Haywire: A Political History of Britain since 2000 
by Andrew Hindmoor.
Allen Lane, 628 pp., £35, June, 978 0 241 65171 1
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No Way Out: Brexit from the Backstop to Boris 
by Tim Shipman.
William Collins, 698 pp., £26, April, 978 0 00 830894 0
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The Abuse of Power: Confronting Injustice in Public Life 
by Theresa May.
Headline, 368 pp., £12.99, May, 978 1 0354 0991 4
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The Conservative Party after Brexit: Turmoil and Transformation 
by Tim Bale.
Polity, 368 pp., £25, March 2023, 978 1 5095 4601 5
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Johnson at 10: The Inside Story 
by Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell.
Atlantic, 640 pp., £12.99, April, 978 1 83895 804 6
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The Plot: The Political Assassination of Boris Johnson 
by Nadine Dorries.
HarperCollins, 336 pp., £25, November 2023, 978 0 00 862342 5
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Politics on the Edge: A Memoir from Within 
by Rory Stewart.
Vintage, 454 pp., £10.99, June, 978 1 5299 2286 8
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Ten Years to Save the West: Lessons from the Only Conservative in the Room 
by Liz Truss.
Biteback, 311 pp., £20, April, 978 1 78590 857 6
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Tory Nation: The Dark Legacy of the World’s Most Successful Political Party 
by Samuel Earle.
Simon & Schuster, 294 pp., £10.99, February, 978 1 3985 1853 7
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Short-termthinking has been the fatal tendency of the Conservative governments to which Britain has been subjected since 2010. David Cameron’s declaration in January 2013 that, if the Conservatives won the next election, they would offer a referendum on membership of the EU – which wasn’t a significant concern, never mind a priority, for British voters – is a fine example. Usually, it is attributed to Tory fears about being outflanked on the right by Ukip, and to Cameron’s calculation that his promise wouldn’t have to be fulfilled because the Tories would fall short in the 2015 election and therefore remain in coalition with the pro-European Liberal Democrats. In Haywire, his steely account of Britain’s backfiring start to the new millennium, Andrew Hindmoor suggests that Cameron’s announcement was intended as a sop to those on the right of his party who were agitating against his plan to introduce gay marriage (when it came to a vote, nearly half the parliamentary party anyhow opposed the bill, and it passed only with support from the opposition). The result was that Cameron went into the 2015 election with the referendum as a manifesto promise, and unexpectedly won it. The referendum went ahead just over a year later, on 23 June 2016. Cameron announced his resignation the following morning.

Short-term thinking also explains Cameron’s refusal to allow the civil service to prepare for a Leave victory, for fear it would look defeatist. After Theresa May replaced him as prime minister, it became clear that no one had any idea what to do, or even what could be done. ‘The British state had not done a shred of preparation,’ May’s deputy, Damian Green, told Tim Shipman. ‘The whole machine went on a journey, and part of that journey was to discover problems that hadn’t been discussed at the time of the referendum.’ The EU, however, was prepared and laid out its timetable for up to two years of negotiations, to begin when Britain formally signalled its desire to secede from the union by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Until then, it would allow no discussions. But rather than pause to consider her options and build consensus after what had been a close referendum result (52:48), May tacked sharply towards a hard Brexit. And she did so without consulting her cabinet. Her chancellor, Philip Hammond, listened to her declare at the Tory Party Conference in October 2016 that after Brexit, Britain would accept no European laws, would take control of its own immigration policy, would have its own trade deal with the EU and would be outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. ‘I was absolutely horrified by what I was hearing,’ Hammond said later, in an interview for the Brexit Witness Archive.

All I remember thinking was, ‘There will be a television camera that will be on your face. If you move a muscle, it will be the story on the front page of every newspaper tomorrow’ … I just remember focusing my entire energy on maintaining a rictus half-smile … and then [got] out of the room without speaking to any journalists. I was completely and utterly horrified by what I felt was almost a coup.

Hammond flew straight to Washington for the annual IMF conference:

When I arrived in Washington, it was to discover that the pound was in free fall … I then had to get out on the TV in Washington, to try to reinterpret the prime minister’s speech for the markets in a way that would try to stop the slide in sterling … It was a disaster on all fronts, a total unmitigated disaster that scarred her prime ministership … but I think she only realised later how badly that had constrained her ability to deliver any kind of practical Brexit at all … I’m not even sure that she understood … how extreme the words coming out of her mouth really were.

After the speech, Ivan Rogers, Britain’s permanent representative to the EU, said to May: ‘You’ve made a decision. This gives me clarity. I can work with this. We’re leaving the customs union.’ ‘I have agreed to no such thing,’ May fired back. But perhaps an even more crucial aspect of her speech was the pledge that Britain would invoke Article 50 no later than the following March. When Rogers was informed of this beforehand, he said: ‘Fuck! That’s obviously insane. It reduces her leverage.’ Others agreed, but they were all ignored, in favour of such sages as Iain Duncan Smith. ‘You have no idea how bad this is,’ Rogers told the cabinet secretary, Jeremy Heywood. ‘She’s put herself in an incredibly weak negotiating position. She’s blown herself up, she just doesn’t know it yet.’

