Boris Johnson didn’t do much for Britain’s reputation. From nasty columns about Barack Obama’s ancestry, to reciting colonialist verse in Myanmar, to his betrayal of Northern Irish unionists, his critics painted him as an embarrassment on the world stage.
Yet he generously gave the foreign press one thing: a British caricature. As a scruffy eccentric with imperialist pretensions, a quick wit disguising a quicker temper, a classically-educated thug, he at least fit some sort of morbidly compelling national stereotype.
And as he makes his exit, one British trope endures beyond his rule: queuing. The British are queuing like never before.
If you want your day in court, you’ll be waiting a while. Thousands of victims of violent crime and sexual offences are stuck in limbo for at least a year before their cases are heard because of a huge backlog in the crown courts.
And it’s not just the courts. There are 6.5 million people in England waiting for NHS treatment at the moment – a record number. In April 2022 the average NHS patient spent 12.6 weeks waiting. Emergency patients have not been able to rely on the four-hour standard average waiting time at A&E in any year since 2013-14, and are now enduring the longest waiting times on record (with waits of more than 12 hours at an all-time high according to NHS England data). And that’s not to mention the excruciating dentist appointment backlog, and frustrating remoteness of local GPs.
As a result, lives are being lost unnecessarily, and more people are turning to private healthcare. All the while, the government is pouring money from an unpopular tax increase into the embattled health service to little tangible effect.
“I don’t see how any funding rise can solve this problem. The sheer quantity of work we have to process, we essentially need more capacity somehow,” an administrator at an endoscopy unit in a northwest NHS hospital told me. “There are definitely, frankly, people dying because of this.”
Key to the NHS’s travails is poor social care provision: a conundrum with which Johnson prides himself on grappling. Yet funding for social care from a recently imposed national insurance rise is expected by the Institute for Fiscal Studies to be gobbled up by the NHS, and the new lifetime cap on care costs will most benefit the asset-rich. There are also not enough people to staff care services – an issue the government ducked when publishing its reforms.
That scarcity of care workers is just one aspect of a labour market beset with shortages. For the first time, the number of vacancies has overtaken the number of workers available to fill them in the UK. Economic inactivity is high, but there’s not enough provision to help people too sick or mentally distressed to return to the workplace.
A restaurateur in Wakefield, who couldn’t find enough staff, told me: “We’re the biggest restaurant in the city centre but we’re closed half the week, and when we do open, we make a loss.”
Britain may not have dole queues, but it does have queues building up at airports without enough baggage handlers. Passport offices are low on staff, leading to long queues there too, and budding drivers are having their licences delayed due to a shortage of driving test slots.
Many people cannot afford a holiday or petrol at all. Prices and bills are rising at a scary pace, as inflation has hit a 40-year high of 9 per cent. Chiefly driven by the spiralling cost of gas, energy prices will hit another high when the price cap is raised for the second time this year in October. One projection says it could reach £3,244.
“I’m thinking, ‘I can’t have the oven on because of how many kilowatts it would use’,” a mother of a child with special educational needs in Rochdale told me. “So I’ve been reducing cooking, reducing the amount of times we’re washing the pots, or having a bath. Those have become luxuries, when they just shouldn’t be.” She had to put plans for her son’s 13th birthday party and present “on hold” this year.
A social worker in Kent told me of his “despair” that the £30 free school meal vouchers given out over the Easter holidays don’t stretch nearly as far in this time of high prices. He has skipped meals so that he can afford to pay the bus fare for his daughter to get to school. “What you could get for £3 a day before Covid compared with what you can get for £3 now is vastly less.”
Yes, Johnson’s government has released increasing amounts of help for households over the past few months, but speaking to people around Britain it doesn’t appear to be anything like enough. Rishi Sunak, who resigned as Chancellor on Tuesday 5 July, cut fuel duty by 5p a litre in March, for example, yet weeks later drivers were risking arrest (and, according to Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, imprisonment) by bringing traffic to a standstill in “go slow” protests for lower fuel costs. (Not that there would be room on the court waiting lists to prosecute them anyway.)
“Prices of things are a lot of struggle nowadays, with the price of electric and things like that. I think it’s really unfair – jobs as well, I don’t think they pay high [enough] rates anymore,” a 19-year-old from Halifax told me. “I don’t think the government help at all, they need to do a bit more to help us… They need to see it from our perspective.”
Rising prices have led to disruptive industrial action already, with further rail strikes this summer expected after the biggest walkouts for 30 years in June. Other major sectors will probably follow, as nurses and teachers reject pay deals that don’t account for inflation.
The economic crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic has been inflamed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with a little help from the poor outcomes of Brexit. The economy of Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK still within the EU’s free trade orbit, is growing faster than that of Great Britain, the Office for National Statistics has found.
The state of the health service and tragedy of the economy will not be the only challenges for the next prime minister. Other concerns fill the overflowing in-trays of the much-depleted junior ministerial ranks: avian flu decimating entire bird colonies, water companies polluting England’s rivers with raw sewage, a rudderless Metropolitan Police languishing in special measures, and housing demand causing havoc for renters and prospective buyers.
It’s no use for whoever succeeds Johnson to argue that the state of the nation is part of a global crisis. It is, but it’s worse in Britain than it should be. Inflation is set to stick around longer in the UK than in comparable countries; it has the highest inflation rate in the G7, for example, and economists predict that this will carry on until at least 2024.
Britain also has a poor long-term growth outlook, after over a decade of sluggish productivity. This causes all sorts of problems for a new prime minister who will probably have pitched tax cuts and a reduction in borrowing to Conservative MPs and party members during their campaign for the party leadership. Britain in 2023 is expected to have the lowest rate of growth out of the G20 countries other than Russia, which has been hit with heavy sanctions.
Whether Johnson’s successor opts for austerity mark two, or a pandemic-style emergency response, they must help Britain out of a position in which it is increasingly fidgety: the back of the queue.