Roll up! Roll up! After a one-year hiatus the Conservative Party Circus is back, and its star turn is once again the “greased piglet”, our latter-day Houdini, the great illusionist and escapologist who effortlessly shrugs off crises and scandals that would destroy other prime ministers.
Petrol stations running dry? Gas companies collapsing? Surging inflation? The highest taxes since the Second World War? The steepest winter heating bills on record? No matter, Boris Johnson is still the big top’s darling in Manchester this week.
Chronic labour shortages in key sectors? Empty supermarket shelves? Crops rotting in fields? A dearth of Christmas toys, trees and turkeys? The imminent slaughter of 120,000 pigs for lack of butchers? Johnson sails blithely on.
A colossal national debt? A 5.6 million backlog of patients needing NHS treatment? Face-to-face appointments with GPs down a million in a month? The criminal justice system stretched to breaking point? Rape convictions at a record low? The police squandering public trust? Johnson is undaunted.
The UK breaking apart? Northern Ireland’s fragile peace at risk? A promised trade deal with the US taken off the table? A humiliating and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan? Who cares?
Britain has not been in such a dire state since the Winter of Discontent in 1978-79. I can’t remember the last time we had such a clueless and incompetent government – one that inherited a prosperous country in relatively good working order but is now failing even in its basic duty to feed and fuel it. And yet Johnson’s Tories lead Labour by 39 points to 35 in the latest Opinium poll, and a headline in the Times proclaims: “Despite the woes, Tory faith in PM stronger than ever”.
How does he do it? How does he continue to defy political gravity? The opposition’s weakness helps, though Keir Starmer did show flickers of life at Labour’s conference last week. So does an obsequious media. So does the Prime Minister’s boundless, if groundless, optimism. And voters still, rightly, cut him some slack because of Covid – even if his handling of the pandemic was lamentable and our vaccination rate now lags behind much of Europe.
But mostly Johnson survives by deploying the tools of the conman. He lies. He makes grand but empty promises. He rallies supporters against false enemies – Brussels, the French, Remainers, the BBC, the metropolitan elite, the “woke”. He exploits people’s fears and grievances, panders to their hopes and aspirations, and tells them what they want to hear regardless of the truth.
“Build back better” and “getting on with the job” are the Orwellian slogans for this week’s Tory conference, when the fact is that Johnson is a human wrecking ball. He might well have been referring to himself when he told the UN General Assembly in September that “we [humankind] have come to that fateful age when we know roughly how to drive and we know how to unlock the drinks cabinet and to engage in all sorts of activity that is not only potentially embarrassing but also terminal”. Or that “we still cling with parts of our mind to the infantile belief that the world was made for our gratification and pleasure”. Or that “we believe that someone else will clear up the mess we make, because that is what someone else has always done”.
Faced with the chronic labour shortages afflicting the haulage, care, construction, meat production, agricultural and hospitality industries (to name but a few), he claims they are “A Good Thing” because they will drive up wages, improve productivity and curtail our dependence on cheap immigrant workers.
No matter that his immediate solution to those shortages is to invite those very same immigrants to return. Or that there are far less disruptive ways of achieving those ends. Or that his government did nothing to prepare for the inevitable consequences of more than a million EU workers leaving after Brexit. Higher wages will also fuel the surging inflation rate. They will help some groups at the expense of others – nurses, for example. And do British workers really want to pick vegetables, masturbate turkeys or clean toilets?
“Levelling up”? That’s rich from a government that is clobbering the poor by raising National Insurance contributions, ending the uplift in Universal Credit, letting inflation erode the value of pay packets and refusing adequately to finance post-Covid educational catch-up programmes. From a government that enriches its cronies with lucrative public contracts. From a government in hock to unsavoury billionaire donors – foreign and domestic – who certainly do not prioritise the interests of the underprivileged. I’m afraid £22m to upgrade Red Wall tennis courts will not suffice.
Johnson boasts of having got Brexit done. It is true that his government has restored blue passports and imperial measures, but we are still fighting Brussels over Northern Ireland’s status and still in dispute with the French over fishing rights. We will be suffering the consequences of Johnson’s shoddy and inadequate divorce deals for years to come. We have yet to begin to work out our future relationship with the big, powerful trading and political bloc across the Channel because Johnson finds it more useful to demonise it. Migrants are still crossing that strip of water – in record numbers.
As for “delivery” – another of this week’s buzzwords – the one promise our esteemed Prime Minister has kept is to “fuck business”. That he has done in style.
How bad do things have to get before the proverbial scales fall from peoples’ eyes? How great does the chasm between Johnson’s upbeat rhetoric and the bleak reality have to become before his supporters realise they are being duped? (I thought last week’s promise to create a “Galactic Britain”, firing rockets into space, when we could not fill our cars with petrol might do the trick, but no.) How long will it take before his supporters register that their self-professed champion has made their lives far worse, that regaining Britain’s precious “sovereignty” has helped them not a jot, and that far from “taking back control”, we have totally lost it?
And one more chilling question: when that moment comes, how will the fury of those who have been so grievously deceived and betrayed play out?