We know how it went after that (neither Hammond nor Rogers is mentioned in May’s semi-memoir, The Abuse of Power). Or we think we do. In fact, it is useful to view events, in the telling of Hindmoor, Shipman and Tim Bale, with an aerial clarity unavailable at the time. In April 2017, May, lulled by her long lead in the polls and the disarray in the Labour Party partly triggered by Jeremy Corbyn’s even sprightlier desire to get going on Article 50 (he talked of activating it the day after the result), decided to call a snap election for 8 June. She had inherited a Tory majority of ten, and wanted a bigger one that would allow her to pass her version of Brexit, but then botched the campaign and lost her majority, becoming dependent on the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party in the Commons. According to Shipman, her most serious error was subsequently to accede to the EU’s insistence that negotiations could not be advanced until the issue of the Irish border was resolved. This focused May’s mind, and produced a surprising, though ultimately self-undermining outcome. Once she realised that the hard Brexit she had advanced in her conference speech threatened the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic she had no choice but to retreat. The Withdrawal Agreement she eventually produced, alongside the infamous ‘backstop’ (in the event of a breakdown in negotiations between the UK and EU, the backstop would allow an open border by keeping the whole of the UK within a form of customs union and Northern Ireland within the single market), implied close alignment with the EU in the interests of smoother trade. The problem for May was that her tough talk had helped to increase polarisation, with the result that her proposal satisfied no one. She didn’t have the political nous to sell it (especially not to the Labour Party) or the votes in Parliament to pass it. In her book, she is scathing about the ‘abuse of power’ that was MPs voting according to their own lights rather than considering the needs of the country, but her idealisation of ‘service’, worthy as it is, gives the impression of someone not only with little instinct for the art of politics, but also incapable of recognising the strong limitations and biases of her own worldview. After a series of crushing parliamentary defeats she was forced out, and replaced by Boris Johnson, who promised to exit on the planned date of 31 October whether or not there was a deal with the EU: ‘no ifs, no buts’.

In the end, despite all his bluster and disregard for constitutional forms – his prorogation of Parliament, intended to scupper attempts to legislate against ‘no deal’, was judged illegal by the Supreme Court – Johnson was forced to request an extension to the deadline. The Brexit he eventually agreed with the EU was far harder than May’s, introducing non-tariff barriers to trade and supposedly solving the Irish issue by drawing a border in the Irish Sea, so that goods would have to be checked between Britain and Northern Ireland (an idea May had rejected as an impossible breach of the UK’s territorial integrity, and Johnson himself had previously scorned). This ‘oven-ready’ deal was taken to the electorate in December 2019, and Johnson secured a majority of eighty.

The coronation of Johnson, a known chancer and proven liar, easy prey for his desires and deeply mistrusted by the public (only 14 per cent of whom believed he was honest and of good character) as well as by those who knew him, was classic Tory short-termism. May apparently thought him ‘morally unfit’ for the job. Nobody could be more short-term than a man who, if it was to his benefit, would tell anyone just about anything, and have no qualms about going back on it hours or minutes later. After winning the December 2019 election, one of his first acts was to tell the EU that the ‘oven-ready’ deal was still missing key ingredients. The Johnson government was even more swaggering and bullying in its post-election incarnation. It’s shocking to be reminded that it tried to exclude reporters from unsympathetic papers such as the Mirror and the Independent from a press briefing, backing down only when the other news outfits walked out. It also announced that it was boycotting BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, ITV’s Good Morning Britain and Channel 4 News, all in punishment for alleged bias. These boycotts were abandoned only after the Covid pandemic struck, not all of them immediately.

Johnson, of course, was the very worst man for that moment. As Covid advanced through Europe, he missed five meetings of Cobra, the committee that deals with national emergencies. At one early press conference, he boasted of having shaken hands with everyone on a hospital visit. Not long into the national lockdown, which he belatedly announced in March 2020, he contracted the virus himself and spent three nights in intensive care. For the rest of the pandemic he veered between the advice given to him by the experts (restrictions imposed early would halt the spread of infection) and his libertarian instincts (played on by his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, a vocal body of Tory MPs and the Tory-supporting press, all of whom were aligned with the views of Tory Party members). This produced such aperçus from Johnson as – in response to an anti-lockdown article by Peter ‘Bonkers’ Hitchens – ‘My heart is with Bonkers. I don’t believe in any of this, it’s all bullshit. I wish I’d been the mayor in Jaws and kept the beaches open.’ And – in response to data showing that the median age of people dying of Covid was over eighty – ‘That is above life expectancy … so get Covid and live longer … I no longer buy all this NHS overwhelmed stuff. Folks I think we may need to recalibrate. There are max 3m in this country aged over eighty.’ And: ‘No more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands!’ Predictably, Britain got the worst of all worlds: three national lockdowns; the second highest excess death rate among G7 countries (315 per 100,000); the largest drop in GDP, at 10 per cent; and the slowest economic recovery. Johnson’s dither and delay cost lives, both before March 2020, and then, more damagingly, before he called the second lockdown, which began on 5 November and morphed into the third after Christmas. It had taken 251 days (between 2 March and 7 November) for Covid to claim its first 50,000 lives in the UK; it took 79 days to claim the next 50,000 (between 8 November and 25 January).

