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My podcast partner Rory Stewart is full of surprises. In the new episode out tomorrow, the first based purely on questions from listeners, the former Tory cabinet minister came to the defence of Dominic Raab, saying that unlike his boss, the deputy prime minister and justice secretary was at least honest.
His supporting evidence was that of all the contenders in the race to replace Theresa May, Raab was alone in admitting that the Brexit timetable being offered by Boris Johnson and all the others bar Stewart was utterly unrealistic and would not be met. Fair enough. He was right about that.
Stewart also said – though I have my own Foreign Office sources who paint a different picture – that whilst Raab accepts he should not have stayed on holiday when the chaotic retreat from Afghanistan was sprung on us by the Americans, this was out of character because if anything he works too hard, is too much of a micro manager. Again, fair enough.
I like people who stick up for people under attack. We all need them from time to time. But so far as I am concerned both of Stewart’s observations confirm two things I have long thought about.
First, that Raab was always much more of a committed Brexiteer than the opportunist Johnson, and that his messaging about Brexit was all about getting it done whatever the cost, the chaos or the consequences, plenty of which we are seeing in ever larger quantities right now. Don’t forget he was one of those who put his name to the Britannia Unchained vision of a low tax, low regulation, low rights Britain which for some is what Brexit was always about.
And secondly, that he has something of an empathy problem. It was, therefore, quite startling to hear him yesterday talk of his heart breaking when he heard the story of a child who insisted on sharing his breakfast with his mother because he had noticed that she had stopped eating. I am going to take those words at face value. I am not going to lump them in with the “thoughts and prayers” cliche that is trotted out so often it is a wonder the phrase isn’t permanently trending on Twitter. I am going to resist all those who immediately leapt onto social media to make jokes about their shock that Raab even had a heart. I am going to accept that he does, because we all do.
We all have feelings. We all have emotions and we all have varying levels of understanding of other people’s pain. If we didn’t, we would be a society of sociopaths and though yesterday’s report of increased attacks on GPs was perhaps further evidence of the unsticking of societal glue after a decade of austerity, Brexit, Covid and the Johnson cabinet’s incompetence, we are far from being that.
Most people are good people. But more people than we like to imagine are struggling as badly as that little boy and his mother are, and it is not all down to Putin driving up the price of oil. Further, the cost of living crisis is increasing their numbers at an alarming rate. My friend Alex Reed, a priest who works in Burnley, and is currently writing a book about the searing poverty he has been confronting for years, tells me if food banks were an industry they would outstrip every other industry in the country.
I accept government has taken some action such as belatedly introducing a windfall tax on excess profits of energy companies for whom the war in Ukraine has been a story of growth and dividend. It was done, however, after weeks of claiming it was economically and socially the wrong thing to do, and suspiciously timed to take the focus off the continuing fallout from Sue Gray’s report into law-breaking in No 10.
Likewise, they were dragged kicking and screaming to deliver more free school meals during the pandemic when they discovered – to their cost – that Marcus Rashhford is much more than a footballer, just as they have learned child poverty campaigner Jack Monroe is more than a food writer. Now the teaching unions want more of the same.
But Raab said no, and went back to the mantra that the best thing to help people eat and live well is to have a strong economy. Which is exactly what they used to say, before changing their minds, and going on to talk about a thriving economy while failing to deliver it.
So if his heart really is breaking, might he not do more than just utter words of sympathy? Might he accept that unlike the rest of us, he has power and influence in the debates ongoing in government as Johnson and Rishi Sunak respectively try to save skin and economic prosperity amid soaring inflation and sluggish growth?
I don’t know about you, but if my heart was breaking, I would want it to stop breaking. I would want to address the issue that was making it break. Child poverty should break all of our hearts. I was lucky enough to work with politicians like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown who didn’t just think about their own emotions in relation to this, but used the power they had to address child poverty, with long-term plans which delivered real progress which is now at risk.
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Raab, the words are easy. But unless you went back from that interview to write a note to Johnson and Sunak about what you felt should now be done, telling them that it is not good enough to delay and dither before being forced to change tack, then your broken heart will just have to join all the other fine words, phrases and slogans in the Tory bin.
Are you really “doing everything we can?” Are you really focusing on “people’s priorities?” (How does the imperial measures nonsense help feed that child?) Have you really “got the big calls right” when you take a long hard look at worldwide economic data? And, if I may close on the subject you were on to talk about, do you, as justice secretary, really think Johnson didn’t break the ministerial code because he broke the law inadvertently?
If I was that boy’s mother, I would be tempted to go on a shoplifting spree and try the same defence. “I was inadvertently pushed below the poverty line. My child is inadvertently malnourished. And my heart really is broken because I cannot fulfil the first duty of a parent – to feed my kids.”
Instead of spewing out the slogans, how about a plan for the government to meet its duty – to ensure its people have enough to eat to be able to live. So that nobody’s heart needs to be broken by the pain and shame of crippling poverty? That, might I suggest, is a people’s priority.
The Rest Is Politics with Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart is available now