As the political year ends, it’s worthwhile to reflect on the utter incompetence of Boris Johnson. I’m undecided over whether an incompetent government is worse than one that functions well. It’s probably best to judge them on what they do. The issue with Johnson is that his incompetence has cost thousands of lives. We could contrast that with the thousands lost to austerity under David Cameron. His policy was consistent and deliberate, whereas Johnson’s pandemic handling has been slapdash, in his attempts to please nobody. His former chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, has labelled Johnson a ‘shopping trolley’, describing his lurches in direction. In Cameron and Johnson we have one competent prime minister and one incompetent one but with a similar death count.
Covid has totally derailed the expected direction of the trolley. By now we might have expected more from ‘levelling up’ and a review of the constitution. The latter will likely consider the role of the supreme court and the Human Rights Act. I have no doubt the Tories will attempt to make life much harder for people working their way through the Kafkaesque immigration laws. On levelling up we are set to see increased state involvement of some kind. It might mean public spending but it could also mean Tory style redistribution of power: not to the people, obviously, but to bodies they trust. Perhaps it will include some parts of government moving to the north in an attempt to create economic growth in seats they want to keep in parliament, following their victory in 2019.
In Covid we have seen in the last year Johnson buffeted by the influences of scientists on the one hand, and his neoliberal backbenchers on the other. Back in the Autumn of 2020, Johnson resisted a lockdown until it was too late. He then made missteps over free school meals, where he was out-politicked by a football player. Then restriction easing at Christmas, led to an average of 1,000 deaths a day in January 2021. A successful vaccine rollout doesn’t make amends for this shitshowy clusterfuck. Johnson’s instincts and his wobbles in trying to please the right wing of his party have cost us all dear.
Levelling up is also a policy which has seen tensions within the Tory party spill out into public. One of the problems Johnson has with this is that he hasn’t explained in any adequate way what levelling up is and how it might work. The tensions increased after the Chesham and Amersham by-election, won unexpectedly by the Liberal Democrats after a succession of Tory wins in the constituency. The prospect of further Tory losses in their heartlands is causing some jitters in Johnson’s ranks. They don’t want to see a focus on so-called red wall seats at the expense of a blue wall collapse. Meanwhile, these tensions have a cabinet dimension. Johnson has a habit of announcing things that cost money, without discussing them with Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, first. A new royal yacht came as a surprise to some in government and money for it suddenly had to be found from existing budgets.
If the last year is anything to go by then we can assume that the tensions ripping at the heart of Johnson’s government will continue. Along with the progression of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, there will be plenty to get people onto the streets again, and more regularly. This government deserves a severe street opposition; every government does. This one seeks to control debate by controlling protest, by securing public space as a commodity for the free market. We must not let them.
They are very powerful when they get their backbenchers behind them but they are also prone to suffer splits. The tensions, and the missteps may provide opportunities for thrill-seeking anarchists. We must be ready to exploit them.
Dr Jon Bigger