Iain Macwhirter: Starmer is boring, but Tories have completely succumbed to Brexit Derangement Syndrome


Why did Tory rebels hold their no-confidence vote ahead of this week’s expected bloodbath in the Wakefield and Tiverton by-elections? This intrigued Boris watchers. Perhaps they feared that they had won if they had waited.

The problem with the conservative permabellion is that the rebels still don’t have a credible alternative leader. No thrusting competitor, no white knight, not even a half-decent hunting horse. Rishi is too rich; Hunting too dull; Sajid too flaky; and Liz Truss is, well, Liz Truss. Who else? Ben Wallace?

It’s going to be a hot week for number 10. And there have been many hot weeks during Boris Johnson’s crazy ride in number 10. This week seems like the perfect time to throw it away, except they can’t not.

Never has the scarcity of leadership talent in British politics been so glaring.

A tousled-haired loser with a problematic relationship to the truth is still, after everything that’s happened, on track to lead his party into the next election. And maybe win.

Boris best option?

This is what is starting to worry Labor now that the partygate line has died down. An Opinium poll in the Observer last week suggested Boris Johnson is still seen as a better candidate for prime minister than the Labor leader by 28% to 26%.

No, I didn’t believe it either. But economic chaos, and even a cost-of-living crisis, doesn’t necessarily translate into support for the left. Remember 1979.

Industrial chaos and public sector unions demanding double-digit wage increases may also tip voters to the conservative dark side. Eighty percent of workers work in the mostly non-union private sector and cannot easily withdraw from their jobs. That’s why Keir Starmer tries desperately not to give the impression that he supports the strikes even if he does.

A number of Labor MPs also fear that Sir Keir is indeed a lawyer and not a leader, as Boris Johnson once described him. Last week, Starmer had to appeal to shadow cabinet figures to stop him calling himself “boring.” Can you imagine Tony Blair ever having to do that?.

MPs for Congresswoman Angela Rayner want Starmer to show up in ‘more fit’. Potential rivals like the insistent mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, ask what Starmer stands for, what is his vision?

It’s a difficult question to answer because most of what the Labor leader should stand for has been borrowed by Boris Johnson.

Raising taxes to their highest level since 1950 and boosting growth by wartime levels of government borrowing leave a moderate social democrat with little to say about the economy.

Nor is there clear red water on the NHS, the left’s other touchstone policy. Health is expected to consume 44% of all UK civil service current expenditure by 2024, according to the IFS.

Boris Johnson’s pledge for 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035 is as ambitious as anything Labor has offered.

Backbench Anger

THE PM has infuriated many Tory backbenchers by imposing a windfall tax on energy companies – a blatant Labour rip-off.

But perhaps Labor just needs to keep their cool because Johnson’s brand of spendthrift Green Toryism has almost reached its limit. It is an anomaly and extremely expensive. Britain is now stuck in an inflationary spiral of low growth, high taxation and falling, with little scope for tax cuts or increased spending.

Hard Brexiteers, like Lord Frost and Steve Baker of the European Research Group (ERG), would have accepted Johnson’s agenda if Brexit had worked.

But this is not the case. Project Fear came true as trade and the pound fell. Tory backbenchers were quite keen on giving working families a material reward for leaving the EU. Higher wages, more jobs, less immigration.

They wanted to show that the NHS could be improved by spending the £300million a week that was supposed to go to Brussels.

Brexiters also believed that free trade, and things like the release of genetically modified crops, would quickly reduce the cost of living after Britain left the protectionist club of the EU. The reverse happened.

Inflation is heading towards 11% and the OECD expects UK growth to stall. On the contrary, he confirmed that leaving the single market was an exercise in national self-harm.

As many of us expected, the EU has been ruthlessly determined to impose bureaucratic non-tariff barriers on British goods. Trucks traveling to Northern Ireland have to complete 70 voluminous forms, even though the province is part of the UK.

Brussels could, of course, make the Irish protocol more manageable with goodwill. But Brussels is not in business with Boris Johnson, whom they see as a right-wing nationalist.

Eurocrats are determined to show that leaving the EU was a mistake. They see the Tory Party crisis as a vindication of their strategy of ‘punishing bad behaviour’, as former Tory cabinet minister David Gauke, who backs the rest, put it last week. Britain is on the wrong track throughout.

So Boris’ psychodrama continues as the Conservative Party descends into Brexit Derangement Syndrome – a terminal condition evidenced by a lack of coherent vision at a time of national crisis.

Johnson’s enemies are no longer just hard-line Remainers, but also radical Leavers, desperate to make Brexit work. Dominic Cummings still plays the Joker. The result will be a summer of Conservative discontent as Boris Johnson tries to please everyone and ends up pleasing no one.

Scrap ‘green shit’?

In any case, it looks like the end of the liberal and spendthrift phase of the Johnson government. The good demand for tax cuts, the Northern Ireland protocol gutted and net zero climate targets scrapped. Number 10 is trying to appease them by removing “green shit” like rewilding, passing the NI bill, sending boat people to Rwanda and removing the human rights law.

Johnson’s circle was jubilant when a judge at the European Court of Human Rights blocked the first flight of illegal asylum seekers to Rwanda. It has diverted attention from the inconvenient reality that immigration to the UK is higher than ever despite Brexit.

The apparent reason for abandoning reseeding is that the UK needs land for crops and food security following the Russian seizure of Ukrainian grain. But perhaps surprisingly, Britain is actually self-sufficient in many foods, including wheat, oats and barley.

Nor would national insurance tax cuts make much of a difference in the cost of living crisis, as the right seems to believe. The most obvious solution to the UK’s trade blockade could be to use the Ukraine crisis as a cover to quietly join the EU single market, as Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood has advised. It will not happen.

The Brexit right wanted Britain to become a low-tax, low-regulation warehouse to undermine the EU and boost exports. A plausible economic plan, perhaps, but not one for Boris Johnson.

The Prime Minister is an English nationalist, but he is also part of the liberal tradition of British conservatism in a line that goes from Disraeli to Harold Macmillan via Carrie Johnson.

Environmentalism is a key element of Johnson’s New Keynesian economics. Singapore-on-Thames is not.


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