Both Johnson and his government survived the pandemic, even emerging with some credit after a successful vaccine roll-out. Slowly, normality returned to everyday life, but the behaviour of the gang in charge at Westminster got stranger and stranger. Following Johnson’s lead, the government seemed determined not only to invent new ways of avoiding scrutiny, opposition and blame, but – should these prove unavoidable – to outface them brazenly while attempting to sow distrust as to their motivation. The government tried to install friendly MPs as committee chairs, rather than allowing the committee members to decide, as is usual. International law was spoken of lightly: the government planned to break it, but only ‘in a specific and limited way’, as the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, assured Parliament. This strengthened the impression of the party’s newfound scepticism about domestic law (when the Supreme Court declared the 2019 prorogation illegal, Kwasi Kwarteng, a member of cabinet, announced on TV: ‘I’m not saying this, but many people are saying the judges are biased’). Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, was found to have been lobbied by a property developer whom he then helped to avoid millions in tax (the developer followed up with a donation to the Conservative Party), but faced no punishment. Priti Patel, the home secretary, was found to have broken the ministerial code by bullying her staff, driving her most senior civil servant to resign, but again faced no punishment, prompting the resignation of the author of the report, Sir Alex Allen, the independent adviser on ministers’ interests. It was revealed that Johnson had refurbished the prime minister’s Downing Street flat with £112,000 provided by Tory donors, but Lord Geidt, Allen’s successor, found that Johnson had been unaware of where the money had come from. Geidt himself resigned after his decision was subjected to criticism (he wasn’t replaced). Johnson was, however, reprimanded for failing to declare which kind friend had paid for his post-election holiday on Mustique. Johnson put one Tory donor, Peter Cruddas, in the Lords, against the recommendation of the appointments commission; Cruddas shortly afterwards provided another £500,000 donation. The Tory MP Owen Paterson was found by the Committee on Standards to have received payment for advocating for a private firm in Parliament. Johnson whipped the party to oppose his suspension from Parliament and wanted to bring in a new process to make it harder to suspend MPs. Following an outcry, the decision not to vote on Paterson’s suspension was reversed, and he resigned from Parliament. At the ensuing by-election, his safe seat was won by the Lib Dems on a huge swing.

It was Long Covid that finally did for Johnson’s government. The Tories were found to have established a ‘high priority lane’ at the start of the pandemic, which allowed MPs and members of the Lords to recommend firms that could assist with PPE and so on (one Tory peer, Michelle Mone, recommended a firm that went on to receive £200 million, without mentioning that she and her husband would be beneficiaries). As chancellor, Sunak was accused of failing to prevent or pursue an estimated £5 billion of Covid-related fraud. Johnson’s ‘let the bodies pile high’ declaration found its way into the press, but much worse, in December 2021 it was discovered that, while people were legally obliged to stay at home, to keep away from friends and family even if they were dying in hospital and to maintain social distancing rules while in public spaces, the government had hosted at least sixteen illegal gatherings, some of them held during the ‘cancelled’ Christmas of 2020. An especially (though, one supposes, unrelatedly) rowdy party had been held on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, accounts of which (a suitcase full of wine, a broken child’s swing) contrasted with photographs of the queen sitting masked and alone in St George’s Chapel at Windsor the following day. The police became involved, handing down 126 fixed penalty notices, including for Johnson and Sunak, the most senior politicians ever to be punished by the law. Johnson’s personal poll ratings, never very good, hurtled downwards. When he was found to have appointed the aptly named Chris Pincher as a Tory whip in full knowledge of his history of groping men in bars, and then publicly denied it – the lie exposed by an outraged civil servant – the Tory Party’s conscience briefly bestirred itself. In a bizarre spectacle sustained over two days, 61 ministers resigned from the government, while Johnson tried to brazen even this out (apparently he talked of calling another election to avoid his defenestration; should he have gone through with this threat and called the Palace, officials intended the queen to be ‘out’). It was no use, and he announced his resignation on 7 July 2022.

‘Rarely in three hundred years,’ Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell conclude,

and never since 1916 has a prime minister been so poor at appointments, so incompetent at running cabinet government or so incapable of finding a stable team to run Number 10. The prime minister is the chief executive, yet he belittled the executive and allowed his ministers to do the same, but without producing badly needed practical solutions for improvement. Nor did he act on ambitious plans to reform central government after Brexit. It is hard to find a prime minister who has done more to damage the fabric of government.

Someone should tell Nadine Dorries. Once wielding great power as Johnson’s culture secretary, she has produced a terrifyingly strange book that purports to reveal a malevolent conspiracy to remove the People’s Boris from power, led by Dominic Cummings and for the benefit of Sunak, and set in train immediately after the 2019 election. What I hesitate to call the details are for the birds (‘Much of what I know,’ she broods, ‘will never see the light of day due to the “legals”’). The truly arresting thing is the prose.

‘Were you seen coming in?’

I put my glass on the table.

‘I was.’

She looked over my shoulder.

‘No one’s looking now. You know what used to happen when Dominic Cummings arranged to meet the journalist Simon Walters, formerly at the Daily Mail?’

I frowned. ‘No, why would I, and why would he be doing that? Cummings had nothing to do with the media, did he? That was the head of Number 10 comms’s job.’

She laughed. ‘You are so, so going to have your eyes opened.’

Boris is presented as terribly noble, though pained, in his exile (‘But why, why, why would they do this? We were running the country. Why?’) and there is a touching moment when Dorries visits him at home just after he has left Number 10.

I was impressed with how he had laid the tray with delicate china and had apologised for there being no strainer. The phone on his desk rang. His silhouette was framed in the peculiar light and something made both Carrie and I look over. His response was sombre, his voice deep. He stood abruptly, pushing back the chair and, without saying a single word, hurried from the room, his phone in hand. Carrie and I exchanged looks, no words were spoken. I guessed that whatever Boris had been told, it related to our ailing queen. As I left the house, the heavens wept, the dark sky over London parted and a huge rainbow spanned the King’s Road. I knew then in my heart that the call had been to tell Boris that our queen had passed.

One of the many things Dorries’s ‘theory’ can’t account for is the reason the plotters moved in Liz Truss to succeed Johnson, rather than their main man, Sunak. Rory Stewart, a cabinet minister under May and now Britain’s most successful failed politician, sees Truss’s elevation, like Johnson’s, as proof of deep decay in the British political system, which he excoriates in his memoir ‘from within’. He highlights the way a political culture that rewarded blind loyalty – Cameron apparently liked to say: ‘I divide the world between team players and wankers. Don’t be a wanker’ – led to over-promotions and shallow-minded government as well as creating the potential for sudden switches of allegiance. Truss was a cabinet minister within four years of becoming an MP in 2010, and in the decade that followed, cycled through five more posts before becoming prime minister. This was a rapid rise, and no one who watched her on television or heard her on the radio, or who merely followed her activities as prime minister, could fail to be astonished by it. Stewart’s account of her backstage behaviour as environment secretary confirms that, as he has said elsewhere, she is ‘silly … she wasn’t a serious person.’

Truss was far from the only person to benefit in this way. Dominic Raab was a junior minister for housing and planning before becoming May’s Brexit secretary in 2018; barely a year later he was foreign secretary; within four years, he was deputy prime minister. There has been a huge amount of change in the great offices of state since 2010: five prime ministers (as opposed to two in thirteen years of Labour government); eight foreign secretaries (as opposed to four); seven home secretaries, six of them since 2016 (as opposed to six); seven chancellors, six of them since 2016 (as opposed to two). The amount of churn lower down the cabinet has been even more significant: there have, for instance, been ten education secretaries. Hindmoor points out that, in April 2023, nearly half of the 22 elected members of Sunak’s cabinet, including the prime minister himself, had entered Parliament within the previous decade; only seven members had served in the Johnson cabinet of December 2019, all of them in different roles; only three had belonged to May’s cabinet in June 2017. What Stewart doesn’t seem to consider – in his own way, like Dorries, he is seeking a structural reason to explain his personal discontent – is the strong likelihood that this is a problem not of the British state, but of a highly unstable Conservative Party, one that made an MP’s stance on Brexit, or Johnson, or Truss, the litmus test for appointment.

This instability also magnified the importance of the party membership – around 170,000 mainly white, male pensioners – who account for 0.4 per cent of the electorate and whose views on all subjects are far to the right of the public (Bale regularly reminds the reader of this). They have chosen two prime ministers in the last five years (May and Sunak, unopposed candidates, got to Number 10 with the support of MPs), but their views must be perpetually borne in mind by any would-be leaders. This, in addition to the fact that two multi-candidate leadership elections have encouraged almost every halfway prominent Tory MP to stand and hence to pitch to the membership, must have contributed to the party’s rightward drift from the superficial liberalism of the Cameron years. Stewart does not engage with this reality either. His breathless David v. Goliath account of his leadership bid after May’s resignation in 2019, running against Johnson, makes much of his coming in fifth place in terms of support from Tory MPs. But it obscures not only the fact that Johnson was the runaway favourite with the members (he won with 66 per cent of the vote against Jeremy Hunt), but that Stewart was not even in their top five.

