We all can have a bad week. You know the sort. Maybe the children are sick, the car is playing up, things are a little shaky at work and the bank account is less fluid than it ought to be and bills are overdue. But those sort of domestic woes pale in comparison to the type of bad week just endured by Boris Johnson, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister.
Things started badly when Johnson headed up to Scotland for a couple of days, meeting health care workers, promoting the environment and visiting Ministry of Defence facilities north of the border. The last time he went up North, things didn’t go well and he received the sort of welcome afforded to a distant relative few care about who has gatecrashed a dinner party. And last week, things didn’t go exactly swimmingly well either.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, had offered to meet the PM at Bute House, her official residence. It’s the sort of invitation that’s normally afforded to any PM and certainly one extended to visiting official dignitaries of sufficient stature. The offer was ignored, Sturgeon’s people say.
On the other side of the Moon
Downing Street refused to comment. Instead, the PM came and went, the two never met, and the chapter merely reinforced to many Scottish nationalists who seek their own separate nation that the PM — and all he represents at Westminster 700 kilometres to the south in London, might as well be on the other side of the Moon.
How poignant then seems the comments made by Michael Gove, Johnson’s go-to henchman, just a couple of days before the PM’s visit, that Scots should have a referendum on independence if enough of them demanded such a thing. Certainly, after Johnson’s foray across the border, there are likely a few more Scots now who would add their voices to #IndyRef2.
Much of Johnson’s recent political success lies in the fact that his government was highly successful in rolling out a vaccination programme in England and Wales, leading Europe in getting needles into arms in the fight against coronavirus.
But the vaccination programme has stalled over the past two weeks. Yes, four out of five people have had at least one jab and three out of four have had both, but the numbers are dropping off. There is growing vaccine hesitancy among young people and the government has started to offer vouchers for free meals and tickets to concerts to try and increase the take-up rate.
UK's much-vaunted vaccine programme
The much-vaunted vaccine programme has now lost some of its lustre with data that shows six EU nations have actually higher rates of vaccination per capita — and that’s even after the EU programme was slow to get underway. Malta, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Ireland have all overtaken the UK and the UK is currently administering a fraction of the daily doses of some EU states.
If there’s one thing we know about Alexander Boris Pfeffel Johnson, it’s that he has the ever-present capability of gaffes. And that’s exactly what he did when he made a very ill-considered comment that former PM Margaret Thatcher did more for the environment when she began to close coal mines in the UK.
For every former miner, for every mining family, for every mining community that endured pit closures, for every town that reeled from the social upheaval caused by traumatic pit closures and the divisive events of the Thatcher years, Johnson’s comments were a dagger to the heart.
For all that has been said about trying to level up communities now in the North of England still reeling from the loss of traditional industries and mining, the throwaway comment was a reminder of why levelling up is so needed now. Downing Street has not commented on the fallout since.
Hitting a raw nerve
But in pit towns, there is seething anger. Mine closures were forced. They had nothing to do with the environment. They had to do with Thatcherite economics and the forced remaking British society into her Conservative mold. Those wounds were healing, now they are raw.
But there are also divisions beginning to open up within the Conservative party itself — and particularly between Johnson and Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As convention has it, the PM resides at 10 Downing Street, the Chancellor at No. 11.
Next door neighbours they may be, but there is a growing distance between the two — so much so that Johnson’s office has been forced to comment on the rift. Johnson, it appears, had threatened to sack Sunak for pushing back against a carbon tax for the environment and other measures that might see tax increases. For many in the conservative party, raising taxes is a red line, one they campaigned on and a pledge that must be kept at all costs.
Sunak, popular in the press and more so with fiscally-conservative party members, would be the natural successor to Johnson. And yes, there are those who are talking about finding a successor. Things are getting to that stage.
Even more so given that polls show Johnson’s personal rating are plummeting, with even Conservative voters turning against the PM. And Sunak’s are rising.