Week one of Michaelmas term, and Freshers Flu has swept through Oxford like a tsunami. Hacking coughs, snotty noses, and cold sweats are currently in vogue. And after a week of bucking the trend, I have finally succumbed to the sickness; spending my weekend limping around Oxford, crawling through every Tesco for that rare pack of Lemsip. I have also enjoyed a bout of nonsensical fever dreams. But then again, even my psychedelic visions are nothing in comparison to the fantasy land that our Prime Minister is inhabiting: a Cloud Bojo Land. Britain is facing a gas crisis, a cost of living crisis, an unravelling Union, a struggling healthcare system, and a cut to universal credit that could send millions into poverty – this is a time of a self-inflicted national crisis on several fronts, yet our leader has a grin wider than the Cheshire Cat.
The political highlight of the week was the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester: an Eyes Wide Shut-esque masquerade for the socially repressed. The conference was a four-day bonanza of half-empty auditoriums, dull panels, tired conference speeches, and endless soundbites. Get Brexit Done, Levelling Up Britain, Build Back Better, all repeated literally ad nauseam. When asked what ‘Levelling Up’ meant, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up Michael Gove stated that it was about allowing everyone to have ‘the best chance to choose their own future… own their own home… and live their best life’. Equally illuminating was Boris Johnson’s statement that Levelling Up meant ‘…offering hope and opportunity to those areas that have felt left behind’. I always thought you couldn’t build government policy around inspirational quotes from a teenager’s Tumblr account; the Conservatives have proved me wrong.
Boris Johnson was front and centre at the conference, with the Tory leader’s keynote speech being the main event. Johnson’s speech was hyped up as the opportunity to finally sketch out the details of his plans to Build Back Better, to add some meat to the bones of his undercooked domestic policy. In reality, the speech operated more like a stand-up comedy show at Butlin’s. Boris made zany puns, shouting that Britain needed to ‘Build Back Burger’ and laughing at Michael Gove’s, or ‘Jon Bon Govi’s,’ night clubbing in Aberdeen. This was not a serious speech by a serious leader, but a sideshow distraction from the economic and social crises that are striking Britain. In an interview with the BBC, Johnson stated that he was ‘not worried’ about labour shortages, inflation, or the stresses on supply changes. This was all part of the ‘new economic model’ – whatever that means. Keir Starmer referred to Johnson as ‘trivial’ and a ‘showman’ in Brighton last week, the Prime Minister did everything in his power at the conference to prove Starmer right.
What is unsurprising but still unnerving about Johnson’s speech was the number of blatant lies and falsities. Johnson claimed that the government had done ’sixty-eight free-trade deals’ when in reality almost all of these were existing rollover deals from within the EU. He claimed that ‘we have seen off the European Super League’, although this again had nothing to do with the EU. He similarly stated that ‘we are doing at least eight freeports’ despite the fact that Britain had freeports when it was an EU member. But why let the pesky truth get in the way? Most unbelievably, Johnson claimed that just as he ‘got Brexit done’, his government ‘…is going to get social care done’, as if solving the deep-rooted problems within our nation’s healthcare system was as easy as flipping a switch. Johnson has an eighty-seat majority and a ten-point lead in the polls, the Tories have not delivered and they don’t need to. Johnson promised to fix the ‘broken model’ of the past, without a hint of irony that this model was constructed by his own party.
Possibly the most shameless incident was Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey being caught singing ‘I’ve Had The Time of My Life’ at the conference karaoke. Politicians are human beings, and of course are allowed to have fun. But on the early Wednesday morning as Coffey was boogieing, her Department had closed the £20 uplift on Universal Credit, making 5.8 million people £1000 worse off every year in a decision described as the ‘biggest overnight welfare cut since the Second World War’. Coffey’s decision to dance to such a jovial tune after making such a horrific cut might appear to be bad optics, but optics don’t matter anymore. This is a government that has the survival instincts of a cockroach in a nuclear apocalypse: COVID, austerity, Brexit — all great national crises that the Tories have not only seen off but come out electorally stronger
On July 64 AD, a fire spread in Rome which ultimately burnt down most of the city and left half of the residents homeless. Emperor Nero famously ‘fiddled while Rome burned’, playing calming music and ignoring the flames engulfing his city. Is this a pretentious anecdote? Yes. But the point is that right now we have a Prime Minister sticking his fingers in his ears and his tongue out his mouth, lollygagging as this country falls apart. This country is desperately lacking in leadership that is seriously prepared to respond to the growing crisis and not divert, dance and dither. ‘Crisis, what crisis’: the three words that Prime Minister Jim Callaghan was thought to have said, and served as the epitaph for the ruling Labour government. The Tories may be having the time of their lives, but their luck will run out eventually.
Image credit: Cheffey via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).