So bumptious Boris is back to his bounciest and most boisterous best, particularly at performing U-turns. Overdoing the alliteration seems an appropriate way to pay deference to a man whose rhetoric overdoes everything, most of the time including the truth. Suitably socially-distanced Boris watchers (health warning: only for those with their blood-pressure medication close to hand) might well be asking themselves whether Boris’s very obvious disorientation is the result of his making himself dizzy with so many U-turns in such a short time, or whether the U-turns are the result of his having no idea where he was going in the first place and simply being comprehensively lost. Those of us who are old enough to remember what my grandchildren would regard as ‘the olden days’ before sat-navs were invented will probably remember the latter feeling, although we were fortunate enough not to have a visually-impaired Dominic Cummings in the back seat telling us where to go. Watching Boris’s blunderings and speculating about their origins may not be a particularly productive or spiritually fulfilling way of spending one’s time in lockdown, but it can become compulsive.
The list of U-turns is impressive, indeed, dare I say it, potentially ‘world-beating’: vouchers for free school meals during the summer holidays; binning our ‘world-beating’ tracking and tracing app.; relenting on all primary school children being back in school before the summer holidays; reversing the decisions on the NHS surcharge and the bereavement scheme; remote voting in the House of Commons; and the imposition of the blanket quarantine. And those are just the ones that come immediately to mind. Those are, however, just details: the Grand-daddy of them all, which Boris has been ‘doubling down’ on again today, is the gargantuan Tory U-turn on ‘austerity’. The other U-turns, which have to do to what are essentially mere details, were forced on an unthinking government, both congenitally and ideologically averse to consultation with anybody, least of all unions and local councils, by public pressure. This one, which involves borrowing at historically low interest-rates in order to spend our way out of recession and mass unemployment by investing in infrastructure, “Building, building, building”, suggests that there is, after all, a glimmer of intelligence, a flickering candle, somewhere in the pea-soup fog of collective Tory intelligence.
As the Keynesian economists they obdurately refused to listen to have been telling them for the last decade, that is what they should have been doing ever since the recession in 2008. If they had gone down that road, they could have avoided the untold misery, anxiety, poverty and cultural impoverishment their ideological obsession with shrinking the state has occasioned: the closing of youth and child services; the forcing of tens of thousands into the humiliation of having to rely on food-banks; the closing of municipal libraries; the strangling of the justice system; the denial of adequate funding to the NHS, which occasioned the lack of PPE and caused how many deaths? The list goes on and on and on. And, even in deciding on the U-turn, Boris still can’t bring himself to be entirely honest: “We are absolutely not going back to the austerity of 10 years ago,” he told the Sunday Times today. ‘The austerity of the last 10 years’, to which he gave every evidence of being wholly committed, would have been more honest.
Now, with his invariably tone-deaf timing, bouncy Boris declares his commitment to ‘Building, building, building’ at the precise moment his housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, is coming under increasing pressure for overruling Tower Hamlet officials, who apparently begged him not to give a last-minute go-ahead to Richard Desmond’s application to get ‘building, building, building’ a one billion pound housing development, involving 1500 houses, in an already overcrowded part of Tower Hamlets in London. Having sat next to Desmond at a dinner, and allegedly watched a promotional video for the development, Jenrick is alleged to have overruled planning objections the day before Desmond would have been obliged to pay £45 million in extra developer’s contributions to the Labour-run Tower Hamlets council. Desmond subsequently sent Jenrick a message thanking him for his speedy response and for saving him from having to pay ‘loads of doe (sic)’ to ‘the Marxists’. It will, of course, have been entirely coincidental that Desmond then made a £12,000 donation to the Conservative Party. But a mere twelve grand is peanuts in the grand scale of things: the Independent reported yesterday that the Tories have received a total of £11 million in donations from building magnates in the six months since Boris became prime minister. Who, any longer, wonders why?
T.S. Eliot has Becket say in his Christmas sermon in Murder in the Cathedral: ‘The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.’ In clinging on desperately to avoid losing Dominic Cummings, Boris was very clearly doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason: he is wholly dependent on Cummings to run the country for us. In regarding the Jenrick matter as ‘closed’ (according to Priti Patel, who would know) he is laying himself open to the very strong imputation that his commitment to “building, building, building” is a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Infrastructure projects, as anyone who has ever managed them knows full well, leave all sorts of opportunities for corruption and sleaze.
In his bouncily boyish way, Boris has been trying to demonstrate to the world that he is back to his best, but perhaps only managing to give the impression that he is, in P.G. Woodhouse terminology, a bounder. Today he has told us that he is ‘fit as a butcher’s dog’ and we’ve been regaled with unedifying footage of his backside as he did press-ups for the benefit of the Mail on Sunday to prove it. While many of us would be only too pleased to see his back, I don’t imagine that too many people want to be shown his backside as an accompaniment to Sunday dinner. Boris may well be ‘fit as a butcher’s dog’, although how many press-ups he managed wasn’t mentioned. Some of the women who know him best may, for all we know, also consider him to be as randy as a butcher’s dog and to have the moral compass of a butcher’s dog. His apparent inability to see anything whatever wrong with Cummings’ and Jenrick’s behaviour might suggest to some people that he also has the ethics of a butcher’s dog. But, however fit he may or may not be, best not to enter him in the butcher’s dog category at Crufts (‘The World’s Greatest Dog-show’) until someone has, at the very least, groomed him. There are times when I get the impression that Crufts isn’t even in the same league when it comes to the world’s greatest dog-show.