What is the price of a quiche Lorraine? What is the price of a pint of milk? And can either of these things be found in the Sainsbury’s basics aisle? These are questions that Boris Johnson and other Tories probably do not know the answers to – which is not very good given the Prime Minister fights election campaigns on the basis that he understands ordinary voters.
Being out of touch with common people is one of the gravest sins a Tory can commit. Well, that’s not quite true – we all know, sotto voce, that many of them are out of touch by definition, but we look past that to have a good laugh. However, a Tory acknowledging that difference, or not busting a lung to hide it, irks.
Boris Johnson got this, once. It is why he spent years cultivating his image. He couldn’t shed all the trappings of his upbringing but he was fallible in the same way the rest of us are, had a sense of humour that matched ours, shrugged off gaffes, didn’t like Brussels, made light-hearted TV, wrote books to be taken as seriously as he was, and eschewed the clinically polished, soulless image of Tony Blair and David Cameron. He seemed sound enough.
Since then, however, Johnson has added another character to his repertoire – that of the statesman in a time of crisis. It sat well through the pandemic, and then the war in Ukraine. But with it has crept in that which he hid for so long: a sense of apartness – no longer the common man, but a great man, and above the concerns (or the law) of ordinary people.
There were plenty of warnings, emblazoned in gold wallpaper, to suggest that this character shift had bedded in before partygate. Now, Johnson and his government are faced with a third crisis, forged in part on the backs of the previous two, Covid and Ukraine: the cost-of-living crisis. It should be perfect for a man who spent his career telling us he was just like us and “got it”, but we have been left with the sense that, as ever, we are governed by people who are as far away from understanding whatever “it” is as can be.
Johnson’s performance on ITV this week was just the latest instalment. He showed us just how little he “got it” when, upon hearing the story of a pensioner having to use the bus to keep warm because she couldn’t afford to heat her home, the PM latched on to something he thought was “it” but wasn’t. “The 24-hour freedom bus pass was actually something that I introduced,” he said. “Ah, buses!” he must have thought as Susanna Reid pressed him, “I know about buses! Big, red, bendy, recycled wine crates. This is my jam!” In that moment, he drove that bus through any remaining notion that he “gets” the needs of a nation that the Bank of England has warned is facing 10 per cent inflation and a deep recession.
Then the PM said today (5 May) that the country can cope with rising inflation, and that Britain is better positioned to deal with it than it was in the 1980s and 1990s, which didn’t help. In addition, his colleague George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, advised those feeling the cost-of-living squeeze yesterday that “by going for some of the value brands, rather than own-branded products, they can actually contain and manage their household budget”; ie, telling people, many of whom already buy supermarket basics, to save money by… buying supermarket basics. Behold, the brilliance of our rulers.
What’s worse, “getting it” shouldn’t be particularly difficult given that the opposition seems incapable of defining concepts that humans have been using for millennia, such as “women”.
The character this crisis calls for is the “statesman”, but with shades of the “everyman” – not the court jester. Until Johnson gets this, the rest of us won’t get what we need.