There has been some excellent journalism in recent days and weeks, particularly from the Guardian and Independent newspapers summing up events in 2020.
Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty recently drew attention to the parallels between the current crises and the so-called Winter of Discontent in 1978-79. Then, it was public disaffection and anger with the Labour Government’s pay restraint policies. The Tory press were relentless and excoriating in their condemnation of that Government. Now it is Brexit, the Pandemic, Schools, and Government corruption and incompetence. The Tory press are now, mostly, supportive of Boris’s hard work and optimism. Then we had a vote of No Confidence in the House of Commons, won by one vote, followed by a general election in May 1979, which Mrs Thatcher won for the Tories with a majority of 45 seats. In 2021 a new general election is desperately needed again.
Right now, in the middle of a very serious pandemic, is not the ideal time to hold an election, although the USA has just held one. But we in the UK surely and sorely need one, so that electors can pass their verdict on the performance of their Government in managing the Coronavirus pandemic, Brexit, the economy and the climate change agenda. We should not have to wait until November 2024, or whenever the Prime Minister thinks it in the best interests of himself and the Conservative Party.
The Government are the public’s servants, delegated by and paid for by the people to manage the nation’s public affairs. Under more normal circumstances, with an averagely-performing Government, an interval of four or five years between general elections is perhaps acceptable. But these are not normal times, and this is not an averagely-performing Government. These are critical, crisis-ridden times, and it is vital, for the well-being of all UK citizens and residents, that the Government performs its duties well. This it has not done and so should be held to account which it has not yet been.
Where to begin with this government’s failings?
In responding to and managing the pandemic, the litany of Government and Prime Ministerial errors, mismanagement, misinformation, corruption, economic failure and unnecessary public illness, death and stress has been well-recorded and is well-known, but there has been no Government remorse, regret, or willingness to learn from mistakes, just remorseless false hope and over-enthusiasm.
Even the normally Conservative-supportive London Evening Standard newspaper on 21 December 2020 did not mince its words:
Covid has also speeded up the nation’s awareness of just how incompetent our Government is. Time after time, Boris Johnson and his ministers have failed business and the public with their inability to plan ahead; their abject failure to take tough decisions early enough for people to prepare for the consequences. The chaos for shops, gyms, factories, traders, hauliers, supermarkets, and, yes, the Standard, is unforgiveable. We can hope for one thing next year; that Covid’s effect of fast-forwarding global trends speeds the PM out of office.
Likewise the independent Institute for Government (IfG) issued a new report, “Science advice in a crisis”, which criticises Boris Johnson and his government for their “misleading” and “damaging” mantra that they have “followed the science” during the coronavirus pandemic. It accuses ministers of “haphazard” communication of public health messages during the COVID-19 crisis, switching between alarm and reassurance. The Institute also accused the government of delaying the first lockdown back in spring of 2020 because it was looking to scientists for answers, and then later in the year of ignoring the advice of its own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) completely.
Patrick Cockburn (The Independent, 28/12/20) claims that “Boris Johnson is as incompetent as General Haig at the Somme – the price is 50,000 unnecessary deaths this year.” Cockburn says,
“In Johnson’s case one can be more precise about his lethal influence. On 29 May, the former chief scientific adviser to the government, Sir David King, said that, ‘40,000 excess deaths could have been avoided if the government had reacted responsibly’. It locked down late, lifted restrictions too early, haphazardly ignored expert advice, and failed to learn from mistakes made during the first wave of the epidemic in the spring. It thereby guaranteed that there would be a second wave of infection, as bad as or worse than anything experienced earlier in the year”.
“‘I don’t have sympathy for the government making the same mistake twice’ says a scientist on the Sage advisory committee, quoted in a report by The Sunday Times Insight team. ‘We told them quite clearly what they needed to do for it [the lockdown] to work…They don’t do that. It has been wishful thinking all the way.’ The report estimates that Johnson’s refusal, contrary to the views of the most senior members of his own government, to introduce stricter measures in September had already led to between 7,000 and 13,000 additional deaths by mid-December.”
The estimate for excess deaths in Britain caused by government’s failings during the first and second waves of the pandemic now total about 50,000 people, adding together the estimates from Sir David King and The Sunday Times report, a number that will inevitably increase in the coming months’.
On Brexit, this Government began by betraying Northern Ireland by agreeing a border down the Irish Sea, in order to agree the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU. It then conducted an extended, humiliating and secretive negotiation with the EU which left everyone exhausted, frustrated and scandalized that the nation’s affairs and future well-being should be toyed with, played with, used and misused as bargaining chips in some weird “Brexitland” policy mishmash by a tiny handful of people who provided no information about what was being discussed or prioritised apart from some deluded and outdated fantasies about control, fishing, state aid and sovereignty.
Obstinacy over state aid, fishing catches, and a failed attempt to browbeat the EU with an Internal Market Bill which overrode the recently-signed Withdrawal Agreement and Northern Ireland Protocol, is what brought us to the brink of No Deal, leaving the nation aghast that such an outcome could be seriously contemplated by so-called serious politicians (which we know from Teresa May that Johnson is not). Brexit was and remains a political hijack, with as much chance of success, in any reasonable terms, as Trump’s 2016 ‘Make America Great Again‘, a meaningless four-word slogan which somehow inspired enough Americans to vote for him and which ended in a crucifixion of American democracy.
Let’s recap for a moment…
The Brexit Referendum was won by Leave, with Russian help, using lies, dirty tricks, illegal financing, false promises and misinformation, on a 52/48% margin. An example lie: ‘a Brexit deal with the EU will be the easiest in the world’. At the 2017 general election, the Conservative Party lost its overall majority, and was only able to continue in office with the support of votes purchased with taxpayers’ money from another Party, the DUP.
