TORIES PLAN MASSIVE ATTACK
According to Steve Baker, Tory MP for Wycombe and de facto leader of the most right-wing parliamentary faction, Johnson is approaching checkmate. The Steve Baker faction want Johnson to go and be replaced by someone more right-wing, but all the factions—whether pro or anti-Johnson—are lined up behind the coming massive attack on living standards (with the exception of some concerns about tax increases). Even the pro-business Bloomberg site says Britain is ‘two months away from a brutal cost of living crisis.’
Britain’s acute cost-of-living crunch will hit in April, instantly stretching household and company budgets and penalizing the poorest households, many of which have already been most impacted by Covid-19.
The immediate concern that most Tory MPs have with Boris Johnson is not any real outrage at Number 10 partying while the rest of the country was in lockdown, but the realisation that the Conservatives face meltdown in the May 5 local elections, and that a general election is only two years away. Plummeting support in the so-called Red Wall constituencies raises the danger of the Tories losing scores of seats. There is nothing that motivates Conservative MPs more than the future of their careers.
The hard-right Brexiteers were central in bringing down Theresa May and Steve Baker’s principal lieutenant, Anthony Bridgen, has been one of the most prominent in urging Johnson to go—and in alleging bullying from the Tory Whips. These hard-right plotters seek an even more right-wing, hard-core free market, a policy that would thoroughly privatise the NHS and education, introduce a raft of anti-democratic laws and boost military spending even more, in line with Britain’s commitment to the AUKUS alliance in the Pacific (with the United States and Australia).
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng is calling for an investigation of stories that Tory MPs are being blackmailed and threatened by the Whips over opposition to Boris Johnson. This is a sure sign that the Britain Unchained authors—who include Kwarteng, Liz Truss, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab—are moving against Johnson behind the scenes.
There may be a few Tory MPs genuinely shocked by party gate revelations, but if Johnson is brought down, it will be the result of plotting by the party’s hard-right factions, including those around Steve Baker and the Britain Unchained Five.
Johnson’s latest move to win support among Tory MPs, the decision to abandon all Coivd restrictions, amounts to public health insanity and a massive attack on the NHS.
Johnson’s government and the right-wing papers and TV have been engaged in a systematic gaslighting operation, to suggest that because of the vaccination programme and the relative mildness of the Omicron variant (for most fit and young people), the pandemic is effectively over and normal life can resume. Mass spreader events, like packed sports grounds and packed nightclubs, can be allowed to operate without vaccine passports or negative tests. Thus a disease that is still killing people, having a detrimental impact on others health for months if not years and imprisoning those at greatest risk in their homes is to be allowed to circulate freely.
Conservative ministers and MPs know that this ‘herd immunity’ strategy will place intolerable pressure on the NHS, as ICUs get filled with emergency patients, and hundreds of thousands of non-Covid patients who need surgery and other urgent treatments have their procedures delayed. Intolerable pressure will be put on GP surgeries. In effect, the NHS is being thrown under a bus, just at the moment that Britain becomes the seventh country to ‘achieve’ 150,000 Covid deaths. The UK will be massively under-prepared if a new, more dangerous, variant strikes.
Soon Tory ministers will start a campaign saying the NHS is not fit for its purpose and more private care and insurance needs to be introduced. Putting the free prescription age up to 66 is a sign of what is to come.
The chronic mishandling of the pandemic comes at a time when working-class living standards are under sustained attack, one that will only get worse in the coming months. Inflation, fuelled by massive government spending on business support and furlough payments, is 5.4% and rising. Wages have increased by only 3.8% in the last year, lagging well behind inflation. Prices increases are higher for food and clothing, and energy prices are about to skyrocket. Price increases will be worsened by the government’s decision to raise an extra £14bn from National Insurance, a tax hitting all employed workers.
Inflation is also the consequence of Brexit, because of the severe shortage of HGV drivers to get the goods—especially food—to the shops and supermarkets in a timely way.
Gas prices are high because of shortages caused by massive demand from China and the slow way to renewables have come online. This could be ameliorated in the long term by speeding up renewables, but immediately households need massive support as their energy bills are set to increase by an unsustainable £1000 a year or more. Without this, many thousands will have their gas cut off for non-payment of their bills.
For many families, the rise in inflation and energy prices, in particular, is going to force them to choose between heating their houses and putting food on the table, something that will hit single-parent families particularly hard. This is coupled with the effects of the withdrawal of the £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit to produce a prices disaster for poorer households.
The cost of living crisis marks the deliberate Tory strategy of returning to austerity. Illusions early on in the pandemic that Rishi Sunak had turned aside from austerity and the free market, towards government support for workers have been dashed.
Conservative MPs know that the assault on living standards is going to result in a chronic decline in their support, especially in working-class areas, like most of the ‘Red Wall’ seats. For most Tories, the question is whether Boris Johnson will continue to be the election asset that he was during the Brexit referendum and the 2019 election. And whether any of the right-wing alternative leaders will prove more effective.
While the leadership crisis rumbles on, the UK government suffered important defeats in the House of Lords over its Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Fourteen clauses in the bill were defeated, including crucial proposed powers of the police to close down demonstrations that were too noisy or disruptive. This bill stems directly from government fury over the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations of 2021 and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020. In other words, an attempt to close down effective protest.
The defeats in the Lords were so massive, with former Tory ministers weighing in against the bill, that its future is now in doubt. Probably the government will abandon some of the harshest measures—for now. In particular, the right will be unable to re-introduce measures such as the ban on ‘locking on’ that were only introduced as amendments in the Lords and then defeated there. They will need to introduce entirely separate legislation to pursue these.
The character of the present government is also shown on the international and military fronts. Anti-tank missiles and army trainers have been sent to Ukraine. The number of Trident submarines is being increased from the current five to seven, and the government is committed to the building of a new generation of these weapons. British military planners and British-supplied aircraft continue to play a crucial role in Saudi Arabia’s brutal air campaign in Yemen; military action against the Houthi rebels in Yemen has been subcontracted to the British by the United States.
Overall, spending plans reveal a major turn towards prioritising the Navy, reflecting the turn towards the Indo-Pacific, and thus confronting China. The 2021 Parliamentary Defence Committee report argues ‘we are going to need a bigger navy’ and states that there are not enough small ships or (non-nuclear) submarines.
The response of the Labour leadership to the crisis has been beyond weak. Keir Starmer and his team have focused on the low-hanging fruit of Number 10 garden parties during the lockdown. These events, while illustrating the contempt for ordinary people in the Conservative leadership, are not the crucial issue.
Instead, Labour should be calling for the retention of Covid 19 safety regulations (including mask-wearing on public transport, in shops and other public places, and in schools); working from home where possible; massive new funding and recruitment to the NHS; sick pay, in particular, to keep pace with inflation, allowing Covid-infected workers to stay at home; new taxes to be swivelled toward taxing the rich; benefits and wages to keep pace with inflation. The latter requires backing unions making pay claims in line or higher than inflation.