Given the employee calibre and attrition rate of this government, it’s always a heart-in-mouth moment when they unleash a previously unheard-of minister on the airwaves. Much like the bit in the Simpsons where Mr Burns releases the winged monkeys from his window with a hopeful “Fly, my pretties – fly!”. When thuds and bloodcurdling shrieks follow, he turns to his retainer, Smithers, with the curt instruction: “Continue the research.”
Perhaps No 10’s comms geniuses felt this way when they debuted the hitherto deservedly obscure safeguarding minister, Rachel Maclean, on to Monday’s breakfast shows to discuss the cost of living crisis. Who knows why the random nitwit generator machine had made it Rachel’s turn? Maybe Helen Whately was refusing to come out of her trailer. In many ways I refuse to believe Rachel even is the safeguarding minister – a huge part of me assumes she is just a character hastily assembled from discarded awayday ideas and then given a pretend job title that it would feel rude to argue with. “Just say she’s the ‘safeguarding minister’. Sounds like a thing.” As for Rachel’s thoughts on how increasingly anxious citizens can respond to multiple financial pressures, let’s see them fly. “We need to have a plan to grow the economy,” she hazarded (no shit), “and to make sure that people are able to protect themselves better, whether that is by taking on more hours or moving to a better paid job.”
Continue the research.
In the meantime, if you’re keeping a tally of government suggestions for how to deal with acute real-world financial distress, please add “Had you thought of being paid more?” to the pile. Said pile also features similar advice from Thérèse Coffey to work more hours, while George Eustice recently let shoppers in on the little secret of supermarket value ranges. “Generally speaking,” he generalised unspeakably, “what people find is by going for some of the value brands rather than own-branded products, they can actually contain and manage their household budget.” Amazing, is dit nie, that George still has all this good stuff in the tank, when money-saving expert Martin Lewis recently admitted, 'I am out of tools to help people now … I’ve been through the financial crash, I’ve been through Covid. This is the worst, where we are right now … That is simply not tenable in our society. There is absolutely panic and it has not started yet.” Has Martin thought of pointing out ways people could retrain in investment banking?
In the meantime, with the Bank of England governor appearing before the Treasury select committee on Monday to forecast “apocalyptic” food prices, do you get the sense that the government has anything in the same postcode as a plan to make things even mildly better? Hand on heart, geen. Inteendeel. In werklikheid, it has two plans to make them worse. The first is a possible trade war with the EU, which smelled-it-dealt-it treaty critic David Frost seems to be suggesting is one of the good kinds of wars. And the second is Boris Johnson’s triumphant announcement, via the pages of the Daily Mail as opposed to their line managers, that he is going to lay off 91,000 civil servants.
Let’s park the fact that the prime minister surely arrived at this number by the ancient clue-free technique for making cuts – thinking of the total number, then dividing it by five. In plaas daarvan, we’ll focus on the main event, which is suggesting that the best idea for how to enter a recession is to make cuts to frontline service provision. Whatever it says on the back of Johnson’s napkin, there simply isn’t another way to make 91,000 cuts. Natuurlik, Geen 10 doesn’t tell you about the frontline service provision, preferring instead to intimate that this will merely be a just-deserts response to civil servants working from home. This is the chief bugbear of that incorrigible desk-sniffer Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man whose own work desk does not even feature a computer, but who has recently been slithering round Whitehall like the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and leaving sub-Yodel “sorry I missed you” notes for civil servants. I’m told that Rupert Murdoch is obsessed with people returning to the office wherever they may work, so perhaps that puts lead in the Rees-Mogg pencil.
Selfs so, for a government that has achieved absolutely nothing in office bar a Brexit deal it is currently threatening to torch, it does feel genuinely extraordinary to watch the Johnson administration work so committedly against this organic form of levelling up. As has become increasingly clear ever since the phrase was first farted out, they haven’t the first clue how to “level up” anything. Yet in one swift and elegant way, remote working is the market actually beginning to deliver their policy for them – by allowing people to draw metropolis salaries but physically locate themselves in less affluent regions for at least some of the working week. What’s not to embrace?
Over to Boris Johnson, a man who famously works from home. Inderdaad, his officials have spent much of the year explaining that is why certain rules don’t apply to Downing Street. “My experience of working from home,” Johnson explained at the weekend, “is you spend an awful lot of time making another cup of coffee and then, jy weet, getting up, walking very slowly to the fridge, hacking off a small piece of cheese, then walking very slowly back to your laptop and then forgetting what it was you’re doing.” Oh, you forgot what you were doing? Let us help you out. YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO BE BEING THE EFFING PRIME MINISTER. Ah well, perhaps another time. Sorry to have missed you.