It’s August, so of course it’s raining hard in Edinburgh. I’m sitting in a restaurant with a couple of friends at the Fringe. The Conservative leadership tour of the country is dragging on, with Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak jostling for the top job.
“The problem with the country,” says Marcus, “can be summed up in two words: expect less.”
This throwaway phrase nails the malaise enveloping the UK. Two months on from Edinburgh, and the malaise is so embedded in the national psyche that there is little expectation of the latest prime minister to come off the conveyor belt. Indeed, the main talking point on radio phone-ins (a useful, if not scientific barometer of the current zeitgeist) on the day Sunak took office was his diminutive stature and the fact that he has deeper pockets than King Charles.
The statistics make for a difficult reading for 357 Conservative MPs currently sitting in the House of Commons. Should Sunak fail and then walk the same plank as Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, then, according to the polls, a snap general election would wipe out around 300 Tories and leave Sir Keir Starmer and his Labour Party with a potential three-term dynasty.
Nevermind the pandemic, this toxic combination of a tanking economy and cost-of-living crisis is affecting households across the UK.
With a 71-seat majority, the Conservatives are not particularly phased about crises experienced by people who are not their core constituents. But recently, history has been repeating itself. In September 2021, coming out of the pandemic, there was a problem with petrol supplies causing havoc on forecourts. Then the issue was a problem with logistics leading to a perception of a crisis. The recent Truss/Kwasi Kwarteng mini-budget debacle was far more serious, with the pound tanking and mortgages rocketing. The Downing Street revolving door confirms the cabinet’s comings and goings, with one comedian pointing to the first question prospective ministers are asked at interviews: “Where do you see yourself in 10 minutes?”
Hardworking families in the shires that deliver votes for the Conservatives cannot keep up with mortgage payments; the National Association of Headteachers inform us that schools will run out of money by the start of the next academic year; the wait is so long for medical procedures that some may be too late for lifesaving; the weekly trip to the supermarket costs 20% more than in January; households and businesses throughout the country are facing utility bills that will inevitably lead to deaths and bankruptcy throughout the winter, while airports, train stations and vital government offices are woefully understaffed.
What used to be a given is now a fanciful hope. Already reeling from a lifetime £30,000 debt from tuition fees, our graduates are compromised by short-term work contracts and spiraling rental costs. For the tabloids, every day is a field day, as they highlight violent crime and burglaries taking over our streets. Expect less.
Strikes on crucial train and bus services prevent people from getting to work. Taking the car involves taking a chance, as protesters block key transport hubs, with no response from the police (other than bringing in organic coffee supplies for the demonstrators).
The UK Mental Health Foundation reports that 60% more young people have a mental health issue in 2021 compared to 2017. Then we have the British Medical Association’s monthly update of waiting lists which show an unwanted spike to more than seven million people waiting for treatment, around 375,000 of whom are waiting more than a year for procedures. Expect less.
Brits don't react to political turmoil
BUT UNLIKE the French who take over the streets in their yellow vests, we Brits prefer not to react, at least not as quickly as the French (a national UK demonstration for an immediate general election is due to take place on November 5).
With tears in our eyes, we sing along with Vera Lynn and assume a stiff-upper-lip approach, accept the cards we are dealt and get on with it. Yes, there were occasional scuffles on forecourts when the petrol pumps ran out. But look how polite we are, queuing for up to an hour on the telephone to get through to the Passport Office or HM Revenue & Customs, only to be sent packing by an official working from home with a baby screaming in the background.
This is a new reality. From the cradle to the grave, we are being groomed to expect less. From the reduced size of baked beans cans to waiting more than 12 months for prosecutions of violent crime; from adding an extra hour to go through security at an airport to staring at empty shelves in supermarkets.
And while we politely continue to queue online, the political farce show must go on. Second day in office and Sunak turns from being a friendly Dr. Jekyll in his acceptance speech to his persona of Mr. Hyde by reinstating the recently sacked Home Secretary Suella Braverman along with throwing meaningless insults about people who live in north London (myself included).
I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but the current line among political pundits is that a deal was struck between Sunak and Braverman – she agreed to back him for prime minister, while he scratched her back into the home secretary post. Expect less.
It’s the perception that hurts the most. Whatever your political views, the House of Commons used to be packed with great statesmen and stateswomen. People like Roy Hattersley, Michael Heseltine, Jo Grimond, Barbara Castle and even the Labour Party firebrand Dennis Skinner, who did it his way when John Major was inaugurated as prime minister. As the house cheered and waved handkerchiefs, the Beast of Bolsover shouted: “Resign!”
We used to respect the political classes and trusted them to have our backs. It was a similar feeling when I lived in Israel. The perception (not always the reality) was one of confidence in the military classes. In the UK today, the perception of our political classes is that they are useless at best.
The website Positive Money reveals a worrying lack of understanding of the UK’s money and banking system across the House of Commons. Only 15% of MPs are aware of how most money is created in the modern economy. Other polls show strong dissatisfaction with MPs’ standards, MPs are not accountable enough, and they are overpaid. Thomas Jefferson’s quote “I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them” has never been more poignant, as an array of nickel-and-dime dimwits smugly collect – not earn – their £84,114-a-year paychecks.
A Conservative local councilor friend is well aware of the situation. “Lack of respect for institutions and government has festered and grown. This has led to an inability-to-lead syndrome,” he says.
Amid the turmoil enters a rare voice of hope. Atula Abeysekera, professor of practice in risk management at Imperial College London, believes Sunak can deliver.
“It’s all about fiscal prudence,” he says. “We don’t know what the November budget will bring, but the markets are already reacting positively to him.”
While accepting that taxes will inevitably rise and there will be further hardship, he thinks that if Sunak manages to stay the distance for the next two years, voters will come around to the devil they know.
“We have encountered catastrophic black swans with the pandemic, climate crisis and the war in Ukraine, and as chancellor, Sunak protected the vulnerable. The Labour Party have sound bites without a plan. I’m bullish about the next two years. We’re a top-five economy with quality young people coming through the ranks,” Abeysekera adds.
The Left, of course, is waiting in the wings and hoping for a snap election. Writing in The Guardian, Owen Jones believes Sunak will “gleefully wield the scalpel, from real-terms pay cuts for the key workers who were hypocritically applauded by Tory ministers in the pandemic, to the core services that a healthy society depends on to function. Sunak is likely to be the fifth and final Tory prime minister of this era whose career will end in humiliating failure, in his case an electoral rout at the hands of the Labour Party will probably be his final chapter.”
I can imagine Israelis thinking UK voters should be classed as frierim in foregoing a week’s holiday in Ibiza or sitting all day in a warm local library so they can cover the electricity bill.
But this is a very British queue. We kept to the rules and looked after each other during lockdown while Johnson and friends were partying. We wait patiently for our turn to not receive services in person and on the phone as the infrastructure appears to implode around us. My friend Marcus is spot on – we expect less.