Déjà Boris

I guess an indication that one is living through a true political crisis is when things that seem inconceivable one day appear to be inevitable the next. Thus it is that the country is bracing itself for the return of Boris Johnson to the head of government.

It’s not quite a done deal, as there are plenty in the influential circles of his party who recoil at the prospect of Johnson’s rehabilitation, but he does look likely to secure the 100 nominations that would probably be enough to put him into a head-to-head contest with Rishi Sunak. Since the final decision will once again be taken by the Conservative membership, the body that saw no problem with Prime Minister Liz Truss, Boris may soon be settling back into Number 10.

Would this development make a general election more or less likely? Johnson can just about plausibly claim that no vote is needed, as he already has a mandate from the public, which would offer nervous Tory MPs some hope that they could avoid a reckoning with the electorate until their poll numbers were a little less catastrophic. Whether the country would stand for that is another question of course; I for one would be out on the streets should we be denied an opportunity to express our democratic judgment on the situation, and I’m sure many of my fellow citizens feel the same. The country would become ungovernable, at just the time when some competent government is needed to avoid disaster.

As has been the case on many occasions in the last few years, we are left to hope that those in power have the wisdom to put aside narrow interests and do what is right for the whole population. Since our experience has been that they invariably do not, we would perhaps be better to start thinking about securing the power to do so ourselves.

Detrussed

So it turns out that fear of the electoral consequences of ditching a second leader this year was not enough to reconcile Conservative MPs to a continuing Liz Truss premiership. After 24 hours of chaos notable even by recent standards she has gone, her 45 days in office at least giving her a place in the record books as the UK’s shortest-serving Prime Minister.

What now? We are promised an accelerated contest with a new PM before the end of the month, which the Tory Party hierarchy clearly hopes will lead to the coronation of a unity candidate, but which seems equally likely to provoke an escalation of internecine strife. The fact that the return of Boris Johnson is being talked of as a realistic option is an indication of how far from sanity conservative political discourse has strayed. Even if by some miracle someone like Penny Mordaunt emerges from the rubble at the head of a semi-united parliamentary party, it is far from clear that they will be able to either calm the markets or effectively govern the country.

The opposition, the people, and the basic principles of bourgeois democracy are calling out for a general election. Unless the first act of the next Prime Minister is to call one then this crisis will have no end in sight.

On borrowed time

As predicted in this space – and, to be fair, by everyone else who had paid attention for more than 5 minutes – Liz Truss has been forced into a humiliating reverse on her signature tax-cuts policy, jettisoning Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng for good measure.

Any hopes Truss may have had that this display of relative sanity might calm the markets, or quell the discontent within her parliamentary party, seem set to be dashed, as gilt yields have continued to climb, and talk of a challenge to her leadership has if anything intensified. The only thing that might save her is Tory MPs’ instinct for self preservation; few of them would relish facing the general election that would surely be demanded by the nation if they tried to impose yet another new PM upon us.

So I expect that some face-saving compromise will be arranged whereby Truss is allowed to stay in Number 10 for a slightly more respectable period of time before bowing out, on the understanding that real power will lie with new Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and other representatives of Conservative orthodoxy. Since they are exactly the people responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place I’m not optimistic that the lights will stay on this winter…

Truss twists

Liz Truss is making good progress towards her avowed ambition of emulating Tory deity Margaret Thatcher, but unfortunately for her she seems to have skipped over the Iron Lady’s glory years, and gone straight to running into trouble with an ill-advised fiscal policy.

Opinion in the press is divided on whether this development represents a fatal blow to the Truss premiership, with liberal commentators predicting she will be gone by Christmas, while their conservative counterparts try to play the episode down as a mere bump on the road to the libertarian utopia.

My take, for what it’s worth, is that Truss will survive this rocky start, and hold on until the next election, which I think may be sooner than expected, though probably not before next summer. That’s plenty of time to do more damage, like starting a renewed round of austerity just as the country dips into recession, or carrying on a cold war with the EU over Northern Ireland. Or she could abruptly change course on either issue, who knows? We should move beyond reacting to the confused floundering of the bourgeoisie, and just get on with organising to look after our own class interests instead.

Sterling work

Regular readers will know that I am fond of waxing nostalgic about the early 90s, when I was young and carefree, so perhaps I should be grateful that the government has chosen to stir up memories of that era by arranging a rerun of the 1992 Sterling crisis.

As I recall, that particular debacle came to a head a week or so before I took a trip to the US, somewhat curtailing my spending power, so I’m glad that this time around I’ve had my summer holiday before the pound started flirting with dollar parity. That’s about the only bright spot though, as Kwasi Kwarteng’s horribly misjudged mini-budget threatens to deepen the coming recession into a full-blown depression.

