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The same Christmas present was dangled before each and every Briton this year: normality. In mid-July, Boris Johnson held a press conference in Downing Street. This was the summer of “eat out to help out”, workers being nudged back into their offices and the grand reopening of shops. Amid this flush of temperate weather and mild optimism, the prime minister unveiled a plan for a “more significant return to normality” by Christmas. Mr Johnson took care to dust his promises with a light seasoning of words such as “possible” and “conditional”, but the former journalist crafted his remarks with the headline in mind: back to normal by Christmas.
To say it hasn’t quite worked out like that is the sort of understatement of which our prime minister seems congenitally incapable. On Wednesday afternoon, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced that, from Boxing Day, counties from Norfolk to most of Hampshire would go into tier 4 lockdown. Yet others would enter tier 3. This holds out the prospect of three families in Chichester, say, gathering on Christmas Day to slog through the eggnog and turkey crown until the stroke of midnight – at which point the yuletide bubble bursts and each hurtles home, forbidden to see anyone outside their household. This is what constitutes the new normal in England. Still, Mr Johnson’s latest promise is that “we can certainly look forward to a very, very different world … from Easter”. Let us hope, although this does smack of another 96-point headline searching for a policy.
At this juncture in British politics, normality is a term with two very different meanings. On hearing of a return to normal, many voters will think of hugging loved ones or lounging on sun-kissed beaches – or simply not having to supervise schoolchildren on yet another period of self-isolation. But for some government ministers, normality means politics as usual: a return to the old rightwing preoccupations of cutting taxes, reducing public spending and shrinking the state. In that regard, the role of Rishi Sunak is particularly important.
The chancellor has been missing in action this past week, denying extra help for companies and workers plunged into tier 4 lockdown, despite the pleas of business lobby groups and trade unions. Yet over the past few months, Mr Sunak has been busy warning publicly and within Downing Street that restricting the spread of infection will harm the economy. This is to get things the wrong way round: only suppressing Covid will allow the economy to get out of first gear. Among other scraps of red meat thrown to Conservative backbenchers, Mr Sunak froze public sector pay yet again at last month’s spending review and has hinted at cutting taxes before the next general election.
Few phrases are as tautologous as “ambitious politician”, and Mr Sunak stands out in a D-list cabinet. It is also part of a chancellor’s job to worry about the public finances. But it should be said: even in some happier vaccinated future, there can be no return to the old normality. Indeed, politics as usual helped get the UK into this mess, by starving the NHS and running down the capacity of the public sector. More to the point, the destruction of jobs and businesses during the pandemic threatens to be historic and to send further ripples along already desolate high streets and into an overstretched commercial property sector.
If the pandemic really is a war, to use one of Mr Johnson’s favoured metaphors, then its ending could be a 1945 moment, allowing for the rebuilding of a social contract between state, private sector and citizens. In place of which we have slogans about building back better and levelling up – hollow terms with no measurable outcome, apart from in approval ratings. Rather than wasteful bailout loans, Mr Sunak would be better off taking public equity stakes in stricken companies, ending austerity in local government, and launching a national recovery council of industrialists and trade unions along with civil-society groups. It’s time for some fresh thinking.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Guardian view on politics as usual: no, thanks | Editorial | Opinion