There was a protest outside Downing Street on Sunday (15 May). Entitled “Stop the Rot”, it was staged by Open Britain — which evolved from the pro-EU referendum campaign — and other like-minded organisations to decry Boris Johnson’s “lies, incompetence and corruption”. It was not huge, alas, but it was the first demonstration I could remember that was directed not against a war, a contentious government policy or some unsavoury foreign leader, but against the personal morality — or immorality — of a British prime minister.
David Lammy, Peter Tatchell and the several other speakers didn’t lack for material. The problem was where to start. Johnson’s congenital lying? His lockdown revelry? His disdain for the law, trashing of the ministerial code, endless broken promises, demonisation of opponents, fomenting of division and disgraceful cronyism? His refusal to apologise or be held accountable for his actions? His criminalisation of desperate asylum seekers? His abandonment of thousands of vulnerable Afghans?
Nobody, not even the most ardent Johnsonian or Brexiteer, could deny that Britain has become a nastier, crueller and more fractured country during the nearly three years Johnson has been prime minister. My fear is that it will become yet more so as he struggles to fend off partygate, the looming cost-of-living crisis, and defeat at the next general election.
His game plan was disclosed recently by David Canzini, the pugnacious election strategist and Lynton Crosby acolyte, who Johnson recruited to restore his political fortunes in February. “Find the wedge issues in your department and hammer them,” Canzini is said to have told ministerial aides. Or, put another way, produce ideas that will garner big, enthusiastic headlines in the Mail, Telegraph, Sun and Express, while enraging readers of the Guardian.
Thus Johnson is threatening unilaterally to junk parts of the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit agreement, however emollient his rhetoric. No matter that the protocol is part of the “oven-ready” EU trade deal that he negotiated, hailed and ratified less than three years ago. Never mind that breaching it would sully Britain’s global reputation, dismay Washington and risk a trade war with the EU in the midst of the Ukraine conflict and a deepening economic crisis. Confronting Brussels delights his Leave-voting base.
Thus Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, is lifting restrictions on police stop-and-search powers, according to the Telegraph. She is also planning to send thousands of asylum seekers to Rwanda, of course, and if “leftie lawyers” try to block her so much the better. The plan “plays well” in Red Wall seats, says Canzini. Or as Johnson gleefully informed the Mail last week: “There’s going to be a lot of legal opposition from the types of firms that for a long time have been taking taxpayers’ money to mount these sorts of cases, and to thwart the will of the people. We’re ready for that. We will dig in for the fight — we will make it work.”
Thus Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit minister who somehow manages to surpass even Patel in his toadying to Johnson, has declared war on another big, soft target: the civil service. Again, Johnson jumped in last week, saying he planned to axe 91,000 civil service jobs, a fifth of the total, to save £3.5bn for tax cuts for struggling families. That is economic tosh, of course, and were it a serious plan he would not have announced it to — you’ve guessed it – the Daily Mail.
Thus, too, unnamed cabinet ministers have started blaming yet another easy target, the Bank of England, for failing to control Britain’s surging inflation, according to a timely splash in the Sunday Telegraph. Johnson’s government bears no responsibility, of course.
Last week’s Queen’s Speech was another cynical exercise in chucking red meat to the mob. There were rabble-rousing measures to tear up EU regulations, block parole for “high-risk” offenders, curtail eco-protests, protect soldiers who served in Northern Ireland from prosecution, counter “wokery”, end “cancel culture”, stop “spurious” human rights cases and give residents a say on changing street names.
The government’s legislative programme was also conspicuous for what it omitted. There was no plausible strategy for mitigating the intensifying cost-of-living crisis (even making MOT tests biennial failed to make the cut).
There was no reform of planning laws and no new target for expanding onshore wind farms — moves that would have upset Conservative backbenchers. There were no measures to fulfil the government’s post-Brexit promise to improve workers’ rights. The government abandoned its plans to ban buy one, get one free deals for junk food as part of its anti-obesity drive. Audit reform was simply deemed too boring. Canzini “vetoed proposed government policies based on whether they will go down well with voters”, the Financial Times reported.
In short, the Tories are exhausted after 12 years in power. Johnson’s government has lost any semblance of intellectual coherence. Having “got Brexit done”, and lacking the funds or long-term commitment required to make levelling up anything more than a slogan, it is bereft of any core purpose beyond its own survival or, more specifically, the Prime Minister’s.
Henceforth, more than ever before, the government’s imperative will be to stir up its base against imagined enemies. That’s how its actions and policies will be determined. Step up the populism, stoke division, and to hell with morality and the nation’s interests.
This article appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato