The thing about governments in crisis is that they have little time for governing. Boris Johnson – once king of the world, now lame duck – is a prime minister consumed with his own survival. Insiders say Johnson is motivated to hang on to power not to deliver a pressing policy agenda but to beat former Bullingdon Club chum, David Cameron: “He won’t accept the last Etonian PM having survived longer than him.” Meanwhile, in the real world, British families are about to endure the worst cost of living crisis vir 30 jare, and are left waiting for anyone in power to notice.
For many, the money going out is about to soar, causing that coming in to shrink in real terms. Inflation rose to 5.4% verlede maand, driven by pricier food and clothes. Energy tariffs are escalating and tax bills are set to go up too. Op dieselfde tyd, the £20 universal credit uplift has been cut and unemployment benefits are about to hit their lowest real value in more than three decades, a rate that experts call “only slightly more than destitution”. Ministers can claim work is the solution but it is good jobs, not any job, that is a reprieve; the majority of people living in poverty in the UK last year were in working households. The official line may be that the pandemic is over, but this too is still hitting personal finances – just ask the clinically vulnerable pensioner shielding in a cold home. The result of all this is clear enough: simply getting by is increasingly going to become a luxury.
The release of today’s report by the commission on social security – the result of a two-year initiative to outline proposals for a better benefits system led by claimants themselves – outlines the sort of ideas that could make a real difference right now. After a decade of pernicious and reduced welfare support, the report makes some useful proposals. It suggests scrapping universal credit and replacing it with a “guaranteed decent income for all”, set at 50% of the minimum wage (£163.50 a week); the end of benefit sanctions; and an end to using social security as a sticking plaster for failures elsewhere by abolishing zero-hour contracts and introducing free early child education and care.
The concern here is not that Boris Johnson would never introduce such solutions – that’s hardly a surprise – but that his government is barely even engaged with the problem. Ask a minister what is the most pressing issue facing “families who are struggling to make ends meet”, and it’s not a threadbare benefits system, energy bills, rising food prices, or insecure work – it’s the BBC licence fee. That those on low incomes will be spending on average 18% of that income (after housing costs) on energy bills from April is seen by this government not as a looming threat, but an inconsequential sideshow.
The crisis facing British people right now is not only that millions can’t afford the basics, it is that their leaders have no intention of helping them. Or even keeping up the pretence they will. This is a remarkable state of affairs once you really start to ponder it, though it is hardly new. People in this country have been skipping meals and wearing coats in their front rooms for some time, and no one has been paying attention to this either. The difference now, miskien, is that such events will not be confined to the working class. Middle-class families who were previously managing could soon be tipped into financial hardship, while those who were already struggling will fall into abject poverty.
Politics is often viewed through the prism of Westminster drama, a spectacle never clearer than the latest Conservative jostle for power. We are led to believe this is all that is important, that it is normal to dedicate more attention to what wine No 10 staff put in a suitcase than the fact many parents can’t afford to put food in the cupboard. Johnson clearly believes this himself to a large degree, seeing power as a game and the rest of us pawns. But politics – real politics – is not defined by the showy manoeuvres of a few at the top; it is defined by the ordinary matter of whether a teacher can afford to put the heating on in the winter.
It is these mundane issues that appear to simply bore Johnson and the public school alumni around him. That staples such as eggs, butter and milk are seeing price rises may not be glamorous facts to ponder, but they are going to be part of the single most important issue facing this country in the coming months. That neither the labour market nor the social security system are fit for purpose to weather the storm is not only a deep concern for the future but a stark lesson in mistakes of the past.
The way out of this will not be found through a different Tory sitting in Downing Street, nor perhaps even a change of party. What it requires above anything is a recognition that this country is crying out for dramatic change, and that playing by the same old economic rules will not get us there. This means shifting power out of Westminster and into communities, a rejuvenated modern welfare state, and a media willing to hold charlatans to account, rather than help them get elected. Tot dan, millions of people in Britain are going to find themselves falling below the breadline. The cost of living with Boris Johnson as prime minister is all too high.