Show caption Prime minister Boris Johnson on a beach in Llandudno before the Welsh elections earlier this year. Photograph: Phil Noble/AFP/Getty Images Opinion Saved by the bell, Boris Johnson’s government flip-flops off for the summer Polly Toynbee As the Commons enters recess, the PM has simply kicked huge issues – the ‘pingdemic’, ‘levelling up’ – down the road Fri 23 Jul 2021 11.20 BST Share on Facebook
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On the last day of term in parliament, there’s a bad tradition of governments sneaking out a host of unwelcome reports and decisions they hope to hide amid the great Westminster summer escape. Not this time. Instead, in a week of fiasco for the government, all we can hear is the ear-splitting clatter of huge cans being kicked down the road. Recess comes with everything Boris Johnson should have done left undone. The prime minister’s fatal indecision is final.
Newspaper front pages shout about shelves left unfilled by pinged workers, while a million pinged children in England miss their last week of school, and many sectors fear being overwhelmed by pings. This week’s promised list of crucial workers to be exempt from Covid test-and-trace isolation finally emerged last night, covering a number of industries including emergency services, local government, food and medical supplies. As every sector howled for help, yet another hapless minister – Kwasi Kwarteng on Thursday’s BBC Breakfast – was sent over the top to say nothing at all: yes there would be a list, only “quite narrow”, but no, it wasn’t ready right now. Why on earth did it take so long?
Pings and masks are both “advisory” and a “rule”, according to whichever hostage minister is forced on to the news, and they cause friction everywhere as some who can’t afford to isolate delete their NHS test-and-trace app to avoid being pinged. It’s easy to see why, as throughout the pandemic 2 million workers are deemed not to earn enough to claim the pitiful £95.85 weekly sick pay – the OECD’s meanest as a proportion of income. Meanwhile the 6 million who do earn enough to claim sick pay can’t possibly live on it. It should be no surprise that the UK has had such high infection and death rates from Covid, when impossible sacrifice is demanded of those most likely to get infected at work.
It’s humiliating hell being a minister under Johnson. Look at the hapless housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, sent out to the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning to defend the PM and chancellor, who were seeking to avoid isolation after Sajid Javid tested positive for the virus. Within an hour they had U-turned. Pity the wretched junior health minister Helen Whately, sent denuded into the Commons chamber on Wednesday to not announce the promised 3% pay rise for nurses – to the fury of the Speaker later, after the announcement tumbled out not in the House but in a video message from the self-isolating health secretary. The big players in government were still Zoom-squabbling over how to pay – and, outrageously, on whether 1.5% of it should be only a one-off bonus. How will the pensioners’ triple-locked 8% rise look now, as teachers, police and others suffer yet more inflation-wrecked pay freezes? Indecision reigns.
Plans for social care have been swatted away again, amid back-stairs rows: there is no answer Johnson can bear, as it requires steep tax rises. The Brexit trade deal threatens to unravel again, as Johnson’s bruiser David Frost sets all hackles rising over the Northern Ireland protocol among businesses in the UK, while stoking enmity in the entire EU and the White House – all because “sovereignty” comes ahead of agreeing the EU’s food standards. In their rush to agree post-Brexit trade deals the government could lower them regardless of what the public thinks. When we finally see Johnson actually make a decision, it’s a head-banging one to put his foot on the Brexit accelerator and drive right into a brick wall.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, continues to pretend to have simple answers to the issue of boats in the English Channel carrying migrants: she inflates expectations and then stokes anger at her inevitable failures, while offering only solutions deemed “cruel and unworkable”. Meanwhile, her border guards give up even checking the Covid status of arrivals, even though variant infections are a rather greater danger to our way of life than migrants crossing the Channel.
The vital Cop26 international climate summit hosted by the government approaches: lovely targets, no map on how to reach them. “Levelling up” is no more than a phrase. Our army scuttles from Afghanistan shamefully, with no choice and no honour after 20 years of vainglorious nation-building pretence; the aftermath will embarrass us and slaughter many innocents.
The Johnson culture war, working as a useful distraction from all his painful indecision, is getting tired. He was shamed by his Euro football bluster as he refused to condemn the booing of England’s take-the-knee squad, who then proved to be national heroes. Trying to riff on the old enemies-of-the-people trope, the justice minister, Robert Buckland, this week put out his assault on judicial review to curb the power of people appealing to judges when the government breaks its own laws. Disgraceful – but their anti-woke fire is burning out.
A year ago, on the last prime minister’s questions before the July 2020 recess, Johnson made a weak joke about Keir Starmer adopting “more flip-flops than Bournemouth beach”. Not true – and Starmer parried with a sharp riposte about the “former columnist who writes two versions of every article”. But flip- flops are all the prime minister has to show for the year that has followed. That has been fatal for many older citizens and fateful for his country in this pandemic.
An insightful 1982 Eton end-of-term report about a youthful Johnson rings truer than ever: “Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility … I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.” This letter was sent to his father – no doubt they chortled over it together.
The only question over the summer – and in the autumn when he must eventually make some defining economic decisions – is how many voters will come round to the view of his old housemaster?
Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist