.

Other institutions are taking note. It’s hard to keep track of the defiant, tone-deaf statements that have been issued from various policing bodies in response to the details that emerged last week about how Sarah Everard’s murderer abused his position as a police officer to kidnap her, but one of the most insulting is surely that of North Yorkshire police commissioner Philip Allott. Women, according to Allott, need to be “streetwise” when interacting with police, and Everard should never have “submitted” to being arrested. No need to take a good, hard look at policing culture across the land and vetting processes that enabled a man with a track record of sexual impropriety to remain in the force – it’s the public’s fault for not behaving properly. 

I am increasingly uncomfortable with just how rare it is to find a high-ranking official admit responsibility – for anything. I worry that we’ve stopped expecting it, that as a nation we’ve been gaslit into accepting that those in power have no duty to work in our interests, and that the obligation instead falls on us to satisfy them. Maybe it’s a symptom of the pandemic – we have, after all, spent 18 months talking about how people can “protect” a health service that is presumably intended to protect us – or maybe this is just what governing in an age of hyper-polarisation looks like, where any critique of the governing classes can be dismissed as unpatriotic. 

Either way, it’s a sign that something has gone very wrong with politics and with society that public servants, who are both funded by and supposed to work for us, have decided it is our fault if they fail to do their jobs.

[See also: When did we let the morality police have all the power?]

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