Fantasy island losing its illusions

Published in DT 26/06/22

Another bad month for Boris Johnson’s government, with his party chairman resigning after the loss of two Conservative seats in by-elections to Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

With energy and food prices shooting upwards, UK inflation is predicted to hit 11% this year as a series of ongoing national rail strikes herald more discontent ahead. Some Conservative MPs are clearly regretting their decision not to have seized the opportunity presented by “partygate” to opt for a new leader, as Tory party rules in theory leave him safe from challenges for the year ahead.

Johnson’s ability to bluster and take credit for his large majority bolsters his will to ignore dissent in his own ranks. His internal opponents are split among various different ideological wings and he retains a knack for feeding his own base with populist sloganeering.

At its most distasteful, this includes Downing Street boosting Johnson’s pretensions of being a “war leader” by timing the release of his phone calls with Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy to draw attention away from his own government on bad-news days.

Some 18 months after Britain formally left the European Union, the continuing refrain of “get Brexit done” is wearing a little thin. There have even been mutterings among a few Brexiteers that re-joining the EU Single Market might be a better idea than the government’s chosen policy of reneging on international agreements like the Northern Ireland protocol that it itself negotiated.

For his part, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is still overly cautious in articulating an agenda to reset Britain.  Only four Labour leaders have ever won a general election in history, whereas since 1960 there have been seven Conservative PMs, four of whom alone have been old Etonians, so his lawyerly caution is in part understandable.

This does, however, leave the opposition forever on the back-foot, responding to the government’s own talking points rather than creating more of its own, which could be a fatal weakness.

Starmer has also shown political ineptitude by threatening to discipline Labour MPs who join picket lines, an absurd position for a party rooted in the trade union movement and unnecessarily distracting from the various government failures that have triggered work-place strife.

Far from showcasing the strengths of “global Britain,” the just concluded Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in Kigali only draws attention to the UK’s diminishing role. Australia, Bangladesh, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, and South Africa — which account for a clear majority of the Commonwealth’s total population — chose not to be represented by actual heads of government.

Of the 14 Commonwealth states which still retain the UK monarch as head of state, two of the most prominent, Australia and Jamaica, are making moves to follow Barbados in declaring themselves republics.

Amnesty International and 23 other civil society groups recently called on the Commonwealth to challenge CHOGM host nation Rwanda on its human rights record. There is zero chance of this being supported by Johnson’s government which signed a headline grabbing agreement with Kigali in April to hand over responsibility to Rwanda for some people seeking asylum in the UK.

The policy spearheaded by Johnson’s anti-immigration Home Secretary Priti Patel, panders to the more xenophobic parts of the media and Farage-ist right which have for years exaggerated the numbers and threats posed by people illegally crossing the English Channel into Britain.

Patel, who herself came to Britain with her parents as a refugee from Idi Amin’s Uganda, has hyped up the policy as a deterrent to “illegal asylum seekers.”

In reality, Rwanda can only process (at an expensive price) a few hundred people and an earlier similar but voluntary arrangement with Israel is already proven to have failed. From the start, this policy appears to have been designed to attract (well grounded) legal challenges so that flights are delayed, and Johnson can blame “lefty lawyers” as part of a culture war.

The UK government’s fondness for Trumpian gesture politics, as highlighted by its periodic attacks on the BBC and independent broadcasters shows no signs of abating amid its current troubles. Its forthcoming agenda doubles down on proposals to further curb trade union rights, restrict rights to protest, and to withdraw from the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights, despite the fact Johnson’s purported political hero Winston Churchill was one of the ECHR’s key creators.

As a distraction from the failure of the government to keep to promises of increasing spending and “levelling up” the nation after 12 years in power, it seems the Conservatives have run out of ideas to convince themselves, let alone the electorate.

Of course, it remains possible for internal manoeuvrings against Johnson to fizzle out and midsummer weather and events to take the edge off some of his own unpopularity. Such respite is likely to only be temporary, given the economic outlook.

More worryingly for the UK whoever wins the next election, there are few if any scenarios available for the UK to get back to a genuine “feel-good” factor anytime soon.