The gloomiest forecasts are predicting that interest rates will have to go up to around 6% to arrest the fall in sterling, with the resulting increase in mortgage costs set to hit the middle-class bedrock of Tory support particularly hard, so political reality suggests that Liz Truss will perform a signature U-turn and adopt a marginally more sustainable fiscal policy. Failing that, we might have a new Prime Minister even sooner than expected.

Fiscally reckless

So, after months of inaction occasioned by the Tory Party indulging in one of its regular bouts of internecine warfare, and a further delay for some feudal mourning rituals, today the Government finally got around to unveiling a plan to tackle the looming financial crisis.

There had been some expectation that newly-minted Prime Minister Liz Truss, free of the need to pander to the assorted oddballs who comprise the Conservative membership, would come up with something semi-sensible, a hope encouraged by the fact that she had shown some ability to recognise political reality by abandoning her “no handouts” approach to the energy bill emergency and adopting a price freeze strategy, albeit one financed by debt rather than taxes on the power sector.

Alas, it turns out that Truss, and her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, are even further down the neoliberal rabbit hole than was feared. The budget presented this morning, featuring tax cuts unapologetically targeted towards the wealthy, with wildly unrealistic projections of economic growth which will supposedly compensate for the resulting deficit, has not only dismayed the mass of the electorate who are not going to benefit from the abolition of the top tax rate, but also caused panic in the financial markets, sending the pound to a 35-year low against the dollar. Commentary in the press has been overwhelmingly negative, comparing the plan to the infamous “Barber Boom” of the early 1970s, an attempt by Edward Heath’s government to kick-start the economy by aggressively cutting taxes, which ended with the ignominy of an IMF bailout.

Truss seems to be betting that this time the trickle-down strategy will finally work, and that everyone will have forgotten about all the unpleasantness by the time the next election comes around. Since that poll is at most two years away, that is quite a gamble. The stake for Truss is her premiership; if she wants to wager that on a long shot I guess she can, but the stakes for the nation are so much higher that it’s hard to view this reckless course of action with equanimity.

All is not lost though; the scale of the crisis and the obvious inadequacy of the government response is provoking a backlash, as workers are forced into action to defend even a basic standard of living. The country is set to become ungovernable unless there is a change of course; one can only hope it comes before too much more pain is inflicted.

Jean-Luc Godard RIP

The Grim Reaper has been busy in the last few weeks, claiming some genuinely significant figures; first Mikhail Gorbachev, now Jean-Luc Godard.

You may not be surprised to learn that I watched a lot of Godard’s Nouvelle Vague films when I was a student, but I have to admit that, À Bout de Souffle, Bande à Part, and Alphaville apart, they have pretty much merged in my mind into one long, disjointed montage of coolly alienated young garçons et filles pursuing doomed relationships in a monochrome Paris. Of his later work I’m fairly sure that I’ve seen Prénom Carmen, but I can’t recall much about it.

When it comes to cinematic milieus, I probably lean more towards 70s New York than 60s Paris (while recognising that without the influence of Godard it’s unlikely that Scorsese would have made the films he did) but, that said, I still think that Michel Poiccard makes a infinitely more appealing role model than Travis Bickle, so there’s no doubt that Jean-Luc’s reputation as a genius auteur is fully justified.

Elizabeth Windsor RIP

Well, this has turned out to be quite a week of change for the UK; a new Prime Minister and a new monarch within the space of two days.

Of course the former has become so commonplace recently that it’s hardly worth commenting upon, but the latter is a novel experience for just about the whole population, so it’s difficult to know how the country will react. It’s the sort of thing that feels like a bad omen, especially given the general sense of gloom that has been pervading the nation lately, but on the other hand the immediate response of most of my (admittedly unrepresentative) associates has been to look forward to some extra public holidays, so perhaps the net effect will be to lighten the popular mood somewhat.

Whatever; I expect we’ll have to plod through a week or two of somber music and public lamentation, though hopefully it will be a little more dignified than the mass hysteria that broke out when Mrs Windsor’s ex-daughter-in-law passed away. There might even be a reasoned debate about the future of the monarchy, though that perhaps is too much to hope for…

Power crisis

I’ve been trying to think of a metaphor for the current state of the nation that doesn’t involve some mode of transportation heading for disaster, but it’s tough. A ship, the captain drunk and the junior officers fighting amongst themselves, steaming straight on to the rocks, a train speeding towards the buffers, the driver asleep at the switch, or an autonomous vehicle careering along a cliff edge, the AI heedless of the danger. In each scenario the passengers can do little but look on, aghast, bracing themselves for the inevitable collision.

