Writing this, because of print deadlines, before the publication of the Sue Gray report, two predictions, nonetheless. First, it will set off a thundering avalanche of front pages, a frenzy of denunciation and many thousands of broadcast interviews by embarrassed Tories. Second, in the short term, it will not dislodge the Prime Minister.
I’m not saying these moments don’t matter. They do. The honesty of the people in charge of the state and the independent-mindedness of senior civil servants are of the utmost importance. The publication of a picture clearly showing the Prime Minister cheerfully toasting colleagues at a party, when he had told the Commons there was no party that night, and no rules broken, suggests real trouble ahead. The Privileges Committee, looking at whether parliament was lied to, may be more dangerous for Boris Johnson than anything before.
That includes the Met. Brian Paddick, the Met’s former deputy assistant commissioner, now a Lib Dem peer, told me this week the police might not have thoroughly investigated the parties “because they didn’t want to upset No 10”. They would have to explain, he said. Meanwhile junior, often female, civil servants have been thrown to the wolves to protect male bosses. It is all horrible.
Well, the whirligig of time brings in its revenges. But something bigger is afoot. Westminster has been hypnotised for months by the pursuit of Johnson for rule-breaking and lying. This irresistibly lurid tale has been full of thrilling twists and cliff-hangers. The latest photographs! The new rumour about letters to the chief whip! The humiliating failure of PC Useless, yet again!
Such a narrative is meant to end only one way, with the apprehension of the fuming culprit in the final chapter, and then his expulsion from power on the last page. The state is cleansed. Normal service resumes. The chair of the 1922 Committee is carried on the shoulders of relieved, honest, ruddy-faced journalists, while Tory MPs fling rose petals at cheering voters. Honest coppers and delighted charladies join hands and dance in the street. You get the picture.
Clearly, however, we have the small problem that the culprit declines to cooperate in this moving and edifying story. He squirms. But he sticks. It’s embarrassing for everybody.
However, we may have been following the less important series of events all along. Try to forget the Borisodrama, at least for a moment. While we’ve all been looking in that direction, isn’t the bigger story that we no longer have a government?
Not really. Oh, we have cabinet ministers and departments of state. We have striding-about, smartly dressed young people with significant WhatsApp group memberships and high ambitions. We have command papers and supper parties. We have media-round interviews and “grids”.
But we no longer have a government in the sense of a single national authority, which knows in a general way what it’s about and is taking the nation in a clear direction. We have, instead, a general paralysis – a mush – a debilitating, exhausting shapelessness.
That which ought to be done is being left undone. As inflation ravages family budgets, ministers are unable to decide about a windfall tax on energy companies. It is not a very difficult, or even a very big, decision. You do something useful and popular at the expense of a little Labour jeering. Against that, you’ve just swiped the only recognisable policy they have. How hard is this?
Still, they can’t decide. When that dangerous social revolutionary Iain Duncan Smith suggests it might be a good idea to uprate Universal Credit to compensate for rocketing fuel and food bills, the minister class panics.
And what about – well, everything else? What about the justice system, where the backlog in English Crown Court cases is so great, magistrates have had to be given the power to send people to jail for up to a year – a solution that may produce more appeals and make everything worse? Stephanie Boyce of the Law Society and Jo Sidhu of the Criminal Bar Association both say that there simply aren’t enough judges, prosecutors or defence lawyers to cover the backlog. Boyce warns that, unless things turn round, “we will no longer have a criminal justice system worthy of the name”. Meanwhile, according to the chief inspectorate, prisoners are still spending 22 hours and more in their cells every day.
English rivers? Here’s the Commons Environmental Audit Committee recently: “Only 14 per cent of English rivers meet good ecological status, with pollution from agriculture, sewage, roads and single-use plastics contributing to a dangerous ‘chemical cocktail’ coursing through our waterways. Not a single river in England has received a clean bill of health for chemical contamination.”
The privatisation of the water companies, with all the extra investment we were promised, does not seem to have helped. Despite a new Environment Act, the MPs found “a lack of political will to improve water quality, with successive governments, water companies and regulators seemingly turning a blind eye to antiquated practices of dumping sewage and other pollutants in rivers.”
If this is all beginning to sound a little Dickensian – the turd-filled rivers, the clogged-up courts – then let’s turn to teeth. Appropriate: Charles Dickens seemingly had horrid problems with his rotten, wobbling teeth, and the ineffective plates he was given to allow him to keep eating.
Dickens would do better today. He became wealthy; dental care can now be fabulous in this country. But only if you pay for it: a recent and widely publicised study by Healthwatch found that 80 per cent of people were struggling to get any access to NHS dental care, including for emergency treatment. We now have “dental deserts” for many working-class people. Before the Covid pandemic, around 30 per cent of us felt positively about NHS dental treatment. That’s now down to 2 per cent. Some 2,000 dentists have left the NHS.
Courts, rivers, teeth – three examples of areas where urgent action is needed from a government with a sense of direction and priority. There are so many others, from ambulance call-out times to military waste, high street dilapidation to the crisis in children’s services. In each case, more money is needed. But the British state is running out of money, or at least thinks it is.
And this takes us back to the root of the problem, identified by Jeremy Hunt: “We have a high-inflation, low-growth economy, when we need a low-inflation, high-growth one.”
Inflation we know about. On growth, with the war in Ukraine clouding arithmetic, it’s harder to be sure. It’s best to take a longer perspective, as the NS data journalist Ben Walker did recently. UK GDP per capita growth since 2015 has been 10 per cent, very low by European standards – Germany managed 24 per cent and France 18 per cent.
Britain has had a growth problem for a long time but it is particularly severe now. Intellectually, Michael Gove’s levelling-up agenda provides good answers. But we can’t ignore the elephant in the column. Far from unleashing our economy to grow faster, Brexit has held back our exports and exposed structural weaknesses.
Returning to my original point about a directionless government, initially there was a big idea, a story, a sense of direction. This was to be “build back better”: the post-Brexit, reconstruction-and-regeneration-of-Britain government. Wasn’t it?
Hampered by war and pandemic, struggling with debt and inflation, riven by feuds and distracted by its own ridiculous melodrama – what a falling-off there has been. This government still remembers what it hates (the BBC, lefty lawyers, immigrants), but it has no idea of where it’s going. That’s the story. Johnson’s secret weapon was always his infectious optimism. He needs it now as, all around him, his government becomes a kind of… what shall we call it? A bewilderment.
This article appears in the 25 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Out of Control