Against the wishes of the majority of Tory MPs, 57 per cent of party members chose Truss over Sunak in September 2022. Her election was closely followed by Kwasi Kwarteng’s kamikaze ‘mini-budget’, which, following on the heels of a huge commitment to cap every household’s energy bills for two years, announced plans to cut the basic rate of income tax, abolish the 45p top rate and cancel a planned rise in corporation tax (these and other initiatives added up to £45 billion of unfunded tax cuts). The markets took fright; the pound slid; the Bank of England initiated extraordinary measures. Soon almost everything had been reversed. But not before mortgage rates had shot up. In her unwarranted and unasked-for and barely remunerated memoir-cum-manifesto Ten Years to Save the West (for which she was paid an initial advance of £1512), Truss blames the ‘economic establishment’ for not properly warning her of the consequences of her policies and complains of a lack of support from everyone except party members, a ‘telling reminder of the disconnect’ between them and Tory MPs. She admits that it was a ‘relief’ to resign on 20 October. ‘The whole experience as prime minister had been quite surreal and my resignation felt like just another dramatic moment in a very strange film in which I had somehow been cast.’ Which is pretty much the way it felt from the outside. She lasted 49 days as prime minister. Short term.

Her replacement, Rishi Sunak, has been prime minister for less than two years, and has succeeded only in reanimating Cameron’s career (and life?) by sending him to the Foreign Office, while maintaining exceptionally low opinion ratings for himself and his party. Having called an election for 4 July, seemingly for want of a better idea, Sunak has now been reduced to adapting earlier party slogans: his remarkably uncatchy ‘Clear Plan. Bold Action. Secure Future’ (contra Labour’s ‘Change’) is a dim echo of May’s ‘Strong and Stable Government’ from 2017, and an even dimmer one of Cameron’s ‘Long-Term Economic Plan’ from 2015. All Sunak can really think to run on is what, until Truss, remained the party’s old faithful: its claim to be the trusted keeper of the British economy.

Nowhere​ has the Tory Party’s short-termism been more evident than in its policy of austerity and its cocksure Bullingdon-boy belief that it could avoid doing injury to itself while presiding over a carnival of national self-harm. The events and personalities I have described up to now are almost irrelevant. It is the disastrous stewardship of the economy and the public realm that has shattered Britain’s self-image as a prosperous, successful, well-functioning polity.

In June 2010, George Osborne, newly appointed chancellor, announced that in order to bring the nation’s finances under control (in the wake of the 2008 crash, gross government debt stood at 69 per cent of GDP), it would be necessary to reduce government borrowing by £120 billion within five years, to be achieved overwhelmingly by reducing government expenditure: public sector pay would be frozen; welfare benefits frozen, capped, reduced or merely downgraded in real terms; and the budget of every government department bar two (the NHS and international aid) slashed. Between 2010/11 and 2015/16, more than 50 per cent was cut from the central grant to local government; close to or more than 30 per cent from the budgets of the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; more than 20 per cent from the Foreign Office and the Home Office; more than 10 per cent from the Department of Business, Industry and Skills, the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Defence; between 5 and 10 per cent from the departments for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the Department for Education. Public sector net investment had grown from £6 billion a year in 2000/1 to £35 billion a year by 2007/8; yet, ‘showing a preference for the short term … that would have done justice to the most rapacious of bankers’, as Hindmoor writes, public investment was cut by Osborne from £48 billion in 2010/11 to £36 billion in 2015/16. After the Tories were returned to power in 2015, no longer in coalition with the meekly enabling Lib Dems, the squeeze continued, and long outlasted the resignation of Cameron and the sacking of Osborne in the wake of the Brexit referendum. When in 2019 Osborne’s successor but one, Sajid Javid, announced that for the first time since 2010 all government departments would receive a budget increase, and that this represented ‘the end of austerity’, the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out that real government spending outside the NHS was 21 per cent lower, in per person terms, than in 2010.

