Things have reached a pretty pass when, in order to divert attention from their own decadence, Boris Johnson and his lickspittle party have decided to make a big thing of the cost-of-living crisis – a crisis, mark you, aggravated by the cumulative impact on food and other prices that is the direct consequence of Brexit.
The worst cost-of-living crisis in most people’s memory seen as coming to Johnson’s rescue? The chance to claim you are mitigating it with measures extracted reluctantly from a chancellor who has previously made a point of cutting the real value of social benefits? “Moving on”? Yes, that is the nadir of the British polity to which we have been brought by the charlatan who “got Brexit done”.
Nevertheless, credit where credit is due. Chancellor Sunak has been listening to thinktanks such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation, to numerous charities and, not least, to Labour’s shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves. His £15bn package of financial help for the bulk of the population hit by the energy crisis is to be welcomed, even if it is a temporary expedient to keep the show on the road.
The list of charges against Johnson, however, stretches out of the courtroom and along the corridor. As a classical scholar he knows, with Seneca, that his entire career in first journalism then politics has been conducted contra bonum morem, “against good custom”.
The historian Lord Hennessy lamented in the Financial Times last week that under Johnson there has been a “bonfire of the decencies” in public life. Ruth Davidson, the former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has put it thus: “We didn’t – and shouldn’t – need the Metropolitan police or Sue Gray to tell us the difference between right and wrong; that it was not acceptable for the prime minister to be a lawbreaker himself, to preside over a culture of lawbreaking and to stand up in parliament and lie about it.”
It is painfully obvious that, with a few honourable exceptions, the Johnson government, front and back benches included, is the most fifth-rate collection of time-servers imaginable. To see them come on the television news, or hear them on the radio, parroting the mantra of “time to move on, got Brexit done”, is to make one wonder how they justify their pusillanimity to their children or grandchildren, who must surely see through all the claptrap.
The motivation of these shameless politicians always seems to be to hang on to their seats; the good of the country does not come into it. They must suspect that, behind the perfectly understandable – but alas futile – calls from Keir Starmer for Johnson to resign there lurks a secret Labour party belief that Johnson’s continued survival is the opposition’s secret weapon.
When Margaret Thatcher – who, unlike Johnson was decent and law-abiding – had become a liability, there was a political assassin in the wings, in the shape of Michael Heseltine, although the crown went to John Major. Johnson is surrounded by placemen and women who bring to mind Hamlet’s “Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all” – although this assumes they have consciences.
But, alas, I feel it my duty to report that everywhere I go I meet people who are disappointed by what they regard as the lacklustre performance of Labour. It is becoming increasingly manifest that Brexit is a disaster and the Labour party should be making hay out of the opportunity. But it appears to be a no-go area, with Labour still terrified of the so-called red wall voters it lost in the last election.
I continue to believe that the red wall Brexit vote was more a protest at the impact of austerity, and the consequence of the successful hoodwinking operation conducted by Johnson and his former friend Dominic Cummings. According to the opinion polls, before then Europe and Brussels had not ranked high in people’s concerns.
I meet Labour politicians who say that red wall voters would feel “betrayed” if Labour became more openly pro-European. So we have a Johnson government presiding over a Brexit disaster, and an opposition for which the idea of starting a campaign to rejoin the European Union is anathema.
Meanwhile, there is precious little chance of mending fences with the EU while Johnson and co remain in office. It appears that the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who would like at least to begin work on this, sees no chance while Johnson remains in power.
The Labour leadership ought to recognise that although there have been many external shocks to the economy – the impact of the Ukraine war being the latest – Brexit is the biggest example of self-harm since the return to the gold standard in 1925. Labour should pick up the ball and run.