A motion for a second EU Referendum was narrowly defeated in Parliament by just a few votes in 2019. A motion to rule out a No Deal Brexit was passed in Parliament (The ‘Benn’ Act), only to be repealed after the December 2019 election. A motion to oblige the Government to sign a Brexit Deal which included membership of the Customs Union was lost by a few votes. The 2019 general election was won by the Conservative Party on the strength of 43% of the total votes cast, again, hardly a ringing endorsement for the ‘Get Brexit Done’ mantra. Now, polls regularly report that there is no majority for Brexit amongst voters, and that the proportion of voters preferring a No Deal Brexit is only around 25%.
Our Government has now achieved the deeply partisan, hard Brexit outcome that it wanted, which it had no convincing or reasonable mandate to do. This was not supported by current voters, and runs completely counter to the Conservative ‘One Nation’ philosophy. The hijack continued. The Prime Minister now assures us in his jokey manner, that there is a highly prosperous future for the UK, but given his record of lies and broken promises, few people believe that. Almost all the evidence and almost all the experts suggest that our future will be a lot poorer after this Brexit.
The British people were lied to about the potential benefits of Brexit and the sins of the EU during the Referendum, and they are being lied to now. They were denied the right of another opportunity to express their wishes or to legislate for a softer Brexit during the 2017-2019 Theresa May Government, and the 2019 Johnson Government. The widely disliked and discredited First-Past-the-Post voting system gave the Conservative Party a large House of Commons majority on the back of a minority of the total votes cast in the December 2019 election. Remainers, always a majority in the UK, have every reason to believe that they have been betrayed and let down by the electoral system, the democratic system, and most particularly by a cynical, hypocritical, partisan, extremist Conservative Party. An anti-Conservative anti-Brexit coalition at the December 2019 election could have prevented many of the disasters of 2020, but was prevented by objections from Corbyn’s Labour Party.
As Tom Peck says (The Independent, 31/10/20):
‘The sheer misery that was gone through, by so very many people, for what has already been forgotten is almost too traumatic to look back on. The Sisyphean agony of it all, and all for an outcome that had nothing at all to commend it. All this, only to be a poorer country, an embarrassment on the international stage, a geopolitical Luddite having a very late midlife crisis….It is hard to forgive the appalling lies that were told. The foul, despicable Facebook campaigns about Turkey joining the EU, about the UK’s new border being with “Iraq and Syria’.
‘This Conservative Government is shockingly corrupt, anti-democratic, and inept. Not sacking ministers and subordinates, who would have lost their jobs because of scandal or incompetence in any other government, is seemingly a lever of power to which Johnson is particularly attached. The price paid for this approach during a year of crisis is repeated poor decision-making and operational incapacity when efficiency is most needed.
‘The serious failings by the Johnson administration is too long to list: they include (relatively) minor errors – such as allowing sports fixtures like the Cheltenham Festival, attended by hundreds of thousands of people, to take place, when the rest of Europe was closing down – to putting a non-public health professional in charge of the vastly expensive test and trace system, with calamitous results. Despite £22bn being spent on this system, a Sage report says that it has had marginal impact on the infection rate, and it seems it is therefore as useless as Haig’s cavalry divisions at the Somme’.
‘In one significant respect, perhaps Johnson’s record is worse than that of any other British government in times of grave crisis because the stench of alleged corruption is growing by the day. Shady dealings over procurement contracts have now reached a level previously associated with the Middle East. An investigation of those contracts that have been made public by The New York Times revealed that out of nearly $22bn spent, “about $11bn went to companies either run by friends and associates of politicians in the Conservative Party, or with no prior experience or with a history of controversy”.
‘It seems that a shadowy VIP fast lane was used by politically well-connected companies to win profitable contracts, while other companies without those connections were shut out from the process. Companies in Britain already in the business of manufacturing PPE got no answer to their calls, while companies with no experience of doing so were given contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds’.
Inequality grows under Johnson
The Pandemic has exposed enormous inequalities in British society, which have greatly worsened since austerity began in 2010, and accelerated since December 2019. This needs the most urgent Government action. The Health Foundation’s recently published Marmot Report ‘Build Back Fairer’, seems a good place to start, but it is impossible to believe or to trust, given its performance during 2020, that the current Conservative Government would deliver the recommendations of that Report, except in the most glib and superficial way.
The mantra, ‘Build Back Better’, is Conservative Party waffle, which could mean anything, as Oscar Rickett in The Guardian on 22 December reminds us:
‘One adviser in Glasgow told me that the application of punitive benefits sanctions during the pandemic has meant that clients of his have “died all-but-destitute”. The austerity measures, first instituted in 2010, that have left local authorities unable to provide the support that their citizens are legally entitled to have remained in place. The parents of children with special educational needs are woefully under-supported, with many left to fend for themselves during lockdown. Asylum seekers are dying in Home Office accommodation, with one telling me that she was moved into accommodation also being used as a brothel after she gave birth. What this Conservative government means by “building back better” is actually just more of the same crony capitalism that has brought us the “massive inequality” the Marmot report highlights’.
So many failures need action
This has been our very own Winter of Discontent, far worse than the one experienced in 1979. This corrupt and inept Conservative Government has performed abysmally on our behalf during 2020, and deserves to be evicted from office as soon as possible in 2021. The Labour Party should create an Opposition of National Unity capable of defeating the Conservative Government, and should be calling now for a House of Commons vote of No Confidence in the Government.