“Britain slides into crisis”, proclaimed the front page of the Times on 5 August. “Recession to cause record drop in income”, the Daily Telegraph warned. Almost every newspaper led with grim reports of rising interest rates, soaring inflation, imminent recession and household budgets being squeezed as seldom before. And where was the government’s response to the Bank of England’s bleak prognosis? Where were the words of reassurance from the political leaders of our anxious nation? There were none.
Boris Johnson is apparently on holiday in Slovenia and couldn’t be bothered to issue so much as a tweet. Nadhim Zahawi, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is also on holiday abroad, but we were asked to believe that he is working remotely and “completely abreast of what’s going on”. Zahawi’s deputy at the Treasury, Simon Clarke, was not in the office either.
Prime ministers are entitled to holidays, of course, and probably perform better for having them. But Johnson appears to have signed off from the moment he announced his resignation on 7 July. Apart from flying a Typhoon fighter jet and appearing at two final Prime Minister’s Questions, he has spent much of his time at Chequers or belatedly celebrating his marriage to Carrie Symonds. In one sense his absence from the national stage is a relief, but he is still supposed to be running the country, and he is in danger of making Dominic Raab, who as foreign secretary failed to return from holiday to supervise the Afghan evacuation, look positively diligent.
Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, and Rishi Sunak, Zahawi’s predecessor, are meanwhile preoccupied by a vicious battle to succeed Johnson that has everything to do with pandering to a tiny right-wing Tory party membership and practically nothing to do with addressing the real and urgent needs of a sinking country. My gut reaction to the passivity of this spent government is one of outrage. The very least our disgraced Prime Minister could do is show he cared. But on further reflection perhaps it is for the best, because Johnson and his cronies bear much of the responsibility for the crisis in the first place.
It is true they could not have prevented the Covid pandemic or the war in Ukraine, but they championed a hard Brexit that has cut exports to the EU by 15 per cent, fuelled inflation by cutting the value of sterling, and costs Britain an estimated 4 per cent of GDP a year. It is they who have plundered the magic money tree, squandering huge amounts of taxpayers’ money on dubious Covid contracts, failed test-and-trace schemes and assorted vanity projects. It is they who have been so split between low-tax, low-regulation Thatcherites and high-spending interventionists that they have been quite unable to agree a coherent economic strategy.
That drift may now be ending, but it is not necessarily a good thing. The party appears to be rallying behind Truss instead of Sunak. Having seemingly learned nothing from the calamities of Johnson’s “cakeism”, members, MPs and ministers are choosing Truss’s feel-good, snake-oil remedies over Sunak’s relative caution. She promises them tax cuts that somehow pay for themselves. She promises to improve services while slashing the civil service. She promises to fight Brussels over the Northern Ireland protocol even if that sparks a deeply destructive trade war. Meanwhile, no senior Tory, not even Sunak, dares question Brexit, now the central tenet of the party’s faith. None dares state the blindingly obvious truth that Brexit is proving an economic ball-and-chain, not a boon. They can’t even accept that Brexit was responsible for last month’s horrendous queues at Dover.
So it’s no good looking to the Conservatives for relief as the economy collapses. Today’s party and government is too divorced from reality, too mired in delusion, too shackled by failed ideology, to be of any real use. All we can do is batten down the proverbial hatches, wait for the next election, and hope a chastened electorate finally throws this rabble out.
[See also: The irony of the Commonwealth Games going woke]