Had enough of Peppa Pig yet? Parents with preschoolers needn’t answer because I’m aware that they’ll reply: “Of course we bloody have.” I’ve been there.
Nope, it’s Boris Johnson’s rambling train wreck of a speech to the CBI, in which he was quick to wax lyrical about the cartoon porker that I’m talking about. It created quite the storm and jump-started a discussion about the prime minister’s job performance and the government’s failure. But in truth, this was hardly the first incoherent word salad he’s served up and it won’t be the last.
A much bigger problem concerning the government’s behaviour was made clear to me in a recent conversation I had with a business group, the details of which I’ll sketch over for reasons that will become obvious.
It concerned the economy, and the government’s handling of it, and the desire of my contact’s organisation to highlight a problem that they felt they were struggling to get through to ministers.
I had some sympathy with what they were saying, but I’d recently written about the issue they were raising and didn’t want to rehash an old piece. So I suggested getting their CEO to write it up in the form of an opinion piece or letter and we would consider it for publication.
Now, normally, when you hold out such a prospect to a representative of a business group, their response is positive, a chance to air their views in a public forum. But that is not the response I got.
Instead my contact said this: “Oh God no, we can’t do that! We’ll be done for. They won’t speak to us again. They’re so paranoid. They’ll think it’s because we’re against Brexit.”
Needless to say, this is not the first time I’ve heard variations on that theme.
Prime ministers always ultimately fall into the trap of hearing what they want to hear and believing in their own hype. But it usually takes time for the malaise to develop, and to spread beyond the leader to infect the entire government.
Large parts of this one already seem to have a terminal case. The end result is clear to see: mistakes, poor policy making, and U-turns.
Governments need to speak to and listen to their critics. They don’t have to take on board everything they say. In fact they shouldn’t. But ministers do need to recognise that they sometimes make good points, and that taking those points on board will improve their performance. Slamming the door on them if and when they’re expressed publicly, annoying as that might be, is deeply counter productive. Relations between government and business have rarely been so bad.
It speaks volumes that what still stands as arguably the government’s most successful policy, the Job Retention Scheme – popularly known as the furlough – was put together after chancellor Rishi Sunak called in the TUC, a critic, and the CBI, which often also finds itself in that role these days. Sunak listened to them all, picked the best bits, added some of his own sauce, and banked the credit.
Forecasts of peak pandemic unemployment have since repeatedly been revised down, the economic scarring of the pandemic has been reduced, and the country has benefitted. It is something Sunak will always be able to point to. It may yet help carry him to Number 10.
But the furlough is regrettably the exception not the rule. This government’s paranoia runs deep. It plays both bully and victim, and it’s making a victim of the country as it repeatedly falls on its face and bloodies its nose.