In a cringeworthy social media stunt before the last election, Boris Johnson mimicked the famous cue-card sequence in the film Love Actually, itself a parody of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues video. The prime minister’s scrawled series of messages conveyed the ultimately winning trope of “get Brexit done”. As parliament returns on Tuesday, and the nation braces for what is likely to be an autumn of considerable discontent, words from another Dylan classic, My Back Pages, seem to sum up Mr Johnson’s current situation: “My existence led by confusion boats, mutiny from stern to bow.”
The now notorious sequence of Covid-related U-turns performed by the government reflects a chronic lack of planning and foresight. Failing to reconcile the twin priorities of safeguarding public health and protecting the economy, ministers have vacillated, prevaricated and lurched first in one direction and then the other. As the days begin to shorten, the sky is turning dark with chickens coming home to roost.
This week, the chair of the 1922 committee of backbenchers, Sir Graham Brady, is expected to represent its concerns to the prime minister after a chaotic summer in which Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour party has wiped out a 26-point Tory lead in the polls. MPs’ morale, says the committee’s vice-chair, Charles Walker, has been badly eroded. Given the government’s track record, and the challenges the country faces between now and Christmas, it is unlikely to improve.
The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, enjoyed a honeymoon period after swiftly introducing the job retention scheme in March, and has scored a popular success with his “eat out to help out” subsidy to restaurants, pubs and cafes. But the chancellor’s determination to shut down the scheme at the end of October is likely to trigger a huge rise in unemployment. Around one in eight employees are still furloughed and Mr Sunak’s cut-off point is looking brutally premature. As he deals with a steeper recession than in the 1980s and a deficit expected to rise to £300bn by the end of the year, the chancellor must somehow find the money in an autumn budget in November to boost growth, and keep the Treasury finances in order. The hostile response from Tory MPs to reports of possible tax rises is an early shot across Mr Sunak’s bows on that front.
Amid fears of a coming second wave of Covid-19, the drive to encourage more people back to workplaces has so far been a failure, undermined by a justified lack of public confidence in the government and the emergence of new lifestyle patterns. According to an AA poll, a majority of managers and professionals continue to work from home. Meanwhile, weekend reports suggest that the reopening of universities in October is likely to be as fraught and complicated a process as getting pupils back to school. Yet again, the government stands accused of failing to perform due diligence in its preparations, particularly in relation to the testing of students travelling to and from campuses.
Once the raison d’etre of Mr Johnson’s administration, Brexit has become a millstone around the nation’s neck, as the government foolishly sticks to its timetable for leaving the single market and customs union on 31 December. Whether or not a deal is struck with Brussels, an entirely unnecessary proliferation of red tape will create costly headaches for businesses attempting to cope with the end of the furlough scheme, a steep recession and possible local lockdowns as a result of a resurgence of Covid-19.
There are not, then, many reasons to be cheerful, as this blundering government takes the country into autumn and winter. In the best of times, Mr Johnson’s essential unseriousness would have exposed the country to unforced errors and strategic recklessness. In Covid times, he and his government are a national liability. It will be a rocky ride to Christmas.