The government no longer exists, writes MITCH BENN. In its place, we have a PR machine.
I’ve come to something of a realisation in the last week or so: we do not, at this moment, have a government in the country.
We have a prime minister, when he can be bothered to turn up; we have ministers and secretaries of state, MPs, civil servants and all the other ingredients of government. We have, in other words, an administration, but what we do not actually have right now is a government.
What we have instead is a public relations department. A communications team in search of a government. This is why we’re opening up the country despite the fact that we’re still dying in our hundreds. This is why statistics suggest our Covid deaths per day are now outnumbering those of all the EU nations combined. This is why we have nearly half as many virus casualties as the United States despite having only one sixth the population. We’re not being governed. We’re being marketed to.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not the case that the administration actually wants Britons to succumb to the virus. It’s making them look bad. And they’d love to get the virus under control, because it would poll well and make them look good.
The primary – indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking the sole – purpose of this administration seems to be to win the news cycle for the next 24 hours. That’s it. Just announce – or better yet, leak (so much more deniability that way) some bit of vague good news, some morsel of stiff-upper lipped happy talk, such as might be sufficient to get the word ‘HURRAH’ to appear on the front page of the Daily Express. Some hint that things are, in some unspecified way, about to get better.
Then, a few days later, when this ‘good news’ turns out to be completely spurious, simply leak another bit of spurious good news in the knowledge that the loyal press will trumpet this new prediction of Better Things Around The Corner rather than follow up on why the last one didn’t happen. And so on, and so on.
The trouble is that, as ever, careless talk costs lives. Actions have consequences. Early last month, news leaked of a potential relaxation of the lockdown rules just before the 75th anniversary of VE Day, presumably to take the sting out of the Churchill-obsessed Boris Johnson having to preside over a muted, tempered ‘celebration’ of his hero’s finest hour.
Unfortunately, this ‘announcement’, coupled with coverage of the anniversary in the press, led a lot of good people to conclude – wrongly – that restrictions had in fact been lifted for the occasion, leading to photos all over the internet of revellers conga-ing underneath Union Jack bunting while full lockdown was still ostensibly in force.
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So that’s why the prime minster’s ‘stay alert’ address to the nation in early May, in contrast to his sober, concise message in March announcing the beginning of lockdown, was such a torrent of obfuscation and waffle. He was trying to follow up on a statement which hadn’t been made; explain changes which hadn’t occurred. The statement didn’t clarify anything because there was nothing to clarify, but a statement had to be made, so he made one, succeeding only in blurring and diluting his administration’s position and advice.
And once the news broke about Dominic’s Excellent Adventure, the damage was irreversible. We went from a nation undergoing restrictions and privation with surprising good grace to a nation divided between those cheering the administration on and those calling the administration out.
And Johnson, finding himself presiding over an incipient culture war, rather than try to heal the division, just picked a side. Hence the current ridiculousness in which our ‘leader’ allows himself to appear more concerned over the fate of bronze statues of dead people than over the fate of the thousands of real flesh and blood people who have died – perhaps needlessly – on his watch.
But huffing about statues plays well to the base, and that’s all that matters now. Likewise, the increasingly absurd Michael Gove’s announcement that there will be no extension of the Brexit transition period.
He proudly declared his intention to drive this country off a cliff, because to do otherwise would upset the Brexit Massive, and that – again – is what matters now.
In a democracy, a government will, inevitably, sometimes be torn between doing the right thing and looking good. But this isn’t a government. It’s a PR team, and it has no notion of anything except trying to look good.
Actions do have consequences. But for our part-time prime minister and his fake government, consequences are things that happen to other people.