Friday , January 28 2022
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Cutting through

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 Legislation going through parliament at the moment is the most regressive and repressive that I can remember from a social liberal’s point of view. The right to peaceful protest without being arrested effectively ended. Criminalisingrefugees, and those in lifeboats saving them in the channel. Those born overseas or dual nationals will soon be able to ...

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Legislation going through parliament at the moment is the most regressive and repressive that I can remember from a social liberal’s point of view. The right to peaceful protest without being arrested effectively ended. Criminalisingrefugees, and those in lifeboats saving them in the channel. Those born overseas or dual nationals will soon be able to be deportedat the will of Priti Patel, without notice, which affects 6 million UK citizens. The government also wants to have the ability to override any legal decision it doesn’t like.


With a new COVID variant about to lead to an explosion of UK cases, the government is once again being totally inept at preparing for it. Christmas parties are absolutely fine, says Boris Johnson, while the education secretary says he thinksmasks in schools may harm learning (which is nonsense - what harms learning is being away from school after catching COVID). This government continues to do nothingabout ventilation in schools.


But it wasn’t any of these things that shifted the polls dramatically in favour of Labour over the last week. Instead it was the year old video tape of the then press secretary to the Prime Minister nervously giggling about a recent Christmas party, a party that a year later the Prime Minister was denying the existence of to the Commons.


It’s not hard to see why this footage had such a big impact. People remember the hardships they suffered following the government’s rules last year as the Delta wave gathered steam, and some have relatives who died from that wave. Christmas parties were banned in London, and the idea that those in No.10 were ignoring the restrictions they themselves had imposed seemed outrageous (as it was). Seeing the press secretary laughing about how they would try and pretend it hadn’t happened illustrated the gulf between the people suffering (and people dying alone) and the apparent indifference to rule breaking in No.10.


It is also interesting that, like the Patterson case I wrote about here, it was the broadcast media that took the lead in making most people aware of this rather than the right wing press. Unlike Patterson it took the Mail (under a new editor) a day to put it on the front page, and then as part of the right wing newspapers’ ongoing moan about any COVID rules at all. In contrast the Sun decided it was a non-story.


Objectively, the issue of a Christmas party is trivial compared to the many tens of thousands of COVID deaths caused by Johnson’s ineptitude at handling the pandemic. But cut through about Conservative sins depends on what appears on the 6 or 10 o’clock news. You will not find anywhere in those news programmes a clear statement that Johnson is responsible for so many deaths. Nor, crucially, will you find much about the issues I listed in my first paragraph. Because the news programmes were not able to ‘balance’ the pictures of Johnson’s press secretary, and because partygate was an insult to everyone, that issue cut through.


Of course everyone reading this blog does not need the 10 o’clock news to alert them to what Johnson is doing. You read a newspaper like the Guardian, Mirror or Financial Times, and probably have many other sources of information. But you are in the minority among voters. Most Tory voters just have these peak time News programmes (probably the BBC) and their right wing newspaper which heavily filters the news. They needed proof that Johnson and those working for him believe they can do what they like, and now they have it.


This Christmas party episode is a perfect example of something I talked about here, The problem for figures like Trump and Johnson is that they get tripped up by their own excesses (in the eyes of the public) or the excesses they encourage in others. Trump encouraged a coup, and his supporters obliged. Johnson encouraged an attitude among those working at No.10 that they, like himself, didn’t need to follow the rules they were proscribing for the public, and they went ahead with parties that others got fined for holding.


Since Johnson became Prime Minister, he and those around him have behaved in an outrageous manner, and have survived only through Johnson’s charm and media bias. The government couldn’t help itself by allowing friends to profit from the PPE crisis its predecessors had created, and from the test and trace programme. Johnson couldn’t help himself regularly putting donors in the Lords, and keeping ministers in place who were found to have broken the ministerial code. It was very likely that one day something similar would break through the shield created by half the press and a timid BBC, such that the public would finally see what Johnson and his entourage were like.


Will this be a flash in the pan? In the short term certainly not. Johnson still hasn’t admitted one party took place, let alone the half dozen or more that happened. The more Johnson sacrifices some former employees to save his own skin, he risks creating individuals who will find the odd photograph to leak to the media. [This was written last Friday and Saturday, and by Sunday it had already happened Into the medium term, the task for Labour is to keep reminding voters how they felt when seeing that footage of the Prime Minister’s press secretary. Unlike the Conservatives, he will not have the help of half the media doing it for him.


The problem the Conservatives have beyond the next month is that this episode, along with continuing corruption stories, may have permanently tarnished Johnson’s image among the electorate. With plenty of scandal still in play, this will not go away. Johnson’s charm that took in a large number of the electorate may no longer work its magic. In addition, a broadcast media may be less deferential to a leader whose days seem numbered.


More and more Tory MPs may come to think that their best bet of getting a majority in the next election is to have a new leader who comes with a honeymoon period, and combine that with an early election. After all, many of them only voted for Johnson as leader because in 2019 they were in a Brexit/Farage sized hole and only he could get them out of it. His job done, he could easily be cast aside and everything bad that subsequently comes to the public’s attention can be laid at his door, as Johnson himself once did to those that came before him.


If partygate does prove to be the downfall of Johnson, I think there will be some poetic justice there. Of all the bad things that Johnson has done in such a short time, his complete failure over the pandemic is the worst in terms of lives lost. Not many national leaders are responsible for allowing nearly 100,000 of their own citizens to die outside wartime, and those that did are not remembered fondly. From embracing herd immunity to delayed lockdowns to ‘freedom day’, he has refused to learn from his mistakes or his scientific advisors because of his lifelong ego-libertarian views. Alas too many of his own MPs share similar views, so we will not return to sanity until some other group of parties govern this country.




Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.

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