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Pinter never created a comedy as dark as the Brexit party | William Keegan


“I had a unique touch. Absolutely unique. They came up to me. They came up to me and said they were grateful. Champagne we had that night. The lot.”

No, this was not Prime Minister Johnson speaking of the now notorious birthday party that was in breach of his own lockdown rules that we in the rest of the country were observing. This is Stanley, the character whose birthday it is in Harold Pinter’s macabre comedy The Birthday Party.

During his subsequent party, Stanley has a rough time. In my view, Johnson should have been having a rough time for a series of episodes that have been well covered in the media, even if, like Stanley, the prime minister affected to be surprised by his own birthday party. Let them eat cake …

Let’s face it: what the Conservative party is now tying itself in knots over is how to handle the realisation that the leader they did not trust, but who gave them a resounding election victory, has been found out as an amoral scoundrel by a largely law-abiding electorate – to say nothing of the rest of the world, in whose eyes he is a laughing stock.

Our so-called leader has besmirched the reputation of this once widely admired nation. I know I am far from alone in finding the daily spectacle of this grotesque government’s antics sickening – yes, sickening.

Winning that last election was not quite the Johnsonian triumph it was held out to be. Frankly – and I know this will offend many Labour voters, who saw lots in the Corbyn programme that they liked – it was to a very considerable extent an anti-Corbyn election.

Indeed, one of the great ironies of recent politics is that the victorious, low-tax Johnsonian Tories have been racking up public spending, not least on account of Covid, to levels only dreamed of by Corbyn. But such spending nowhere near deals with the fundamental economic problems facing society. Not to put too fine a point on it, the leader who “got Brexit done” has, in that very act, been hoist with his own petard.

This was illustrated last week in those two major announcements: first about the so-called “levelling up” agenda by Michael Gove; and, secondly, by the chancellor, with his package to alleviate energy costs.

There was a slight problem with the levelling-up programme. It is called money. There are no new funds, just a relabelling of previous announcements – announcements whose contents nowhere near made up for a decade of austerity.

The hit to this economy from, wait for it, “getting Brexit done” is enormous. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s estimate of a 4% annual reduction to our national income and output from Brexit has not, to my knowledge, been seriously questioned. That figure is a macro number that is the sum of the myriad hits to our productivity – the monumental rise in wasteful extra bureaucratic documentation; the Brexiters’ failure to “regain control”; the lorry queues on the Dover road. Recent studies indicate that manufacturing output has been badly hit by the barriers created by the self-harm of Brexit – barriers which are especially harmful to the small and medium-sized businesses the Tories affect to favour.

But then, this is no longer the Conservative party: it is the English National party.

After years of relative economic decline vis-a-vis our European neighbours, we entered what was then the European Economic Community in 1973 for good economic reasons. Our average growth rate increased. With Brexit, this benighted country has in effect voted to go back to the path of relative economic decline.

For instance: why is Sunak so desperate that he has to go ahead with imposing a national insurance levy on already struggling households? Why is he so severely inhibited in the degree of relief he can offer to a nation hit by such a dramatic surge in gas prices? Why is Gove’s budget for levelling up so pitifully limited? The answer is that the Brexit those charlatans sold to a gullible public has lopped tens of billions of pounds off the Treasury’s potential tax revenues.

Now, a past Conservative leader who would put Johnson, and indeed the rest of this cabinet, in the shade was Harold Macmillan. He was fond of quoting the poet Hilaire Belloc: “Always keep a-hold of Nurse/For fear of finding something worse.”

I should not compare Johnson to a nurse. But the modern Conservative party is now in the hands of extremists. In the interests of common decency, Johnson has to go. But, alas, he has so soiled the party that there is no guarantee, in terms of policy, that he may not be followed by “something worse”.

O tempora, O mores!



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