Updated: Apr 21, 2022
(Written late December 2021 - with a few March 2022 edits as the Johnson government passes 1,000 days!)
How is the Johnson government doing? What might a midterm report look like?
First some context
I am not a Conservative. I accept that leaders are humans and make mistakes (Mrs Thatcher's poll tax, Blair's Iraq and Nick Clegg's tuition fees.) Whatever our political leanings we can’t expect perfection. I recognise that this government has faced some of the biggest challenges since the second world war.
WWW (what has gone well)
1. Getting Brexit done (well sort of…) The government secured an agreement with the EU and resolved the impasse that occurred between 2016 and 2019. There are a few significant ‘buts’ to this as we will see but it can be argued that some progress has been made
2. The Vaccine roll out – The UK had the fastest vaccine roll out in the early months of 2021 although many countries soon caught up, and the Booster roll out in late 2021 has again been a success.
3. The Furlough scheme – although excluding the recently self-employed, the chancellor’s job retention scheme in 2020 saved a great many jobs and prevented widespread economic harm.
4. Levelling up – although it is patchy (and might depend in whether you have elected a Conservative MP) money has been found for local projects in some areas including places like Stoke-on-Trent with a view to beginning to address the London/South East centred infrastructure.
And a final one might be added, the government has taken a massive gamble with the omicron variant. With cases of COVID higher than they have ever been, they have resisted calls for increased restrictions and have more or less kept things going and opened up. If this comes off it will be hailed as brilliant (or lucky), we will see…
(March 2022 - events elsewhere in the world taken our attention off Covid. It has been a chaotic 2 months for hospitals and schools - record number of cases and around 1,000 deaths per week but could have been even worse)
Must Do Better
The key worries come in 2 broad areas: Policy and Character
1. Economy: Some painful choices need to be made but the current course will hit the young and families on low and middle incomes in particular: national insurance will rise, universal credit payments have been cut, energy prices are rising fast, wages are stagnant, inflation and cost of food is rising and student loan repayments are increasing. These factors will really start to bite in the coming year (March 2022 - this will continue to bite I suspect and some of this is by choice, the cost could be absorbed by government or by taxing company profits rather than families)
2. Health and Covid: The extra funding for the NHS is welcome but funding levels and capacity is well below what it was 10 years ago – a decade of cuts, a reduction in staffing, many foreign born workers going back home - feeling increasingly unwelcome. There has been dither on Covid – are we going for herd immunity or not, delays on lockdowns compared to Asian countries, the discharging of many covid patients into care homes, reluctance to vaccinate school age children. The vaccines have been great but we needed them as our excess death rates were the highest in Europe.
3. Education: Whole books could be written about the handling of education. They would include threatening to take Local Authorities to court to prevent school closures as the Alpha variant raged, opening for 1 day after Christmas before locking down, cancelling exams without having a back up plan (twice!), failure to get promised laptops out early enough, cock ups over food vouchers with the Edenred company, failure to invest in ventilation systems such as air purifiers (Germany managed this!), guidance that bullied schools into ditching masks, lies about children not spreading the disease and, perhaps worst of all, the constant briefing against ‘lazy teachers’ and schools in government friendly newspapers.
4. Brexit: Progress has been made on Brexit but of the many different Brexit paths that could have been chosen the government’s hard Brexit has caused a number of issues. The deal with the EU described as ‘oven ready’ has created a de facto customs border in the Irish Sea, the government is complaining about its own deal and now wants to renegotiate! Trade deals with various countries have made the UK less competitive and accept lower animal welfare standards in the case of USA and Australia. Trade with the EU is down by between 15-25% depending on who you listen to, and contrary to the promise, red tape seems to have increased. The government also seems to be going back on promises to farmers and fishermen, farm payments are decreasing. There is a massive shortage of labour in the care sector, HGV driving and fruit picking, to name but a few, due to opting out of free movement. The transition period ends in early 2022. Expect more totally foreseeable and preventable issues… (Massive queues currently in Dover again March 22
Worse than policies are issues of character. In a sense the two are linked. Polices and strategies come out of culture and character
1. Issues around truth: lying and promise breaking have become the norm for this government: the brexit deal was not ready, leaving the EU has not cut energy bills, HS2 now won’t go to Leeds etc. There may or may not have been parties/work meetings... [March 2022 - this is getting worse. And the big issue is the lying and covering up. A sincere admission and apology early on would have settled this for most people...]
2. Above the rules: The government has by accident or design given the clear impression that ‘some animals are more equal than others’: Cummings at Barnard Castle, Pritti Patel and the ministerial code, Hancock’s affair, Johnson’s maskless appearance in hospitals and at COP 26, and the parties that may or may not have been parties. Worse still when an MP has clearly broken rules, as in the Owen Patterson case, Johnson attempted to retrospectively change the rules and pushed a vote on this through parliament. [March 2022 - Add Sunak's tax status]
3. Cronies and corruption: It is hard to say where carelessness ends and corruption begins but using your power to help your friends is not a good look. Who paid for the refurbed flat? Who paid for the PM’s holidays? Most important of all – the PPE contracts. Many of whom had connections to prominent MPs and made lots of money from these connections.
4. The disregard for democracy: One of the first things Boris Johnson did as PM was to prorogue Parliament as he was struggling to get his way. This gave us a clue as to future direction. The Voter ID bill will hit those already marginalized – think about who in society is more or less likely to have access to photo ID, the change to constituency boundaries, the policing and crime bill which threaten peaceful protest, are all potential causes for concern
5. Blame and distraction: Policy tends to get briefed to the press rather than parliament - the Speaker was very brassed off about this last month. So too when times are difficult the government is prone to either disappear (there was an incident with a fridge as well as various missed Cobra meetings) or to distract by apportioning blame elsewhere. So starting another quarrel with the EU, a policy announcement about migrants or another article slagging off schools help the public to look elsewhere. I believe it’s called the dead cat strategy...
6. Hostile environment: The government won in 2019 by promising to honour the referendum. Worries about immigration were a factor for some Leave voters. So the government must be seen to be doing something. So cue high profile stories about dealing with channel crossings, talk of off shore processing centres, and a rather sinister bill which could in theory threaten the citizenship of dual nationals. Meanwhile there has been an increase in anti-Semitic incidents, Islamophobia, Homophobic attacks, and membership of far-right groups is all growing. Whilst this may not be direct cause and effect, there is every need for the government to be calming things down rather than reinforcing prejudices and fanning flames. [March 2022 - the idea of sending vulnerable people to Rwanda is immoral and will cost us a fortune just to be seen to be tough om immigration - leaving aside any ethical or financial concerns, struggling to find any sensible person outside of government who thinks this will work]
But perhaps we can look beyond all that because after all ‘he’s a bit of a laugh isn’t he?’ He’s fun, more of a personality than dull Keir Starmer or serious Ed Davey. Or perhaps we might think that it is a problem to have plenty of personality but so little character and integrity.