The critical observation about this week’s Tory mutiny comes from neither frontbench politician nor pundit, but a former backroom boy who faced a putsch nearly 30 years ago. Jonathan Hill served as political secretary to John Major while the then prime minister negotiated the Maastricht treaty, and suffered constant, debilitating attacks from the “bastards” on his own backbenches. A ruling party exhausted after a decade in power, its members were minded only to fight turf wars and marinade themselves in tawdry scandal. It was a low period in British politics whose high point came when Major faced a vote of no-confidence. Yet Lord Hill thinks Boris Johnson’s situation is even more dangerous – for one vital reason.
Back in the early 90s, he says, “there wasn’t a sense that all of our institutions were collapsing, that Whitehall was collapsing and No 10 didn’t work”. What does that look like? Let me pick just three stories from the past few days – items you may have missed amid the Westminster melee, which is at present centred around flogging an already disastrous revival of the right-to-buy scheme. Since Johnson’s aides had hoped this would be health week, let’s make that our theme.
On Monday, a huge survey of nursing staff showed eight out of 10 reporting that their last shift had had insufficient nurses to look after patients safely and effectively. In other words, staffing levels in today’s NHS are so low as to put patients in danger. At the weekend, sick and injured people at major hospitals in Devon were waiting more than 15 hours to be seen in A&E.
And – as Huw Edwards still says – finally: the nursing director of the West Midlands Ambulance Service admits that patients are “dying every day” because of delays, and predicts that his entire service will capsize within two months. “Around August 17 is the day I think it will all fail,” says Mark Docherty. “That date is when a third of our resource [will be] lost to delays, and that will mean we just can’t respond … It will be a bit like a Titanic moment. It will be a mathematical [certainty] that this thing is sinking, and it will be pretty much beyond the tipping point by then.”
You may ask why we haven’t heard more about these grave developments, and I would agree. Yet don for a moment the green visor of our finest media commentators. On the one hand, a region comprising almost 6 million Britons faces losing its ambulances; on the other, doesn’t Jeremy Hunt look tasty?
I could carry on. Petrol will soon hit £2 a litre. Swaths of our transport infrastructure are mired deep in chaos that shows no sign of ending soon. As schools wind up for summer, it is shamefully obvious that kids from less well-off families will never get the resources essential to catch up on the education they missed during the pandemic. And when elections roll around, polling stations open right next to food banks.
What turns these symptoms of acute crisis into a chronic national breakdown is, as Lord Hill says, the rottenness of our political institutions. So profound is their decay that they can no longer properly face the problems, let alone tackle them.
Still reeling from the revelations of lockdown booze-ups, No 10 is focused solely on saving Big Dog. Cabinet ministers dare not call a halt to the entire farrago, perhaps realising that under another leader two-thirds of them would struggle to find gainful employment as milk monitors.
Huge tranches of the press have shredded their credibility through years of declaring that Boris Johnson was a, to quote the Times’s leader column, “pragmatic, responsible” leader while Jeremy Corbyn spelled “economic chaos”.
The Treasury and the Bank of England have spent the decade and a half since the banking crash assuring the public that everything is under control – that their policies and £900bn of quantitative easing will spur a recovery that will be the envy of the rich world, even while the actual result is an economy stuck stubbornly in second gear and a historic squeeze on workers’ living standards. The OECD forecasts that next year the UK will languish among the worst performing economies in the entire G20 – second only to Vladimir Putin’s pariah state.
The greatest exhaustion of all lies in the realm of political ideas. The unparalleled expertise of Boris Johnson’s team in prosecuting culture wars is no use to it now that there is an economic crisis where it is flush out of ideas. Just look at the government’s wheeze this week for dealing with the housing crisis: to copy Margaret Thatcher’s fire sale of council homes and extend the principle to property owned by housing associations and charities. This is itself a policy that George Osborne scraped together five years ago, before dropping it back to the bottom of the barrel.
But that is the modern Tory party all over: whenever it wants to right the wrongs of Thatcherism, its solution is yet more Thatcherism – only this time with Boris bombast where ideological conviction should be. Listen to them now: tax cuts! Levelling up! Privatisations! Except even the most blinkered of Tories can catch the pungent whiff of policies that years ago went putrid.
Something much bigger than the fate of Johnson or his wretched party is at stake now, something that happens only every few decades. Right in front of our eyes, an entire political order is dying. Just as the second world war led to Clement Attlee and the 1970s produced Thatcher, so post-crash, post-pandemic Brexit Britain stands at a historic hinge point.
In his forthcoming book, The Death of Consensus, the BBC documentary maker Phil Tinline traces how those two crises produced a new political settlement. Each time, he argues, insiders were able to take the chaos and craft from it a compelling and wide-ranging narrative for radical change. In 1940, the then journalist Michael Foot and friends adopted the pseudonym of Cato and wrote Guilty Men, a polemic that yoked the humiliation of Dunkirk to the misery of the Depression and, as Tinline writes, tied “the appeasers in parliament to their cronies in the City”. The result was a sensation, selling out 12 impressions in four weeks. And it was followed by many similar works, each taking a sledgehammer to an orthodoxy ripe for toppling.
How many such people stand ready today to do something similar is a big question. Perhaps Thatcher’s greatest achievement was to tell the British that “there is no alternative”, while doing her damnedest to make that the case – filleting the BBC, cowing the Labour party and crushing the unions. The Iron Lady acted as a giant bulldozer against any powerful opposition, and today the view from SW1 remains barren.
Not so in this country’s hinterlands. A few years ago, while reporting for this paper on the political and economic alternatives springing up in a country roiled by austerity, I kept coming across people who could see how the system was failing them, their families and homes – and they were right. They can read their maps of power; they can see where it lies. What they need now is to get their hands on its levers.