It is almost exactly three years since Boris Johnson won his “stonking” 80-seat majority in the general election of December 2019. I marked the anniversary of that joyous occasion by rereading the Conservatives’ election manifesto (as one does). Revisiting it now, in the midst of Broken Britain’s bleak midwinter, is like reading the fantastical ravings of the deranged. Were it a book, it would be placed in the fiction section of public libraries, next to Alice in Wonderland perhaps.
It talked of “getting Brexit done” so we could “move on to unleash the full potential of this great country”. It said that “for the last three and a half years, [Britain] has felt trapped, like a lion in a cage”. It confidently asserted that getting Brexit done would “end the division and deadlock that have been so bad for our country” and unlock “a pent-up tidal wave of investment”. It would allow us to “focus on the priorities of the British people, funding the NHS and tackling the cost of living”, and to “do more on the international stage”.
It talked of “levelling up every part of the UK”, of “strengthening our Union”, and of providing “world-class healthcare” and “world-class public services”. It promised 40 new hospitals, 50,000 more nurses, 50 million more GP surgery appointments a year and a drive to improve morale within the NHS. It pledged to “take back control of our borders” by fixing the immigration system, and to tackle crime with 20,000 more police officers and tougher sentencing.
It promised a “transport revolution” and huge investment in schools, training and infrastructure. It promised to simplify the planning system and build 300,000 homes a year to resolve the housing crisis. It promised a long-term plan for social care, to achieve net zero by 2050 and, unequivocally, that “we will not raise the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance”. All that, and “debt will be lower at the end of the parliament”.
On and on the list went. The environment would be cleaned up. Our democracy would be renewed. Freedom of expression would be championed. Globally, “we will open new markets”, “reinvigorate relationships with Europe”, spend 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income on foreign aid and “strengthen Britain in the world”.
Our farmers and fishermen would be enabled to produce “food and fish that are the envy of the world”. Our small and medium-sized businesses would become bigger exporters in the post-Brexit world. We would continue to collaborate with the EU on scientific research, including through the EU’s €95bn Horizon programme. Gigabit broadband would cover the entire UK by 2025.
Three years on the manifesto looks beyond absurd. The Conservatives have fulfilled scarcely a single one of those promises. Mostly they have achieved the precise opposite.
Yes, Johnson “got Brexit done” in the sense that we left the EU, but his hastily-agreed withdrawal deal has proved deeply damaging to British interests and the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol continues to bedevil relations with Brussels.
Far from Brexit unleashing the “British lion”, we have become the sick man of Europe with the worst forecast growth next year of any advanced economy save Russia. We are being clobbered by double-digit inflation, the highest tax burden since the Second World War, rising interest rates, widespread industrial action and plunging living standards. Millions are struggling even to heat their homes. Half the population live in areas poorer than parts of central and eastern Europe. “Levelling up” has become a joke.
Far from flourishing, the NHS is precariously close to collapse. A record 7.2 million people await hospital treatment. Nurses are on strike, and quitting the profession in droves. The army is being drafted in to replace striking ambulance workers. It is hard even to get a GP’s appointment.
Far from “taking back control”, legal and illegal immigration has reached record levels with even Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, admitting that the arrival of 40,000 asylum seekers on flimsy boats from France this year is “an egregious example of how we haven’t taken back control”.
Far from cutting crime, the police are solving the lowest proportion of crimes on record, and the backlog of criminal cases at Crown Courts has reached a record 61,000. Travelling by train, plane or automobile has become an activity to be avoided if possible. Our rivers and beaches are filthy. Social care remains in crisis. Housing targets have been shelved. More broadly, the Union is under unprecedented strain, Britain’s global stature has taken a terrible battering and public cynicism towards our democratic institutions has reached dangerous levels.
The manifesto was, of course, written before the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused such global turmoil, but the Conservatives cannot possibly blame all of Britain’s present woes on those catastrophes.
They did not have to insist on the hardest possible – and most damaging – Brexit, erecting walls between us and our biggest trading partners and knocking an estimated 4 per cent off long-term GDP. They did not have to spend the last three years attacking the civil service, the judiciary, the BBC, Treasury orthodoxy, experts and each other. They did not have to divide the country with their cheap and nasty culture wars.
They cannot blame Covid-19 or Vladimir Putin for Johnson’s financial profligacy, his preference for gimmickry over serious grown-up policy, his promotion to high office of loyal mediocrities, his purging of so many able and decent Tories, and the endlessly scandalous conduct that was so detrimental to good government and eventually brought him down.
They did not have to elect a rabid ideologue such as Liz Truss, with her huge unfunded tax cuts and delusional economic theories, to replace him. They did not have to subject the country to three prime ministers and four chancellors in a year, and to leave us without a functioning government for two months over the summer.
On second thoughts, the Tories’ 2019 manifesto should perhaps not be confined to the fiction shelves of our public libraries. It should be framed and hung on their walls – a sober warning against the perils of hubris, dishonesty and unchecked ideological zealotry that have brought Britain so low.