Local election results mean three flagships have now been sunk in the past month: Westminster, Wandsworth, and the Moskva. Along with Barnet, the loss of those first two councils has contributed to the Conservatives’ London results being described as a “meltdown”, perhaps appropriately. During recent public appearances, Boris Johnson has looked like a novelty Boris Johnson candle left next to a radiator. Key to his survival will be the fact that you can’t afford to turn on the heating any more. In the capital, the prime minister is now about as popular as a no-fault eviction or eye contact on the tube. The Tories have even lost Mayfair, calling into question their strategy of impounding voters’ yachts.
Outside London, it’s a rather more “mixed” picture for Labour. Keir Starmer prides himself on looking ready for court, but arguably needs to graduate from looking like the worried defendant in a photocopier-leasing scam. Durham police have just sensationally announced they will investigate the Labour leader’s campaign drinks – but maybe the real Beergate will turn out to be the fact that he doesn’t seem like the sort of guy people particularly want to have a beer with. One standout criticism you keep hearing is that Starmer’s “not going to set the world on fire” – a reminder that “Let’s burn it all down!” has actually been a vote-winner in the UK for the past few electoral cycles. At dawn, Labour were briefing the line that this was a “turning point election”, a description that really brings to life the 37-point-turn manoeuvre the party has been faultlessly executing since 2010.
In news not unrelated to the above state of play for the two main parties, it was a very good night for the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. Looking ahead, set your watch for the “coalition of chaos” warnings from some of the most chaotic politicians outside of Rome’s first civil war.
Back to the prime minister, though, and reports he told aides ahead of the count that “we are going to get our arse kicked tonight”. “Our” arse? It does feel par for the course that Johnson is unable to take responsibility even for the arse. Far from the glutinous gluteals being attached to him personally, the arse is a collective backside that is shared, like a Netflix subscription, or blame in a tragic personal injury case.
Meanwhile, it’s a measure of the clue-free zone in which the stricken country now finds itself that the eve of polling saw chatter that Johnson could be contemplating a snap election. That would bring us up to four general elections in a period of seven years, at which point the idea that we aren’t having some kind of constitutional nervous breakdown would feel slightly harder to sustain. Calling an election when you won an 80-seat majority not much more than two years ago feels like the equivalent of having a baby to keep your marriage together. A baby with your wife, I mean, not some art consultant or heavily injuncted Jane Doe.
Then again, it’s said that some in the cabinet don’t even want part of their majority any more. On Thursday, it was reported that attorney general and acclaimed quarterwit Suella Braverman recently told Johnson he should expel “disloyal” Conservative MPs. Maybe the strategy of relying on Tory members of parliament being exposed as sex cases feels like it’s running down the majority too slowly. Having said that, at the current rate it’s possible that all Suella needs is a little patience.
But as the Bank of England forecasts double-digit inflation and that the UK could plunge into recession, there will be some old-fashioned/idealistic/desperate people wondering: where are the ideas? What on earth is the plan? The government’s entire policy programme currently amounts to a small timeshare hotel in Rwanda and George Eustice’s suggestion that people might want to give supermarket value ranges a go. It all feels like busywork, the appearance of action. Far from attempting to shape events, the government seems to wait for them to turn up – good or bad – and then react to them. They remind me a lot of a newsdesk – perhaps inevitably, considering the country took the bold decision to elect a newspaper journalist to run it. Hard to think of a worse-run business we could pick the next leader from. A football club, perhaps, or a care home chain.
Speaking of torpedoed flagships, whatever happened to levelling up, the supposedly overarching policy of the current administration? It ended up being one day in February, when Michael Gove reannounced a number of existing things as though they were new. Come to that, whatever happened to Michael Gove? The secretary of state for levelling up would have more visibility in a witness protection programme.
I own a wonderful book about fantastical buildings that never ended up being built. I’m thinking of reshelving it alongside the 2015, 2017 and 2019 Conservative party manifestos, which contain a vast number of policies that never made it past the blueprint stage. 2015 promised seven-day GP access, and devoted a mere seven words to £12bn of welfare cuts. Three times as many words were given to their policy on polar bears. 2017 promised something other than the entire body politic convulsing over nothing but Brexit for more than two years. 2019 – well, how’s that working out for ya? Only against these yardsticks could those snap election rumours make a lunatic sort of sense. In the real world, it’s just possible that the solution to a number of acute challenges might be more complex than repeatedly switching the UK off then on again.