If there’s one thing we learned from Boris Johnson this week, it’s what ripping fun it is being Prime Minister.
Theresa May made it look like a form of torture but her mistake was to take it all far too seriously. Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown, they did the same. They seemed to think they had to sort out problems – much good it did them – but that’s all wrong. The secret is to enjoy the ride.
That’s the Johnson way. Giving his speech, Mr Johnson was loving every minute. The man who admits it’s ludicrous he’s the Prime Minister (I could say “allegedly”, but who on earth struggles to believe Dominic Cummings on this one?) was playing it for laughs. There were no benefit cuts, tax rises, price hikes and fuel shortages in Boris Johnson’s world, just back-slapping bonhomie, jibes about the “woke” and empty promises of a better future tomorrow.
Policies? Who needs them. Solutions? They’re too difficult. Tell the morons they’re great, make them laugh at your jokes, smother them in vapid good cheer and leave the stage, your poll ratings intact.
This is the mantra of a Johnson premiership. Where there is discord, may we stoke it. Where there is error, may we ignore it. Where there is doubt, may we dismiss it. And where there is despair, may we crack jokes.
Mr Johnson offered an after-dinner speech to voters in place of a roadmap out of crisis. It had some decent funnies but you can’t heat a cold flat on laughter. He gave his speech on the day Britain experienced the biggest overnight cut to welfare benefits in history, with the axing of the £20-a-week Universal Credit uplift. Prices for fuel, food and other essentials are spiralling upwards. The energy price cap, which holds down prices for consumers, could rise by £400 next year, on top of bill rises this year.
But there was next to nothing of any of this in Mr Johnson’s speech, just crowd-tickling platitudes. Some will have heard his complacent musings while sitting in queues for petrol stations, some while unpacking their boxes from the food bank, some while working in care homes, restaurants and factories, worrying yet again how they’ll pay their bills this Christmas. Did the Prime Minister sound like he cared about them? Of course he didn’t. He sounded like he always does, like a man who’s playing at the most serious job in the land and pushing his luck as far as it will take him.
It may be about to run out.
Mr Johnson’s speech set out his attack lines for the next election and while it may have sounded like a barnstormer in front of the mirror in the Downing Street loo, it has created some hostages to fortune that could be his undoing.
Insofar as there was any content at all, it amounted to this: setting up the business community to take the blame for his government’s economic failings in the past, present and future; and putting Labour in a bind by championing the notion of a high skills, high wage economy that doesn’t rely on immigration.
Tee hee hee! he cackled. Get out of that one, Captain Hindsight.
But as with his other great confection, Brexit, it’s as flimsy as spun sugar. Mr Johnson said businesses had failed to invest more to increase productivity and it was up to them to stump up more cash to attract workers and plug labour gaps. Then everything would be tickety boo: no more labour shortages, no more underpaid workers, no more immigration, everyone buoyant.
Except no one buys it. “Economically illiterate” said the right-wing think tank, the Adam Smith Institute. Divergent from the “lived realities of small businesses and sole traders” said the Federation of Small Businesses. “Completely at odds with the despair people are feeling,” said the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Without action on investment, action on wages was a “pathway for higher prices” said the CBI.
Did Mr Johnson tell the public that bit? Of course he didn’t. Boris: Live at the Palladium made no mention of higher living costs and inflation; that his key policy would mean giving with one hand and taking away with the other. That’s not how feelgood comedy works. (Needless to say, it made no mention either of Brexit’s role in labour shortages, the undermining of business investment, or ongoing damage to trade.)
Mr Johnson thinks he has Labour on the ropes, promising higher wages and resisting immigration. That’ll keep “red wall” voters trailing in our wake, he believes.
But reality will bite. How likely are those voters to stay loyal to Mr Johnson when rising fuel costs and food prices are draining their bank accounts? A government minister interviewed by the BBC admitted that food bank use would increase following the Universal Credit cut. How could it not?
The joker has overplayed his hand. So the question now is: can Labour seize the moment?
Keir Starmer has failed repeatedly to damage the PM in spite of the government’s numerous u-turns and displays of incompetence. The Labour leader has been forced into Johnson’s slipstream, competing with the Tories on the left and forced to suck up the mantra “make Brexit work”. Starmer needs political rocket boosters to get himself out of the quagmire and the brewing crisis in household finances could – should – provide them.
Starmer should be elbowing his way in front of the TV cameras to blast back at the Prime Minister at every opportunity. But again and again, his lawyerly reticence and fear of Brexit has held him back.
When people do see him, they like him. An Opinium poll for Sky found that when 1,300 voters were shown clips of both the leaders’ speeches, substantially more agreed with Mr Starmer, and thought him strong, competent, caring and in touch, than did Mr Johnson.
But to capitalise on that credibility and trust advantage, the Labour leader must be seen. Starmer needs to be the man with the plan and the passion. As in the 1990s, Labour has a chance to bill itself as the party of economic competence in contrast to the tired and irresponsible Tories.
Events are likely to be Boris Johnson’s undoing but Keir Starmer can’t wait for victory by default. He needs to seize back the stage from this joker.
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