Many Tories no longer willing to wallpaper over the cracks
It has been a long time coming, but there are signs that the parliamentary Conservative party is beginning to re-connect with reality. Some shocking opinion polls, showing them several points behind Labour, have helped; though even newer Tory MPs have learned to discount these, given how wrong they’ve been in the past. But two problems largely responsible for the bad polls are now rearing up like a pair of tornados, meaning matters are likely to get worse before they get better. One is what Labour calls “the cost-of-living crisis’’, the other is what the world calls “partygate”.
The latter issue was temporarily usurped as the main obsession in the political village when Putin was stupid and ugly enough to invade Ukraine. But the former has vied with this crisis for newspaper headlines, and now appears to be winning that battle. Just as courageous Ukrainians have exposed the lies and limitations of the Russian government and army, the rise in energy prices has exposed the growing financial hardship for people here; people who have less than the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a lot less than the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s wife, and even less than a prime minister who can’t afford his own wallpaper.
The public now see a Conservative party that, entirely contrary to its supposed doctrine, has raised both taxes and National Insurance contributions. Worse, they’re beginning to realise the extent of the government’s profligacy. It wrote off a preposterous £8.7bn on useless personal protective equipment last year, and one of its own ministers resigned in disgust at its apparent inability to claw back £4.3bn stolen during the pandemic by fraudsters. And those are just the figures in the public domain.
The real waste – not to mention corruption – is undoubtedly far worse, hence the lethargy with which the promised full public inquiry into the government’s management of the pandemic is being executed. Even Boris Johnson knows that any serious inquiry will shred what little is left of his reputation.
Taxes are now higher than at any time since Mr Attlee last governed, and borrowing about equal to Gross Domestic Product
One matter the inquiry is likely to consider is how wise the government was to order the closure of countless private businesses for months on end during two extensive lockdowns and various smaller ones, and then have to compensate their owners and employees for doing so. Although largely applauded at the time, there was always the sense that – like countries around the world – they were just throwing money at the problem.
History might yet judge it as a foolish over-reaction. What’s beyond doubt is that this vast expenditure was inadequately policed, whether buying equipment or easing the passage of the private sector through its enforced closure. Many ministers clearly hadn’t a clue as to the effectiveness or otherwise of the operations over which they presided, making a mockery of any idea of accountability.
In fact the Conservative party has proved deeply inept at economic stewardship in a way that no Tory government has since the ghastly era of Ted Heath and the Barber Boom. Taxes are now higher than at any time since Mr Attlee last governed and borrowing about equal to Gross Domestic Product.
Not only is the public aware that the government is tactically inept; but that it has no strategic sense either. The traditional way of reducing inflation – slashing demand by slashing public spending, notably on payroll, and thus driving prices down – is something one tries in the first year of a parliament, not the third. Meanwhile people are having to choose between eating and heating their homes. No government that presides over such a situation can expect to be re-elected, and that reality appears to finally be seeping through to Conservative MPs.
Of course a pandemic was always going to be expensive, both in terms of welfare provision (even if that was sensible and well managed) and in lost output, but did it have to be this bad? It’s a question that has seen Rishi Sunak and Johnson at daggers drawn. Sunak held off having to reverse his NI increases, and even promised a footling income tax cut, but his cut in fuel duty went almost unnoticed, given the rapidly rising prices.
To make matters worse, the government’s energy policy – which appears to be run largely on the orders of Carrie Johnson – offers no short, medium or long-term relief. Although the real blame for that goes back a political generation or two – to David Cameron’s grandstanding and virtue-signalling objections to nuclear power.
Ukraine may no longer be shielding our rulers from the cost-of-living debacle, but it served a useful purpose for a few weeks in distracting attention from “partygate”. MPs appear on news programmes and pompously declaim that, at a time of such international crisis, it wouldn’t be right to expose our national divisions over so trivial an issue.
Some of them actually appear to believe this. History teaching might not be what it was, but can these practitioners of the political arts really not know that Lloyd George launched a coup d’état against Asquith at the end of the Battle of Somme, or that Churchill replaced Chamberlain just before the Battle of Britain?
Certainly it has suited Johnson to pretend he is a war leader to detract attention from the fact that even if he didn’t break the law himself (and we await the Metropolitan Police’s and Sue Gray’s verdict on that) people for whom he was responsible did – on premises for which he is responsible.
Above all, he lied to parliament about the fact that no rules were broken. It is the old story about the rules applying to everyone apart from him – not just the rules about not having gatherings during a pandemic, but the Ministerial Code itself, which specifies that a minister who lies to parliament cannot stay in his or her job.
If this government has chosen to abandon the Ministerial Code, then we are hurtling down the road to an entirely corrupt executive. Johnson has said that if he were to get a penalty for breaking the law during lockdown he would admit it. Since he lies about almost everything there can be only an evens chance that this is true. But it would leak. If he then tried to brazen it out, and colleagues humiliated themselves by parading around television studios saying it was a triviality, or there were bigger issues, he should remember this: lockdown was an experience common to 65 million people, most of whom have a personal story of loss, suffering or even just disappointment, because they obeyed the rules that he and some of his staff felt acceptable to break.
That Johnson has lied is now beyond dispute. So why is he still there? Some of us believed that government by liars was going to be a temporary phase in our suffering: if it is to be permanent then, to quote the late King Edward VIII, “something must be done”. And perhaps something will be done.
Talking to Tory activists over the last month, there is an awareness that such a toxic political culture is really doing damage. It is driving down support for Johnson personally – which is irrelevant to them – but it is driving down support for their party, which is far more worrying. Any minister asked to go out to defend Johnson again should note that every attempt to explain away or justify lying to the House of Commons or treating laws you yourself have initiated as irrelevant to you personally, will lose yet more Conservative votes.
And, by the way: who did pay for the wallpaper?
Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for the Telegraph and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham
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