Austerity was always a political choice. Aided by a juvenile note left by the outgoing Labour chief secretary to the treasury, Liam Byrne, to his successor – ‘Dear Chief Secretary, I’m afraid there is no money. Kind regards – and good luck!’ – Osborne framed Britain’s apparently parlous economic situation as a direct result not of the financial crash, but of Labour’s levels of public investment over its thirteen years in power. (Cameron took a copy of Byrne’s note on the campaign trail in 2015 and Sunak was still referring to it on the first day of this year’s election campaign.) The dominant, and supremely misleading, comparison was with the Greek economy. The dominant metaphor was the equally misleading one of the ‘maxed-out’ national credit card. As was pointed out at the time, though not very effectively by the Labour Party itself, this was a travesty of the facts. National economies are not like household finances (and Greece’s case was nothing like Britain’s). Labour’s levels of borrowing on the eve of the crash compared favourably with those of John Major’s Conservative government in the early 1990s; and – even if Labour’s petting of the financial sector had left Britain overexposed – in his Keynesian response to the crisis, Gordon Brown had pulled the economy back from the brink of disaster, even into modest growth by the time of the 2010 election. Labour had still gone into that campaign arguing that spending reductions would be necessary (largely at the insistence of Brown’s chancellor, Alistair Darling). But Osborne’s far grimmer prescription had no place for the view that, with interest rates at a historic low, it was an ideal time for the government to borrow to invest in the economy, maintaining services and jobs, boosting demand and growing the tax base, and thereby reducing the debt (something like the route chosen, with success, by President Obama). In fact, as Hindmoor notes, borrowing was so cheap in this period that, while the national debt continued to increase under the Tories (up 30 per cent by 2017), debt interest payments as a proportion of GDP ‘fell from 2.4 per cent in the early 2010s to 1.7 per cent in 2019’. The economy contracted under Osborne, before returning to growth; but the Office for Budget Responsibility (which Osborne set up) concluded that, by choosing to take an axe to an emergent recovery, the government had in fact reduced GDP by 1.4 per cent. In 2016, the OECD agreed that Osborne had adopted the wrong approach. As Hindmoor puts it, the ‘economy did not recover because of austerity. It recovered despite it.’ And yet, this weakened economy was shortly hammered by another Tory fetish: Brexit. And then by the Covid pandemic, which forced borrowing on a scale even larger than the crash. And then by Truss and Kwarteng’s market-spooking ‘mini-budget’. The cost of borrowing is now far higher than it was in 2010 and national debt is worth more than 100 per cent of GDP.

That Osborne’s austerity was ideological, unnecessary and ultimately futile in terms of its stated objectives should be at the front of our minds whenever we consider its consequences. The headline figures for cuts to department budgets give only a very limited idea of the damage that has been done. I mentioned that the central grant to local government more than halved between 2010/11 and 2015/16 (by 2020, it had lost 60p from every pound). Since local government is responsible for administering much of what we understand as the state – including schools and youth services; social care for children, the elderly and the disabled; refuges and child protection; social housing and housing benefit; bin collections, roads, buses, parks, cemeteries, public toilets and swimming pools, museums, galleries and libraries – while having limited ability to raise money for itself and being compelled to present a balanced budget, this alone has had devastating effects. More than half a million council staff lost their jobs. Spending on social care for the over-65s fell by 35 per cent between 2010 and 2018. A paper in the British Medical Journal argued that cuts in social care may have accounted for 45,000 excess deaths between 2012 and 2014. And this while the population has continued to age, live longer and increase. In 2023, it was estimated that funding for social care would have to rise by £8 billion to keep up with demand.

Women’s Aid found that 59 per cent of councils had reduced their funding for women’s refuges in 2019-20 and that there was a 24.5 per cent shortfall in places. There were 33 fewer refuges in 2020 than in 2010. In 2023, a government report found that in 2021/22 there were 3329 instances where the reason given for not being able to offer refuge was that the service could not ‘meet the needs of the household’. In 7704 instances (40 per cent), the service recorded that they ‘did not have capacity’. Sure Start Centres, which, in the IFS’s summary, bring together ‘health, parenting support, childcare and parental employment services into a one-stop shop for families with children under five’, were a recognised Labour success story: 31 per cent of the cost was found to be offset by the number of hospitalisations the centres helped avoid in children under fifteen. Their effectiveness was at its greatest in 2010, when they were best funded and there were 3631 centres in England. Since then, more than 1400 have been closed. Youth services have been cut by 75 per cent – the most recent data, from 2022, show that there are 4500 fewer youth workers and 760 fewer youth centres. Since 2010, the number of people sleeping rough in England has more than doubled and all other forms of homelessness (for instance, families living in temporary accommodation) are at record highs. Around eight hundred libraries have closed (a fifth of all libraries in the UK, most of them in deprived areas) and more than two hundred museums. In many cases, surviving institutions have reduced their hours and cut staff. More than a thousand publicly accessible swimming pools have been closed, and nearly 60 per cent of public toilets. So many bus routes have been cancelled that buses now cover 14 per cent fewer miles than in 2010. Councils face an estimated £14 billion backlog in road maintenance, with up to 50 per cent of roads judged to be at risk of complete deterioration within fifteen years. In 2023, the RAC reported that the number of callouts for pothole-related breakdowns were at a five-year high, and had increased 40 per cent on the previous year.

This is only​ a tiny sample. Most cuts have disproportionately affected poorer areas, which were more reliant on support to begin with. And all of this is in the context of increased demand – social care alone, which councils have tried to protect, now swallows 60 per cent of their budgets – as well as high energy prices and a cost-of-living crisis. Councils have been pushed into dependence on business rates (although the success of local businesses differs widely across the country), encouraged to make investments and to sell off what assets they can, including parks and historic buildings. Meanwhile, local taxes have gone up, producing a situation in which residents are paying more for fewer and worse services. When I first wrote about cuts to local government in the LRB (15 December 2016), I said that in the previous six years Britain had become a ‘darker, dirtier and more dangerous place’, and it has continued firmly in this direction. I also wrote that ‘soon councils themselves will be floated on the market, cut loose from most of their government funding, with every possibility that they will sink.’ Since 2000, fourteen section 114 notices have been issued – a declaration by a council of effective bankruptcy. Two were issued in 2000, the other twelve since 2018. There were more section 114 notices in 2022 and 2023 than in the thirty years before 2018; two of these bankruptcies partly reflected the failure of speculative investments. A Local Government Association survey last year found that almost one in five councils thought it ‘very or fairly likely that [they] will need to issue a section 114 notice this year or next due to a lack of funding to keep key services running’. I was not being prescient in 2016, but stating what was blindingly obvious to anyone who looked (including the government, which carried on regardless).

