“Normal”, in any understanding of our political history, would mean that a government that had been in office for almost 11 and a half years would carry responsibility, and therefore accountability, for events on it watch.
Of course, people understand that there has been an unprecedented global pandemic, and that the Government has had to wrestle with very difficult practical and financial decisions in facing the crisis.
All of us would cut any government some slack. Even when they made terrible mistakes or, as in the present case, when almost 10 years of austerity contributed to the precarious state of key services.
But there have been few times in our history where the British electorate have looked to blame anyone except those in power. True, that when Margaret Thatcher was deposed in November 1990, John Major managed the trick of presenting his government as being something separate from, and therefore not to blame for, the previous 11 years.
Yet Boris Johnson, as Prime Minister, has carried this to unbelievable levels. Vox pops with electors in former solid Labour seats in interviews conducted by the BBC have left me not just bewildered but angry. “Labour has never done anything for us” and “Labour did nothing” were just two of the refrains.
Then, thinking back to when I handed over the leadership of Sheffield City Council to my successor Clive Betts, I reflect that my refrain at the time was “Make sure that the city centre streets are clean”. He later recalled that he had wondered why on earth I was emphasising this but came to understand that something visible, easily understandable and critical to pride in community, made all the difference.
Today, we have the ‘Towns Fund’ designed to tart up buildings and give the impression of levelling up. Once again, it is smart politics. Who doesn’t want derelict or neglected aspects of our towns and city centres to have some money spent on them? Who doesn’t feel better if things look better?
But none of this explains why, when food, farming, fuel, and personal finance are taking such a drubbing, the Government appears to walk away scot-free. With food and energy prices up, petrol and diesel prices up and taxes also up, is this what is meant by “levelling up”?
At this week’s Conservative Party Conference, the incoming Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, darling of the ageing Tory membership, managed the trick of simply denying that there was a problem at all. A recent opinion poll found that 50 per cent plus of the electorate blamed the media for concerns over the spectacle of massive queues at garage forecourts.
Employers have been told by the Prime Minister that it is their fault there aren’t enough HGV drivers to ensure a normal flow of goods onto supermarket shelves, or getting livestock to the abattoirs. The farmers – including pig farmers from East Yorkshire – were ridiculed as though their genuine heartbreak at having to slaughter their animals on farm, and then burn the carcasses, was just some sort of mythological scare story.
Deputy PM Dominic Raab even blamed the Chinese for a drop in demand for pork! Boris Johnson’s answer is just “pay more” to those working in abattoirs, as though you can conjure up someone who is prepared to do such a job.
A handful of visas have been handed out to persuade those we encouraged to go home to come back to Britain to drive lorries but, so far, little sign of willingness to allow former agricultural workers to come back, so leaving crops rotting in the ground.
Then there’s energy bills. Small energy companies going bust, the price of gas, and shortly electricity, going through the roof and a blatant failure to have built up sufficient gas storage capacity or fallback capability to ensure a reasonable supply at an acceptable price.
Yet electricity prices in Germany are 50 per cent lower than here. So, if the electorate aren’t stupid, what is the answer? Apart from the recent tragic history of the Labour Party, there is something more profound going on here.
There is, as we know, an age and educational divide. There always has been a certain deference towards the smart guy from the private school, and the optimist that smiles through every calamity as though it was always going to be someone else’s problem, and never their fault.
So the narrative goes – Brexit? “Absolutely nothing to do with Brexit”. Government failure to spot what was coming round the corner? Certainly not, we have, in the words of the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, always been ahead of the curve”!
It’s so audacious, so astonishingly breath-taking that, for many, it becomes believable. Donald Trump nearly pulled it off for a second time in the US last year, and the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has every intention of using the same techniques – the denial, the duplicity and the downright lies about the past – to pull off an even more incredible trick over here.
David Blunkett is a Labour peer and a former Home Secretary.
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