Running on empty (22 August 2021)

Dhaka Tribune

When Downing Street runs short of ways to dominate the news cycle, it likes to feed the Westminster gossip mill.

Last year, the public heard more than it cares to know about “friends of Carrie Symonds,” (Boris Johnson’s wife) falling out with Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s now former confidante and Brexit consigliere.  

This summer, we are back to the hardy perennial of the disputes that ebb and flow between every PM and chancellor of the exchequer.

Boris Johnson wants to quash stories about Rishi Sunak being talked up as a leadership rival. The latter’s relatively inoffensive personality and high profile as the face of the Covid furlough scheme clearly raised his popularity. Johnson thinks this unearned. It is not himself, but the former Goldman Sachs hedge fund partner chancellor who is more personally committed to the slash the state ideology entrenched in the deep right of their party. It is the PM who keeps promising to increase investment to “level up” the country, build a “northern powerhouse,” and develop the UK as a “science superpower.”  

Johnson wants to put Sunak back into the traditional treasury box of being the scapegoat for when popular promises are cut or not delivered.

Unfortunately for the British public, even if some of Johnson’s promises do not fall the way of his pledges to build unfeasibly expensive bridges, the reality behind government policy leaves less room for manoeuvre and hides an insidious truth. 

However loudly governments talk of controlling public spending and cutting taxes, more people are likely to see the damage done by targeted spending cuts than they are to receive in reduced taxes for themselves, let alone get any net benefits for society. The market fundamentalist ideology of favouring private players in delivering public services, even when proven to fail, still holds the grip it gained over UK governments in the 1980s when the Thatcher/Reagan axis overturned the post WWII economic consensus.

The most widely appreciated example of how this approach enables parasitic profiteering is how since John Major privatised railways in 1994, UK tax-payers have been paying billions more in subsidies to private railway companies to operate more expensive services for the public than the government spent on the previous nationalized monopoly.

The most effectively hidden is how since 2010, a Conservative government that talks loudly of being tough on crime has closed half the country’s police stations and magistrate courts. The increased hours defendants, witnesses, and police staff alone must spend on travel negates any conceivable savings from asset sales or IT gains. But the reality is worse, pricey “change management consultants” and the like have received and are continuing to pocket much more for themselves. The tax system is not just seeing public funds spent inefficiently but is actively subverted for the profit of a few at the expense of the many.

An asset-stripping mentality among government ministers is in the ascendant with the rushing through of plans to tone down planning laws to favour developers and reduce green belt restrictions. This so far then, is the sum of government delivery on important promises to build new housing and help people living in tower blocks threatened with bankruptcy by post-Grenfell safety costs. 

While the UK’s hosting of COP26 offers some cause to think Johnson might follow through on promises to lead on climate change, support in his party for new coal extraction in Cumbria and even a new North Sea oilfield highlights its paucity of joined up policy and strategic thinking. As ever, the only constant is reality not matching Johnson’s rhetoric.

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A cascade of more negative than positive economic news seems almost inevitable in the year ahead as economies adapt to a post Covid world. Add to this growing media interest in corruption claims against his government and Johnson has many reasons to be grateful for an enfeebled fractured opposition. 

Some traditional Tories may be appalled by their party’s rightward drift, but with the Labour Party holed up in big cities and university towns, there is little sign of Johnson’s electoral coalition of the complacently content and forelock tugging, crumbling any time soon.

Ironically, their best hope is that the direction of travel exemplified by the government’s stoking up of US style culture wars, now seems out of date; if President Biden’s spending plans take root in the US, they can dream Johnson will get to follow in the slipstream and give substance to his One Nation promises.  

Barely two years ago, the combined opposition seemingly had Theresa May’s government permanently on the ropes. It is difficult to believe that the overlooked option of a government of national unity might not have made a more competent (or at least less sleaze-ridden) job of leaving the EU and managing the pandemic. 

That they didn’t unite is due to poor leadership among all opposition parties and Tory rebels. Ultimately however, it is the ineffective leadership of Jeremy Corbyn that must carry the can. What ifs and pointing at the Scottish Nationalists or biased media are a moot point in 2021 as he not only failed to capitalize on Labour’s vote gains in the 2017 election, but in 2019 the Labour Party was reduced in the House of Commons to its lowest number of MPs since 1935.

Current leader Sir Kier Starmer’s relative lack of charisma compared to Johnson is not in principle a disadvantage. But the party is not helped by his shadow cabinet not making much of an impact either and more fatally being bedevilled by factionalism. 

Many an effective Labour MP it seems, is concentrating on their own constituencies, or like Andy Burnham in Manchester and Dan Jarvis in Sheffield has reinvented themselves outside the Commons as a metropolitan mayor. 

In 1941, George Orwell, another famous old Etonian, savaged mismanagement by the previous decade’s Conservative governments in “The Lion and the Unicorn,” remarking: 

“England is not the jewelled isle of Shakespeare’s much-quoted message, nor is it the inferno depicted by Dr Goebbels. More than either it resembles a family … with the wrong members in control.”

Eight decades later it seems little has changed.