If we go with the nautical analogy, then I guess the announcement last week that domestic energy prices will be more or less doubling in October would be an iceberg floating into the doomed vessel’s path, a development for which the authorities seem completely unprepared, despite the fact that it was sighted months ago.

The interminable process by which the 0.3% of the UK electorate who are members of the Conservative Party choose our next Prime Minister is thankfully almost at an end, but I am not at all sure that the installation of a new regime in Number 10 will result in much more in the way of decisive leadership. There is a general assumption, in the liberal press at least, that Liz Truss will win, and that, once in power, she will shed the performative Thatcherism that she had to adopt to get elected, but which nobody, not even her Tory audience, and least of all herself, actually believes is a coherent response to the current crisis. Even if she is morally unmoved by the prospect of a sizeable section of the population slipping into destitution, the economic and political calculations all point towards the necessity of state action to offer at least some relief to the voting public.

And yet… If the last decade of UK politics has taught us anything, it’s that no policy is too bone-headed or self-defeating that the government won’t at least consider enacting it. Respond to the most significant cost of living crisis in half a century by cutting Corporation Tax and trusting in the magic of trickle-down economics? Why not?

I’m fortunate that I’m in a position to be fairly passive about this; I can absorb the extra costs, so I feel no pressing need to do anything more active than posting some mildly acerbic pieces on my little-read blog. Others are obliged to be more militant; the current wave of strikes seems certain to spread, as workers are forced to defend their already precarious standard of living, and talk of civil unrest, and even riots, is uncomfortably plausible.

So, despite the evidence to the contrary, I remain hopeful that our ruling class retains enough common sense to realise that inaction is not an option, and that they will do just enough to get us through the winter without mass starvation. Some kind of deficit fund to subsidise a power bill freeze looks likely, especially if it can be structured in a way that funnels big fees into the pockets of Tory cronies.

Of course that will be just a temporary patch, and will do nothing to fix the structural problems that leave the country vulnerable to the vagaries of the international energy markets, so the reckoning is only being postponed for a few months. It’s time that will make the difference between life and death for many of our citizens though, and it will give us a chance to get a bit more organised, and push for a proper solution, so I guess we have to take any breaks we can get.

Recession gloom

So, I’m back from the US, after a pleasantly extended sojourn spent catching up with old friends, revisiting past haunts, and exploring some new ones. Naturally enough a lot had changed since my last visit back in the 90s, but there was enough reassuring familiarity that I was able to properly relax. Apart from some anticipatory anxiety as I stood in line at immigration, I can’t recall a single tense moment. I guess it helps that I’ve slowed down a bit over the last 30 years, and am content to spend a whole morning taking a gentle stroll through a gallery, or sitting outside a cafe watching the world go by, rather than rushing around trying to see every attraction on offer in whatever locale I happen to be passing through. If I did have a minor complaint, it was that the cost of living was much higher than I remembered – $30 for a beer and a burrito! – though I suspect this is mainly because I stayed in nice hotels and ate at classy restaurants, unlike my younger self, who was happy with grubby hostels and cheap burgers. I tip more these days too.

Anyway, back to reality. I had planned to have a bit more downtime before returning to work, but the latest news on the economy has spooked me a bit, and I’m thinking that I should probably get some money coming in sooner rather than later. I might be more relaxed if I had any confidence in the government, but since our nominal Prime Minister has chosen to spend his final days in office sulking rather than running the country, as his would-be successors vie for the hearts and votes of Tory party members by promising ever more outlandish fantasies of low taxes and reactionary social policy, it seems likely that things will get very much worse before they get any better.

Of course any worries I might have are insignificant compared with those facing the 50%+ of the population who are forecast to find themselves in fuel poverty going into the winter. It seems inconceivable that the political pressure generated by such widespread hardship will fail to push whoever ends up in Number 10 into some sort of action to inject some more spending power into the economy, whatever fears they may have about the effect that might have on inflation. Some combination of price controls and a boost to Universal Credit would probably cover it, but that may be too much to hope for, and a limited expansion of the already-announced fuel credits is a more likely outcome.

It remains to be seen whether the Tories, following their instinct for self-preservation, will unite behind their new leader, or if continuing internecine conflict will tempt Truss/Sunak to seek a personal mandate from a General Election. From a democratic viewpoint that would be a welcome development, but I suspect that dealing with a fractious party for a couple of years while hoping the economy picks up will look like the lesser evil when compared to inviting the judgement of the electorate in the midst of a cost of living crisis, so there will be no semi-competent technocratic administration riding over the hill to save us any time soon.

And these are just our local problems – I haven’t even touched on the war in Ukraine, US-China tensions, Middle East instability, climate change… I may need another trip to the calming oceanside sooner than I think.

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