20 October 2022
Dear, Oh Dear
by Paul Branch
Just three little words, spoken by our brand new monarch to our barely-out-of-the-box Prime Minister. An expression of sympathy perhaps as young Liz curtsied before Charles at her first meeting with the King, after a particularly bruising PMQ session? Or possibly his apology for an inadvertent clearing of the throat, as the elderly are prone to do before starting a conversation? Or more intriguingly, maybe a coded offering of advice – do get a grip please, and sort out the shambles. Whichever, the phrase presaged the continuation of the Truss handbrake U-turns with the departure of the Chancellor and the ditching of the short-lived art of Trussonomics following the arrival out of the ministerial wilderness of a safer pair of hands in Jeremy Hunt, twice failed leadership candidate and erstwhile bogey man of nurses and junior doctors. Some say that Liz is not long for this political world, in which case this is Jeremy’s unexpected opportunity for another tilt at the top job. But history shows that one very recent incumbent leader nearly brazened it out to the bitter end after a similar succession of changes of direction, so maybe there’s hope for Liz yet.
Boris himself was master of the screeching reverse ferret manoeuvre, although to be fair some instances could instead be put down to economical veracity. There really should be a novelty Xmas gift set in Santa’s elfin emporium this year: a quiz, or a board game perhaps, based on his numerous U-turn accomplishments, but here’s a reminder of arguably some of the more memorable, all in 2020. Covid features strongly, starting with his advice right at the beginning of the pandemic not to worry as it will go away of its own accord, followed soon afterwards by The First Great Lockdown. His abandonment of community testing, despite earnest WHO advice to the contrary, was quickly replaced by Matt Hancock’s mass testing programme targeting 50,000 per day and reaching double that number. Boris advised us initially that it was not necessary for face coverings to be adopted, but these were soon made mandatory in shops and secondary schools. He spent some £10 billion on centralised contact tracing, before abandoning it for a regional scheme as used in other countries (oh, how Liz Truss could do with that money now). And he caused national chaos by promising a Christmas and New Year holiday period free of restrictions, subsequently reduced to just one day in which we were at liberty to mingle and infect one another with impunity.
Away from the pandemic, Johnson changed his mind not once but twice about whether to extend the entitlement to free school meals, in the face of opposition by a mere footballer. He ignored advice on the danger to national security of allowing Huawei a central role in our telecommunications infrastructure, before pulling it from 5G networks. The embargo on foreign lorry drivers was turned into a recruitment drive once the real practical effects of Brexit started to bite. And of course he left us with the still festering issue of the Northern Ireland protocol, after changing his mind about the existence of a barrier down the Irish Sea. But despite all this, he clung onto power through thick and thicker, seemingly only enhancing his electoral appeal and reputation for stamina and stickability. His final U-turn, over parliamentary standards, did bring about his downfall, but nevertheless there are allegedly many Conservatives who pine for his unique style of leadership and who would welcome him back with open arms and pockets. If he fails to sustain interest in the hitherto lucrative celebrity speaker circuit then who knows … he may well return, one day, richer and unbowed.
Other previous Prime Ministers have experienced mixed fortunes from violent changes of political direction, notably Ted Heath with the Three-Day Week. His manifesto commitment at the 1970 election was for a cut in public expenditure, but by 1974, in the face of 1 million unemployed and nationwide strikes, Heath had poured money into the NHS, education and welfare leading to further economic instability, his own downfall and Maggie Thatcher’s climb to fame. In 2010 Nick Clegg’s promise to never increase student tuition fees was ditched when he starred in a coalition with the Conservatives, for which he paid the price of political ignominy five years later when the Lib Dems imploded and David Cameron secured an unexpected outright majority. Clegg to his credit has found alternative long-term employment outside parliament, whilst Cameron lasted a year and left Westminster on the back of the equally unexpected referendum outcome which thrust Boris Johnson into the limelight. Ironically it was Boris who was then at the receiving end of a spectacular U-turn in the ensuing leadership campaign, at the hands of Michael Gove who changed his mind at the last minute by not giving Johnson his promised endorsement but instead effectively pronouncing him unfit for high office.
In the Truss administration era, the problems causing the U-turns have come about because of an inability to consult more widely or an arrogant reluctance to take advice. We’ve now had a bellyful of plaintive cries that Liz is listening and gets it …. and finally an apology that she got it wrong. No one in their right minds, let alone at the pinnacle of national government, should even dream of announcing far-reaching and ludicrously optimistic economic initiatives without asking those with a little more knowledge or experience whether they might just work, or not. Finding out the markets’ opinions after the event and causing chaos and financial hardship to millions is not what she was elected for. She should have asked and listened first, and acted afterwards. Jeremy Hunt’s own apology for the PM’s unnecessary rashness was a good start (for him) but the phrase “too far and too fast” must have been coined with tongue in cheek. Maybe by a man who knows that the door to leadership is now very much ajar, that his boss is very unlikely to survive his unravelling of most of her budget plans, and that she is headed through the same door but in the opposite direction.
But back to the regal audience chamber at the palace and to what may have happened after that particular door was shut on the cameras, leaving just Charles and Liz on their own as he followed up on his opening nicety. Years ago one could have likened the scene to a troublesome schoolgirl being summoned to the head’s study for a stern telling off and maybe a taste of corporal punishment. The thought of Charles sitting at his desk with a cane within reach is tempting but sadly in this day and age grotesquely inappropriate. Alternatively the King could have adopted the manner of a kindly aged uncle trying hard to understand just what the girl must have been thinking of, before offering thoughtful advice that maybe, just maybe, she would be far better off seeking another career path and forgetting the whole embarrassing episode. The more probable scenario though is that Charles suggested she try just one more U-turn, for luck, and allow him a visit after all to Sharm El-Sheikh for the climate change conference next month. Dear oh dear – now wouldn’t that be a turn up.