Boris Johnson and Priti Patel in Surrey, July 2021. Photo: Number 10/Tim Hammond Boris Johnson and Priti Patel in Surrey, July 2021. Photo: Number 10/Tim Hammond

Lindsey German on Boris Johnson’s woes and our opportunities

Perhaps the most contemptible story of the week is the revelation by a whistleblower working for the firm processing visas for Ukrainian refugees that, while the government is publicly welcoming to them, the visa system is fixed to ensure that numbers are limited. This is done by granting visas to everyone in a family except one child, which in most cases means that the whole family is unable to come. You have to wonder at what sort of mind even thinks that up, let alone puts it into place.

You don’t need to wonder for long however, as it sums up the callousness, dishonesty and corruption that characterises not just Priti Patel at the Home Office but the whole Tory government. Boris Johnson is once again facing a major crisis over partygate, following a substantial rebellion by his own backbenchers last week when they were told to vote against a parliamentary inquiry into the affair. He has been able to avoid the calls to resign in recent months, claiming that he is doing important work around Ukraine and that he can’t be removed in wartime. Now, however, the war is something of a stalemate, and looks likely to be bogged down for a long time. In this situation, domestic politics are beginning to resurface and that can only be bad news for Johnson.

There is the whole scandal over Downing Street parties during lockdown, where Tory MPs are feeling a backlash from their constituents. The cost-of-living crisis is already hitting working class people hard. And we are only at the beginning. Inflation is rising and the pressure on food, rents, mortgages and energy costs is only going to get worse. Wage rises are well behind the level of inflation, so incomes are reduced. When they can’t cover the basic costs of essentials, then workers either take money from savings or they go into debt – and since savings are small or non-existent for millions of workers’ debt will grow.

This accounts for the widespread worry and anger about rising prices. It is not something that seriously bothers the Johnson government. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who refused to take any serious measures to alleviate the cost-of-living crisis, is the richest MP in parliament. His Kensington house (one of many) is worth £6.6 million, according to the Mail which no doubt knows about these things. The cabinet is stuffed full of millionaires. And they are determined to follow policies which favour employers, landlords and business rather than those who produce the wealth.

The anger felt against Johnson on the Tory backbenches reflects an uneasy sense that these policies are growing deeply unpopular and that Johnson’s luck has run out. We should not feel any sympathy for them. They have voted for him repeatedly. They have justified policies from cutting pensions and benefits in real terms to the plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. They have repeatedly supported his jingoism and flag waving over Ukraine, as if Johnson were some sort of war hero rather than the lying opportunist that he actually is. Now however they see the writing on the wall and fear that their own electoral prospects are in danger.

Johnson succeeded in winning over the ‘red wall’ seats over Brexit and over more long-term discontent in Labour ‘rotten boroughs’. The danger for him now is that these overwhelmingly working-class seats will go back to Labour. But even in the Tory areas where it seems almost impossible for them to lose, there is widespread discontent. The government is seen, rightly, as believing its own laws do not apply to its own members and their friends. It is contemptuous of public services – ministers use private medicine and private schools, mix with the rich and powerful who run private industry, and have presided over the worst housing crisis for generations. This impacts on a lot of Tory voters as well.

The result of this discontent is a huge political disconnect between government and governed. This applies to the opposition as well. The left in Labour are heartily sick of Starmer who is ditching any supposedly ‘Corbynite’ policies (like nationalisation of energy companies) at every opportunity. The bipartisan approach on questions from Covid to war has allowed Johnson a free pass when he should have been under much more attack. While Labour’s poll ratings have improved it is still a long way from winning an election. So the discontent is not finding a voice. The TUC demo on 18 June should be building into a huge riposte to government policies but little sign of that so far.

Nonetheless, the scale of the various crises is such that the discontent will find an outlet. The left should do everything to ensure it goes in our direction, which means support for the strikes and protests and alternatives to the policies of Labour and Tories alike where they expect us to pay for the crisis.

Biden and Johnson talk war abroad to escape unpopularity at home 

The daily calls for more weapons to be sent to Ukraine reflect both the stalemate in the war itself and the determination particularly of the British and US governments that the war should continue until Russia’s defeat and their refusal to countenance serious peace talks. Johnson’s remark on his way to India that ‘I think it’s very hard to see how the Ukrainians can negotiate with Putin now, given his manifest lack of good faith. How can you negotiate with a crocodile when it has your leg in its jaws?’ demonstrates his contempt for any negotiation, even though talks have been going on and some agreement reached. The alternative is even further loss of life through the war continuing. Yet every day there are reports of more weapons being sent to Ukraine, and of promises of further escalation. Biden and Johnson both try to burnish their military credentials to cope with dwindling domestic approval ratings.

Already the military and politicians are talking about ‘being prepared for war’ – read accepting the possible use of nuclear weapons – and raising the rate of GDP spent on military to 3% or even 5%. This will both dramatically increase the impact and influence of the military on British society and the number of weapons being produced. It is not liberal pacifism to oppose this but a well-founded belief that such moves would lead to further wars and more misery for millions of people. Socialists are not opposed to wars as such but modern warfare threatens the possibility of mass extermination. The supposedly left armchair generals believe that you can have arms without the consequences of war, or militarism without that strengthening right wing ideas. They are wrong.

It might sound alarmist to talk about the First World War when discussing Ukraine, but there are too many similarities to ignore. One is the way that military alliances – comparable to today’s Nato – don’t stop war but make it more likely. Another is the way in which politics and diplomacy aren’t neutral in the run up to war. They are a battle between those who want to intervene and those who do not. I was reminded of this by rereading Douglas Newton’s book The Darkest Days which describes this process in Britain in July/August 1914. Exactly the same process is going on today. And it creates growing dangers.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.