There is a very clear reason for the mess the country is in right now. It is called the Conservative Party. It has been in power for over a decade. A lost decade. A wasted decade, in which the big choices and challenges faced have been decided, not with the national interest in mind, but on the basis of the internal divisions and difficulties of the wretched Tory party.
ABC. A for Austerity. B for Brexit. C for Covid. Draw a Venn diagram of the MPs who argued hardest for austerity, fought relentlessly for a hard Brexit, and are now demanding Covid policy is founded on the politics of Steve Baker and Esther McVey rather than the expertise of Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, and you see at its centre the same Tory MPs who were once marginal but now call the shots in the party of government.
McVey may have been ill-advised to say it out loud, but she was right when she said the Tory rebellion over plan B Covid restrictions had had an effect on the cabinet decision to avoid plan C. Yet again, policy on key national issues is being decided not on the merits of fact and argument, but on internal Tory politics.
Of course Boris Johnson has to go. He is both venal and incompetent, and his moral vacuity has been exposed. But he is a symptom of his party and its politics, a ghastly symbol of that wasted decade, and the Tories cannot be allowed to play their favourite con game, of pretending that a change of leader is somehow a change of government. Labour needs to be wise to this, because it is almost certainly the trick they will now try to pull off.
Let’s just remind ourselves of the Tory decade. First we had David Cameron and George Osborne, whose austerity was a series of brutal political choices dressed up as economic necessity, the consequences of which are playing out now in the shrunken state’s difficulty managing a pandemic.
Then Cameron’s referendum pledge, made not because the country needed or wanted it, but to shut up the anti-Europeans and shore up the right of his party. It worked, short-term, in that it helped him get Europe off the agenda, win an election, get rid of the Liberal Democrats as coalition partners, and govern on his own.
The trouble was, having won, he had to hold the referendum, and suddenly the party divisions exploded once more. Johnson decided his own interest clashed with the national interest, and opted inevitably for the former. His gamble paid off. He won, while Cameron lost and tootled off into a lucrative lobbying sunset, leaving Theresa May to try to make sense of what he had left behind.
This ushered in the “Brexit means Brexit”, “will of the people” chapter of this story of national decline. May appointed David Davis as Brexit secretary, where he failed to see that the complexities of getting a deal required more than the ability to busk your way cheerfully through a Today programme interview.
Having assured the world that it would be straightforward to reach the sunlit uplands, he quickly discovered that, though the promises were easy, the details were not. Unable to find a way of marrying the huge claims made for Brexit with the reality of what Brexit meaning Brexit actually meant, he took the easy way out, and walked, leaving unicorns behind him.
Next to the crease was Dominic Raab. The same unicorns were sought. The same finale. He walked, replaced by Stephen Barclay, who was so lost in the contradictions of Brexit that he ended up voting against a motion he had just argued for in the Commons.
Once May was ousted, with Johnson replacing her and then winning his own mandate on the promise to “get Brexit done” with an “oven-ready deal”, we had the unelected bureaucrat David Frost in charge. Only it turned out that the deal required a lot more cooking, and when it was done, though celebrated by Johnson, Frost and Co as “great”, it transpired that they had broken a whole new set of promises to get it, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the peace process in Northern Ireland – the Brexit circle that John Major and Tony Blair had warned from the off could not be squared. A year on from the celebrations, Frost walked too.
However, now elevated to the Lords, and feted by the libertarian right who had pushed for a hard Brexit when Johnson was still singing the praises of the single market, Frost saw himself as much more than a mere Brexit functionary. Not for him the shameful route of simple failure taken by his three predecessors. He had to have a bigger reason – step forward Covid restrictions, high taxes, the role of the state: the arguments on which those now jockeying to replace Johnson – notably Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss – are focused. All cover for his actually having discovered that unicorn-chasing is fruitless.
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So Johnson replaces one former Remainer opportunist, Frost, with another, Truss. Not because she is the most able person, but because she is popular in the party – so if she can do the job well, it helps the government, and if she does it badly, it sees her off as a leadership contender. And her first utterances have been an almost exact echo of the unicorn stance of her quartet of failed predecessors – because that is “what the party wants to hear”, and that is all they care about.
Meanwhile, Brexit is delivering a 4 per cent hit on the economy, double the impact of Covid; and as Frost bleats his opposition to recent tax rises, he appears to lack either the knowledge or the humility to be able to see that Brexit has made such rises inevitable. High inflation, rising taxes, low growth and productivity, real living standards stagnant, chaos for many businesses large and small, and in some cases entire sectors: these cannot be put down to Brexit alone. But it is the single biggest factor, and “nothing to do with Brexit” is just the latest in the long litany of lies told by the Brexit cabal.
Johnson is in a mess politically because of lies told about wallpaper and Christmas parties. But the effects of the far bigger lies told about Brexit – before, during and since the referendum – will sadly be with us long after he is gone, when the Christmas parties are forgotten. Cameron came to power in part by pushing the myth of “broken Britain”. Brexit is in danger of making that myth a reality, and those who brought it about have to pay a far bigger price than merely seeing Johnson forced out of No 10, with another opportunist Tory installed in his place. If Britain is breaking, it is because the Tory Party, and Brexit, have broken it.
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