He’s only been gone for nine days but if a week is a long time in politics then nine days is an eternity, especially when you’re the leader of a country beset by economic woes of your own making and gripped by a series of political scandals with a distinct end-of-empire vibe.
After his two-continent Dishevelled Statesman tour, Boris Johnson might well have been forgiven for wanting to steer his plane away from all those Brexit chickens coming home to roost in poor embattled Blighty. But, then again, one doesn’t want to be away too long either when trouble is brewing, n’est-ce pas? (as Margaret Thatcher might have said).
For when the cat’s away, the mice do play. Or drink too much and embarrass themselves, it turns out. As Johnson returned from the NATO summit in Madrid this week, news was breaking that the Conservative deputy chief whip, the unfortunately named Chris Pincher, had resigned after, as he said, drinking far too much and embarrassing himself and other people.
So far so benign, you might think, for this #Partygate government – hardly a resigning offence, surely – but what Pincher didn’t say in his letter of resignation was that he had also – according to the Sun newspaper – allegedly groped two men during his bender at the Carlton Club on Wednesday night.
And so the amoral black hole at the heart of this administration deepens, infecting yet more of the body politic barely a week after two by-elections caused because one MP was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy while the other had to step down after watching porn in the House of Commons.
And while one might argue these men are masters of their own fate, Johnson must, at the very least, be charged with presiding over a political culture where morally dubious behaviour, and indeed sometimes criminal acts, are far too common. After all, more than 50 MPs, including three cabinet members, are under investigation for sexual harassment.
Not to mention the fact that this is the second time Pincher has had to resign after similar allegations, leading some to question Johnson’s judgment in appointing him as deputy chief whip this year. Given the calibre of those in cabinet though, and his own #Partygate woes, it does seem as though the Johnson-judgment boat may have sailed some time ago.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner – herself no stranger to casual Tory sexism and classism with the latest “champagne socialist” jibe delivered by deputy prime minister Dominic Raab with a stomach-churning wink in parliament this week – said the Conservatives could not sweep a potential sexual assault under the carpet.
“Boris Johnson must now answer how Chris Pincher can remain a Conservative MP at all. Standards in public life have been utterly degraded on this PM’s watch,” she tweeted.
If a decline of traditional values is often cited as a factor in the collapse of empires, then so too is economic weakness, and there is plenty of that going around too with evidence mounting that the UK is heading for what Johnson might call a “world-beating” recession.
This week, Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey said inflation will be higher for longer in the UK – compared to other countries also suffering the effects of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine – and growth weaker. He told a European Central Bank Forum that it was “very clear” the economy was at a turning point and was starting to slow.
The pound is in the doldrums after its biggest six-month decline against the dollar since 2008 and it fell again on Friday. This puts upward pressure on prices for imported fuel and energy, tightening the screw on beleaguered British consumers. The Office for National Statistics says 44% of adults surveyed in May said they were buying less food, and consumer confidence is at rock-bottom levels, even worse than during the 2008 financial crisis.
The UK’s balance of payments deficit is also at a record – £51.7bn or 8.3% of gross domestic product in the January-March period, partly because of the high cost of fuel imports. And Eurostat figures show imports to the EU from the UK fell 13.6% from €169bn in 2020 to €146bn in 2021. That’s a 25% drop when compared to 2019.
Services – including financial services and professional services – fell 7% in 2021 compared to 2019. Speaking in London this week, Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission vice-president, blamed red tape and paperwork for the slowdown.
But that’s okay because trade minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan is on it. This week, she pledged a “bonfire of barriers” to ease trade around the world. It might sound more convincing if she had not, just a day earlier, extended tariffs and quotas on steel imports. But consistency does not seem to be a valued Tory trait these days, unless you’re talking about consistently breaking international laws and treaties.
Under the “bonfire of barriers”, export opportunities worth more than £20bn will be unlocked by resolving around 100 priority trade barriers, according to the Department for International Trade. These are things like blocks on meat exports to countries in Asia, or restrictions on UK-trained lawyers operating in Japan.
“We know that businesses who export pay higher wages and are more productive than businesses who do not, but too often, complex trade rules and practical obstacles prevent them selling overseas,” Trevelyan said in a statement. “This bonfire of the barriers will grow our economy by allowing our brilliant businesses to satisfy the enormous global appetite for their goods and services.”
As ever the devil is in the detail. For example, it turns out lifting restrictions on British beef exports to South Korea might take five years.
So no joy yet on the Brexit front – those sunny uplands remain tantalisingly out of reach. And Johnson has other problems as well with parliament’s Privileges Committee finally starting its investigation into whether he misled parliament over #Partygate.
It’s a lot to be getting on with and it seems others may also be detecting that end-of-empire vibe: Ireland’s deputy prime minister Leo Varadkar said this week that Ireland and the EU might have to wait for a change of leader in London before the seemingly endless row over the Northern Ireland Protocol could be defused.
“Trust needs to be restored. … If we can’t with this (British) government, then a future government,” Varadkar said.
With all this going on, Johnson probably won’t even have time to wonder what was going through culture secretary Nadine Dorries’ head when she mixed up the two rugby codes in a speech at a Rugby League event this week: she suggested Jonny Wilkinson’s 2003 winning drop-goal for England against Australia in rugby union’s World Cup final took place in rugby league.
Because Dorries is the least of his Worries. And that is quite something.