23rd May 2020
Empty benches – no backing for Boris?
For all of his fake ‘man of the people’ persona, when it comes to the crunch public schoolboy Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has no clue as to the popular mood. Insisting on the necessity of a healthcare surcharge for foreign NHS workers at the start of the week, set to increase from £400 to £634 in October, he had climbed down by the end of the week. Downing Street was forced to issue a statement saying,
“The prime minister has asked the Home Office and the Department for Health and Social Care to remove NHS and care workers from the surcharge as soon as possible.”
Momentum had been building during the week, with Johnson initially defending the money brought into the health service by the surcharge, which has totalled £917m over the past four years. With even leading Tories quoted as describing the charge as “mean spirited” and “immoral and monstrous”, damage limitation became the order of the day from the Johnson camp, claiming the Prime Minister had listened and “shown true leadership”.
The episode is symptomatic of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis and the inability of Johnson himself to provide any credible lead. The shine of Johnson’s election victory has faded rapidly and is best illustrated by the fact that Labour leader, Kier Starmer, is getting relatively sympathetic treatment from sections of the media.
The Daily Mail remains something of an exception in relation to Starmer, trying to whip up indignation over him owning a donkey sanctuary, but the story has done more to undermine the already shredded credibility of the Mail than it has Starmer.
Elsewhere, in the relatively tame House of Commons exchanges that now pass for Prime Minister’s Questions, Starmer has been described as incisive and forensic in his questioning of Johnson, who has blustered in his usual fashion but without the fan club chorus he usually enjoys. This has led de facto fan club chairman, Jacob Rees-Mogg, to suggest that MPs should be back in the Commons, in order to mask the windbag’s blustering. There is an irony that someone as socially distant as Rees-Mogg should be advocating the exact opposite.
While much is made of his legal career the truth is that Starmer’s questioning is no more incisive or forensic than that of Jeremy Corbyn, in fact in terms of political cutting edge it is decidedly less so.
What Starmer does have over Corbyn is establishment acceptability. His honeymoon handling by much of the media is the first indication that the ruling circles regard capitalism as potentially being safe in Starmer’s hands. This was never the view taken of Corbyn, who was always regarded as suspect at best and certainly likely to rock the boat, should he get anywhere near the keys to 10, Downing Street.
Johnson was always a stopgap candidate for the Conservatives, his election to the leadership based upon his populist rhetoric, media persona and the lack of a credible alternative. In spite of his massive Parliamentary majority Johnson could yet be the fall guy for the inept handling of the pandemic. A recession is already underway and an austerity programme is certain to follow, as the people will once more be asked to carry the cost of the crisis.
A jaded country, 15 years into austerity, could be persuaded to welcome Kier Starmer with open arms. Inheriting an economy in a state of collapse a one term Labour administration could be permissible to UK capitalism while the Tories re grouped.
Crystal ball gazing is a dangerous practice in politics, there are so many imponderables. Yet there is an alternative to the above scenario. There is a world in which the inadequacies of capitalism to clothe, feed, employ and keep its people healthy are exposed. A scenario in which the fact of care homes being run for profit rather than people’s needs is regarded as a scandal. A scenario in which education is an equal right not a privilege according to your income.
It would be a scenario in which billions are no longer spent on weapons of mass destruction but the needs of the health service, transport infrastructure and green economy were prioritised. Such a programme will not be advanced by a party of media darlings, it will need to be fought for inch by inch as the rich dig in to defend their privileges.
Labour can claim a small victory in seeing Boris Johnson make a u-turn this week. It is a first step but they need to set their sights higher. At some point they may also need to question whether Kier Starmer is the man to carry forward a programme for real change, rather than one which may just see Labour re-elected to office, on terms not of their choosing.