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Philip Stephens, the chief political commentator of the Financial Times, tells a wonderful story about how he was playing football in the playground at school – in those days playground football was with tennis balls – and a ball hit the Latin master as he was passing.
The Latin master immediately clipped Stephens round the ears – which, these days, would no doubt have led to the master’s dismissal. Stephens protested: “It wasn’t me, sir.” To which the reply was: “Let this be a lesson to you, my boy. There is no justice in this world.”
This story does not appear in Stephens’s new book, Britain Alone – a magnificent account of this benighted country’s downhill path from the enlightened policies of the Attlee government to Suez and then Brexit. But as we continue to experience the mounting horrors of Brexit, Stephens’s anecdote comes to mind: we are being subjected to the worst government in living memory, run by a prime minister for whom only time-servers and the deluded have any respect.
And yet: there is no justice in this world! The media are thick with speculation that the mindless bungling that has characterised Johnson’s approach to the Plague counts as nothing when it comes to the apparent success of the vaccine programme. Of course the programme has been impressive so far. But its success has more to do with scientific and medical experts than with Johnson – or, for that matter, with his sidekick Michael “people have had enough of experts” Gove, who has indeed been kicked aside from further negotiations aimed at sorting out the Brexit debacle.
And for whom has Gove been set aside, you may ask? Well none other than the hard Brexiter David, now Lord, Frost, who made such a hash of the exit “deal” that an increasing number of small- and medium-sized businesses are now wondering whether they have any commercial future. Frost’s diplomatic career was supposed to have peaked when he was ambassador to Denmark. He then worked for the Scotch Whisky Association before being brought back into government. I wonder what the Scotch Whisky Association makes of the impact his deal has had on its export business?
Stephens’s book has been excoriated by rightwing reviewers, no doubt because it lays bare the duplicity of the entire Brexit movement – not least in its obsession with possible new trade deals as opposed to the deals we already had. Then there was the culpable ignorance of what the single market was really about. As Stephens says, Brexiters had a “worldview in which tariffs were the principal impediment to trade, but the reality was that free trading arrangements relied to a much greater extent on regulatory alignment and shared standards and norms”.
And how! Businesses are finding this out the hard way. Moreover, Britain drew most of its overseas income from financial and professional services, which were not subject to tariffs. Then there was the exchequer’s dependence on taxes levied on the financial sector. This was somewhat neglected by Frost’s deal – a point that our Brexiter chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is going to find is a problem when he tries to raise taxes (which he most certainly should not do while the economy continues to suffer from the double whammy of Covid and Brexit).
When one considers the combination of Brexit and former chancellor George Osborne’s relentless austerity programme, it almost beggars belief that a civilised country would contemplate re-electing this government. I speak as someone who has counted lots of Conservative politicians, including ministers, among my friends over the years. Alas, too many are no longer with us; but the course on which their once decent party has embarked must be making them turn in their graves.
There are legions of examples of how austerity made the Plague so devastating. Do you remember the panic over hospitals? Well, according to Eurostat, in 2018 the UK had 250 available hospital beds per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 591 in France and 800 in Germany. No wonder there was panic.
Yet the government is doing much better in the polls than it deserves, and the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, is under attack from all sides. I have even heard wild talk of a snap election on the back of V for Vaccine Victory, although for the life of me I cannot see why a prime minister with such a huge majority should want an election so soon.
However, if there is one thing to beware of it is the view that, with unprecedented levels of public spending, the Conservatives have stolen Labour’s clothes. They may have borrowed them, but this is a hardline rightwing government at heart. I find it difficult to believe that the modern Tory party has really had a Damascene conversion. Let us hope that, in the national interest, Starmer can get his act together.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Covid jabs and spending don’t make Johnson a good prime minister | Economics