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Has something shifted in sado-populist Britain?

As disquiet grows, Boris Johnson may not hold the whip hand for much longer.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus - Credit: PA

Many people alive today, or born tomorrow, will die prematurely as a result of the government decision to breach its own ‘cast iron’ manifesto commitment, and cut overseas aid and development by £4 billion.

We won’t be able to point at particular bodies as they are laid to rest, in places few of us will ever visit, and say ‘they did that’. But we can visit people and places in many parts of the world, and be told, that because of the UK’s global leadership role in aid and development down the years – especially when we had a Labour government – there are people living who would have died, communities thriving which would otherwise have struggled to survive.

There was something gruesomely fitting about the timing of the vote in parliament last week, coming as it did amid the continuing fall-out over the post-Euros racist abuse of black footballers who missed penalties and so upset the government’s bandwagoning, shirt-donning script.

“Would it be ungenerous to suggest Rashford should have spent more time perfecting his game and less time playing politics?” mused Tory MP Natalie Elphicke. Would it be ungenerous to suggest that if Johnson, Sunak, Raab, Patel and the rest had an ounce of empathy, or the most basic understanding of what life is like for children growing up in poverty, there would be no need for Marcus Rashford to be campaigning on free school meals in the first place?

Or that if the Johnson government saw racism as a genuine problem to be confronted, rather than yet one more issue to be exploited by their ‘culture wars team’ in Number 10, the England players would not feel the need to keep taking the knee?

I’m not joking about the culture wars team. It helps promote division, provoke anger, create arguments about who and what we are as people rather than what the real problems facing the country might be.

They’d rather us argue about flags and football fans, than foodbanks and food shortages; about symbols rather than shopping bills; about bulls**t rather than Brexit and how badly it is going.

I wrote about sado-populism last week, and talked about it on the TNE podcast. Here, so far as the overseas aid debate is concerned, is how it works – these are not the words you will ever hear from Johnson, but they make up the soundtrack to the governing minds of those governing the country…

“So, little people out there who can only dream of the wealth and privilege that we take for granted in our gilded little circle… Your life isn’t that great. Your living standards are stagnant. Your schools and hospitals are struggling because we used the global financial crisis to pin the blame on Labour and make massive cuts we would otherwise not have been able to make.

“We are taking some of your benefits away. We are shredding your local services. We are putting your health at risk by making a public health crisis a question of personal responsibility. Some of you will die as a result. But most of you won’t, so be happy about that. And please understand that no matter how crap you think your life is, we are making it a whole lot crappier for people who are even worse off than you.

“We are cutting overseas aid because we care about making sure that you feel at least your life is not as bad as others. And though the chances are that we will use the money we save not to improve your lives and living standards, but to help people in our wealth bracket with perks and tax breaks, we think if we say the words ‘levelling up’ often enough, you will be too busy focusing on the ones we are levelling down – you – to notice.”

I lost count of the robotic Tory MPs who trotted out the ‘charity begins at home’ line. They would do well to ponder that absent from those voices was a Tory MP for Chesham and Amersham, and one of the reasons they lost that by-election was precisely because a lot of people do care about the poorest in the world, and a lot of them are natural Tories who no longer see the Johnson government as retaining any of their basic values.

You may have seen I did a debate on footballer Tyrone Mings and his criticism of Priti Patel over racism on Channel 4 News last week. I was in West London, about to meet some friends. As the interview ended, a young father and his daughter who had been watching on TV came out to say hello. An elderly woman stopped for a chat. And before I got back into our friend’s house for dinner, someone living a couple of doors down came out.

A very small sample indeed, but the loathing of who this government is, and what they stand for, was intense. “I have voted Tory all my life,” said the neighbour. “Never again.” I got plenty of the same the next day, when I was doing mental health events in my birthplace, Keighley, West Yorkshire, one of those seats that tends to mirror the national outcome in elections.

For sado-populism to work long term, there has to be a bit of Stockholm Syndrome running alongside it. Those harmed by the policies they voted for may initially be reluctant to accept that pain and punishment are being administered by those they thought would reward them. My sense is that something shifted last week, that though sado-populism remains the driving force of the government, the grip of the Stockholm Syndrome is weakening.

“Whatever it was I voted for,” said a man I chatted to at Leeds station on the way back south, “it wasn’t this.”

A PM without morals. A government that seems to have no purpose other than to damage much that is great about Britain. Levelling up? A slogan without a strategy. Global Britain? The easiest way to raise a laugh, for any diplomat anywhere in the world, is just to utter the words. Oven-ready Brexit? Not a clue.

People’s priorities? A lie. Data, not dates? Another lie. Take back control? We’ve lost it. Freedom Day? A farce, and at a time freedoms are being shredded – freedom to protest, freedom to vote, the freedom to work, travel and live in 27 countries.

There is only one way now to view any of their facile slogans, or indeed anything else they say. Whatever their stated intention it is the opposite of what they deliver. Awful, awful people. Awful, awful times.