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19 July

Is anyone in charge of post-Johnson Britain?

There is no “caretaker” administration but a zombie government.

By Paul Mason

First he got treated to a joyride in an RAF Typhoon. Then he threw a lavish party at Chequers. Then he missed a Cobra meeting called to plan for the worst heatwave on record. And that was only week one of the interregnum.

Soon Boris Johnson will be off: to all intents and purposes he has checked out of all responsibilities while the government is obliged to obey the “caretaker principle”, initiating no major actions. It should feel like a relief after two and a half years of relentless bluffing, lies and chaos. But it doesn’t.

The caretaker principle was designed for the short periods of predictable uncertainty: after a no-confidence vote, during an election, and during the formation of a government after an election. There is no provision in the Cabinet Manual for when a prime minister loses the support of his own MPs but will not resign from office. Nor does it say anything about what to do when three senior members of the government and a recent chancellor declare on live TV that they would not put the Prime Minister in their cabinet. Or where they openly attack the incumbent’s policies, record and trustworthiness.

This, then, is not a “caretaker” administration but a zombie government. The Home Secretary Priti Patel “declined to attend” the Home Affairs Select Committee. The Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab pulled out of the Human Rights Committee. Johnson himself may contrive to miss his very final PMQs by being elsewhere. The Online Safety Bill, a vital measure to protect against revenge porn and online harassment, looks dead.

But these are not the most significant glitches in the state machine.

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The original claim of neoliberalism was that the market could do things better than the state. In fact, the state is crucial to the working of a free-market system like the UK’s: ministers, civil servants and their private sector cohorts have to be constantly doing stuff just to make the economy stand still. The NHS only meets its targets because the Department of Health forces its middle managers. Public sector pay bodies, facing a welter of wage claims, are only stopped from meeting those claims by ministerial pushback. Even “levelling up” – doling out a billion here, a billion there to favour Tory constituencies – only happens if there is a minister with authority to deliver nods and winks to the relevant people.

But it’s all paralysed. Major decisions – like whether to scrap the Ajax reconnaissance vehicle, which has cost £5bn and is a fiasco – will have to wait until there is a defence minister in post who knows they are staying there. Even then, presuming a change of PM leads to a major reshuffle, there will be months of delay as ministers “read in” to their briefs, which is often a euphemism for starting from scratch.

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Brexit has become a regime of crisis: a continuous state of exception requiring ministers to take control, intervene, throw insults at foreign governments. It was designed to keep us mesmerised and off balance. But now the theatre has gone dark and so, soon, will Westminster. We’re in for six weeks in which there is no effective government and no parliament to hold the ineffective government to account. Almost everyone in post knows there’s a 50:50 chance they won’t be there come September – because Rishi Sunak vs the Tory right looks like a winner-takes-all game. 

So if you’re a British prisoner of war in Ukraine, or a British political prisoner in Egypt, or a nuclear power plant builder hoping for a contract, or the Scottish government waiting to present its case for a referendum in court – it all has to wait.

Welcome to post-Johnson Britain, where nobody seems to be in charge.

[See also: The post-Boris era is already a nightmare]