In other areas of public spending, the effects of austerity have been just as severe. The civil service itself was cut from 481,000 to 384,000, reaching its lowest level since the war in 2016, just in time for the colossal demands of the Brexit transition. Only in 2022 did it recover to its 2010 level, but then in April Sunak decided to fund a spending increase on defence by cutting numbers all over again (by a proposed 70,000). In education, school capital spending is down 32 per cent (this when more than two hundred school buildings have recently been identified as having been built with collapse-prone concrete). In the decade after 2010, spending per pupil in England fell by 9 per cent in real terms, meaning that 2020 levels were the same as in 2006. Average teacher pay, in real terms, has been reduced to 2001 levels. The legal system has been put under enormous pressure. Since 2010, 43 per cent of the courts in England and Wales (around 240) have been closed, leaving almost half of local authority areas without one. Access to legal aid has been greatly reduced. In 2022, the Law Society reported that in the wake of the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act,

the number of legal aid cases to help people get the early advice they need dropped from almost a million in 2009/10 to just 130,000 in 2021/22. Over the same period the number of people having to go to court without representation trebled. The number of advice agencies and law centres doing this work has fallen by 59 per cent.

As the Bar Society has pointed out, one obvious advantage of early legal advice is that it prevents conflicts from reaching the courts. There is currently a record court backlog of more than 67,000 cases. When in 2018 Rory Stewart became prisons minister under May, he brought himself up to speed on the effects of the cuts he had been voting through for the previous eight years:

The problem had begun, I gathered, in 2010 – when Cameron and Osborne had decided that the department’s budget would be cut by 25 per cent. There had been some valiant attempts to save money. The first Conservative secretary of state in 2010 had fired a third of all prison officers and privatised the maintenance of prisons. The second secretary of state had privatised the probation service. The third, Michael Gove, had decided to sell off the London prisons, which stood on prime city-centre real estate. Liz Truss, the fourth, had rented out floors in our office building, got rid of more managers and promised to reduce costs across prisons and courts with new technology. But none of this had been enough, in part because Cameron had not followed through on his promise to cut the prison population.

In England and Wales, there is now a record number of prisoners – 87,973 in February this year, projected to rise to a ‘central estimate’ of 105,800 by March 2028 – and two-thirds of prisons are officially overcrowded. Conditions are known to be appalling (as Stewart attests): rates of suicide, self-harm and violent assault have increased significantly. The chief inspector of prisons, Charlie Taylor, warns of ‘more deprivation, squalor, and the risk of further violence’.

Not even totems of Britishness have been safe. The armed forces numbered 207,000 in 2000 and 142,000 in 2023; the number of frontline fighter jets is down by 40 per cent since 2007, to 119. Two showy aircraft carriers were built for £6.2 billion, but their usefulness is limited, since they cannot both be properly defended at the same time. Ben Wallace, defence secretary from 2019 until 2023, admitted that the armed forces had been ‘hollowed out and underfunded’. The BBC has had its budget reduced by 30 per cent in real terms since 2010 and this year announced £200 million in further cuts. The BBC World Service, a soft-power asset, has been especially badly affected. The director-general, Tim Davie, said this year that, in a crucial period of digital transition, ‘to strip money from the BBC … has been particularly shortsighted.’

In the two departments Osborne swore to protect, the picture is no better. The commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income on aid, which made Britain one of the world’s great powers in international development, was abandoned by Sunak in November 2020, when he was chancellor. It amounted to a £4 billion cut. May, rebelling against the Conservative whip for the first time in her life, said in Parliament that the decision meant that ‘fewer girls will be educated, more girls and boys will become slaves, more children will go hungry and more of the poorest people in the world will die.’ The sharpness of the reductions and the abruptness with which they were announced have been widely criticised. Earlier this year, the Public Accounts Committee was told that in 2022/23, ‘Afghanistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe received between £14.7 million and £39.8 million less than their initially allocated funds.’ According to the Byline Times, in 2022 development aid to Africa was ‘down 57 per cent. Pakistan, once recipient of £331 million a year in aid … only received £58 million. The African Development Fund was cut from £177 million to £27 million.’

