We face a perfect storm of crises – and Boris Johnson is making things worse

The prime minister can’t be blamed for everything. But the country has been badly-served by his avoidance of hard choices

Sean O'Grady
Friday 24 September 2021 13:59

Grant Shapps supports relaxing rules for EU HGV drivers to clear petrol backlog

You might call it the ultimate in cynicism (which I’d take as a compliment) but I’ve found it a good rule of thumb to take whatever a certain type of politician says and then invert it to discover the reality.

Over the past few of years it’s served me particularly well. Thus, when Theresa May said that no deal was better than bad deal I knew she wouldn’t settle for a no deal Brexit. When Boris Johnson said that the coronavirus emergency would last for a few weeks before we sent it packing, well, I had a funny feeling it might take a bit longer.

Keir Starmer says his internal party reforms aren’t about smashing the left… therefore I am working on the basis that they’re about smashing the left. When Kawsi Kwarteng and his mates say that there won’t be shortages of petrol… well, let’s just say I went out first thing this morning to the petrol station. It’s better than having to walk to the shops (to buy the candles we’ll soon require).

Such disgustingly selfish behaviour is the only rational thing to do, if everyone else is going to – which they will, because the shortages are coming. As with the panic buying last year (do you remember the shopping trollies piled high with Andrex? - I was there), it’s what people do when there’s a crisis, and it easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And the petrol stations are indeed vulnerable, because they’re rather like banks, and only hold enough stock to cope with normal use: if everyone turns up at once they all empty out quite rapidly, and the panic spreads.

The economic crisis we are drifting into is comprised, dangerously, of many crises, each with their own characteristics, and all in normal times more than enough to deal with - but now all combining to give the British people a bit of a pasting this winter.

There’s the inflation spike, caused fundamentally by supply chains breaking down at the wholesale level, for raw materials such as tin, for energy, for semiconductors and shipping containers. In the UK we have our own self-inflicted shortages as a result of Brexit, adding bureaucratic delays and labour shortages in agriculture, meat processing, care homes and hospitality – and above all in the haulage industry. Those have already translated into growing retail shortages - empty shelves. The other day a minister claimed there wouldn’t be food shortages, which sent a shiver down my spine.

We have a squeeze on living standards because of the imminent cuts to universal credit and generally higher prices, including for cars, for homes as well as essentials. Wages, though rising, won’t compensate for the rapid pick-up in inflation for everyone. Next year taxes will go,up again. Soon enough we could have another wave of Covid-19 infections which would put pressure on the NHS, cancelled operations.

An inflation crisis, an energy crisis and another covid crisis, then, and, as the cliche goes, a “perfect storm”. Actually I forgot the most critical crisis of all, which is the shortage of competent governance and that makes all the other crises that bit more acute.

Who’s to blame? When you’re trying to find a petrol station still open you might well care to wonder. Britain is certainly not the only country to be hit by these often global trends, but there does seem to be a uniquely British twist to some of them.

Brexit, as I say, has created obstacles to supplies where they did not previously exist - specifically EU workers who’ve now gone home. The new points-based immigration and work visa system simply isn’t flexible and nimble enough to supply workers where they’re needed.

The predictable impact of Brexit, in reality, wasn’t contemplated or planned for. There were no problems, it was claimed, and thus contingency planning was unnecessary. So yet more problems have arisen because Brexit was so badly managed, the “oven ready” deal was so poor, and there was so little planning for the inevitable dislocations it would cause - all perfectly foreseeable. If covid meant fewer HGV drivers passing their test, why didn’t the ministry of transport wonder what might happen next, and arrange for some work visas for EU drivers? It might helped, but, without Brexit, some of the shortages of drivers wouldn’t have happened in the first place.

That’s not all the recent blunders, of course. Some years ago, as an act of conscious policy, the British shut down their large scale facility for storing reserves of natural gas. The government’s incompetent and wavering response to covid has created burdens on the NHS and the economy or widely (locking down too late and therefore harder and for longer). Soon we will learn the consequences of failing to vaccinate our children - squandering much of the bonus from the successful early vaccination roll-out.

Taking a longer view, if Britain has long since invested in air pumps for heating and more aggressively insulated homes and workplaces we might not be feeling the cold blast of the energy crisis as much as we are.

Britain is, in other words, living with the consequences of a low resilience to external shocks, and shock that could be seen coming. We knew some sort of pandemic would transpire in the coming years, but we neglected to stockpile PPE or ventilators, or make provision for what became Nightingale hospitals, still less a test-and-trace system. We scrapped the gas storage facility.

Even Boris Johnson can’t be blamed for everything. But he has been in charge for the last couple of years, and the country has been badly-served by his cakeism, the avoidance of hard choices and unwelcome truths, the senseless boosterism, the apt self-comparisons with the Mayor of Amity in Jaws, the indecision, the rubbishy quips, the hoping for the best, the facetious classical allusions, the trashing of standards in public life, the governing by facile sloganeering such as “levelling up”.

This time they can’t blame the unions, they can’t blame the last Labour government, they can’t blame the Gods, they can’t blame the European Union: the Tories have been in power for a decade, and Johnson for the latter, most damaging, part of it, and they “own” Brexit. So we should know who to hold accountable when there’s no turkey, no toys and Christmas is cancelled. Again.

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