If this Westminster government had a theme tune, it would surely be January February by Fife’s finest, Barbara Dickson.
And, yes, January February is now your earworm for the day. It’ll make a change from We Don’t Talk About Bruno.
(The latter may be currently famous as Disney’s first and only number one record, but it’s surely destined for notoriety alongside Welcome to the Jungle by Guns N’ Roses and the work of Barney the purple dinosaur as the sort of track that appears on playlists compiled by US special forces to torture terrorists and drive dictators from their palaces.)
Ever since this government got elected in 2019, it’s been events in January and February that have set the tone for the rest of the political year. And how Boris Johnson and his team have responded has been entirely telling.
Human lives trump Boris Johnson’s political future
Two years ago, Covid was on the march across the globe and this administration chose largely to ignore it until well into March. Johnson skipped meetings of the emergency Cobra committee and publicly boasted of how the virus would not cause the UK to veer from its Brexit-fuelled path.
Twelve months later, that was exposed as arrant nonsense in the most awful way. We were locked down, and tens of thousands had died in the interim. The government was expending all its bandwidth on trying to find a way out, in pursuit of normality.
This year, Boris Johnson has his normality. He has repealed the remaining Covid laws and told the English population to essentially do what they like.
We may yet learn, via the Metropolitan Police or Sue Gray, that Johnson has been doing as he liked throughout. It is remarkable how the PM and his cabinet are unable or unwilling to preempt the findings of either the police or civil service investigation into “partygate”, yet they will happily preempt the findings of the official inquiry into the pandemic that is due to get underway soon, by insisting the government made the right call at every turn.
That’s obviously untrue. And, while the work of the Metropolitan cops and/or Sue Gray may determine Johnson’s political future, the official Covid inquiry concerns life and death for British citizens. One deserves more respect than the other.
A tale of accumulated buffoonery
The last two years have been a tale of accumulated buffoonery. It’s as if ministers lack the intellectual capacity to conceive of a new reality, to ponder genuinely building back better, and instead they seek to put things back the way they were.
It’s entirely remarkable that, in early 2020, Boris Johnson was boasting about shaking hands in hospitals, and that Chancellor Rishi Sunak devoted only half his Budget speech to countering Covid
But we can’t ignore or undo everything that’s happened in the last two years. Boris Johnson’s approach feels like that of a man who has had an affair, been found out and, instead of trying to create a new relationship with his wife that both acknowledges his mistakes and values what is good and strong, breezily dismisses what’s occurred and demands everyone carries on as before. Boris Johnson is on his third marriage.
It’s the mindset of a toddler. Demanding the world must change to accommodate them rather than learning and growing and understanding that certain things, particularly other people’s emotions, are beyond your control but ought to be taken into account.
It’s that failure to think and inability to learn that is most concerning, and that condemns this government to repeat its mistakes.
It’s entirely remarkable that, in early 2020, Boris Johnson was boasting about shaking hands in hospitals, and that Chancellor Rishi Sunak devoted only half his Budget speech to countering Covid. Within days, Sunak would have to rip up his plans and direct essentially unlimited funding towards saving the economy.
And, this year, here we are again. We can’t know yet whether the decision to strike out Covid laws is premature. There’s certainly potentially a future in which the virus gets away from us again and, within weeks, the government is once more scrambling to contain it.
‘You only say the things you want to hear’
There is another threat that is obvious and imminent, however. And the government is ignoring it.
The cost of living crisis has been coming down the track for months. It’s manifesting now, as fuel bills rocket and inflation inexorably rises. And it’s going to get worse in April, when tax rises take effect.
January and February would be the time to plan ahead and act against the impacts. To insulate those on fixed incomes, particularly pensioners, from running out of cash.
Yet, the Westminster government chooses to look the other way, and appears unable to anticipate the coming storm. Before the tulips are in bloom, they will be forced to act. It’s an eerie echo of 2020.
The very first line that Barbara Dickson sings at the start of January February is: “You only say the things you want to hear.” That was never meant as policy advice.
James Millar is a political commentator, author and a former Westminster correspondent for The Sunday Post