As for the NHS, though its budget continued to increase after 2010, it did so at a far reduced rate compared to both its long-term average and to the average of the (highly successful) previous decade, and its deficit has continued to grow. Staff pay was held down, also amounting to real-terms cuts (as much as 16 per cent for junior doctors, 8 per cent for nurses). What’s more, as the King’s Fund observed in its report on the ‘Rise and Decline of the NHS in England, 2000-2020’, the government ‘sought to protect spending on NHS running costs by diverting resources from other parts of the Department of Health’s budget, such as capital spending and … spending on public health, education and training, and central administration. Decisions taken in the 2015 spending review amounted to a cut of more than 20 per cent in these other budgets or more than £3 billion in real terms by 2020/21.’ That is to say, the Tories decided to reduce spending, run down hospitals and create shortfalls in staff, while doing an enormous amount (with their decisions on social care, early years wellbeing and poverty, among other things) to funnel many more people into the system and depriving them of a place to go when they’re fit to leave it. Last year, there was a 38 per cent increase in the number of people waiting more than a month for an appointment with their GP. This year, 7.5 per cent of the positions meant to be occupied by nurses, midwives and health visitors were unfilled. Already before the pandemic, hospital waiting lists had doubled in size, with average waiting times also inevitably increasing; they have doubled again since 2019. Eighty per cent of patients reporting to A&E departments before the pandemic were seen within four hours; that figure is now down to 55 per cent. The proportion of cancer patients waiting longer than two weeks for an urgent hospital appointment has increased by more than 20 per cent. And the NHS has faced a series of unprecedented strikes. Junior doctors recently announced a five-day walk-out – their eleventh since March 2023 – for just before the election.

The Conservatives have made the country poorer. Employment levels have been very high throughout these years, but the jobs created under the Tories have mainly been low-paid and insecure (the use of zero-hours contracts took off after 2010 and is at yet another record high). Wages have been stagnant. Average pay, adjusted for inflation, is less than it was in 2007. According to the IFS, the total growth in average pre-tax pay ‘between 2009/10 and 2023/24 is equivalent to what we previously might have expected in about 17 months’. The main explanation for this lack of growth is Britain’s abject failure to meaningfully increase productivity, which had been increasing by around 2 per cent a year until the crash, before being driven down by Osborne’s destruction of public investment (according to the World Bank, Britain’s Gross Capital Formation between 2010 and 2015, the best marker for levels of domestic investment, placed it 150th out of 174 countries) and hasn’t recovered (between 2015 and 2021, it ranked 145th). Last year, productivity grew by 0.1 per cent. Hindmoor points out that the problem is now less to do with public investment (inflated by the pandemic and other pressures) than with private, the City of London preferring the large profits currently offered by short-term dividends. It also reflects regional inequality, a stubborn problem which has only worsened. Since 2000, in all parts of the UK with the exception of London and Scotland, productivity has decreased decade on decade compared to the national average. Two big Tory ideas, Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse and Johnson’s Levelling Up, came in response to this, but neither concept was allowed to disrupt the predominant strain in the Tories’ economic thinking. Devolution to new ‘metro mayors’ in Manchester, West Midlands and the Tees Valley, among other places, has been judged a success, but has not been backed up with far-ranging powers; Gove’s White Paper for Levelling Up was half-baked.

Hindmoor notes that ‘stagnant wages, low growth in household income, low overall rates of growth and relatively high levels of income inequality have combined to generate high levels of relative and absolute poverty.’ This list of causal factors could also include the facts that the Tories have deliberately put people out of work (nearly a million in the public sector alone) and kept public sector wages below inflation, while overseeing a Gradgrindian welfare regime (including cuts to housing benefit, the two-child benefit cap, the institution of a five-week wait to take up benefits under the new, sometimes punitive Universal Credit system). In 2021, the New Economics Foundation estimated that if the welfare system the Tories inherited in 2010 had been left unchanged, 1.5 million fewer people would be in poverty. The major reduction in child poverty achieved by New Labour has been reversed and the increase from 23.8 percent of UK children living below the poverty line in 2021/2022 to 25 per cent in 2022/2023 was the fastest rise for thirty years. The number of people in working households below the poverty line is now well over a million. In 2010, food banks were almost unknown in the UK; there are now more than three thousand. Between April 2023 and March 2024, the Trussell Trust (which runs around half of them) handed out 3.1 million food parcels, an increase of 94 per cent over the previous five years. It estimates that one person in five who uses a foodbank belongs to a working household. An astonishing fact: British children born and raised in the austerity years are shorter than those in recent generations. Another, stated with startling brevity by Hindmoor: ‘Increasing life expectancy in Britain has been replaced by falling life expectancy.’

Needless to say, Brexit has stamped all over this situation in dirty boots, compounding existing problems and creating new ones. The loss of large-scale EU grants for disadvantaged areas was inadequately made up for by the government’s new UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which – it’s almost funny – Sunak has now pledged to abolish in order to fund the proposed return of national service. The OBR’s most recent estimates have Brexit reducing long-term productivity by 4 per cent and reducing both imports and exports by 15 per cent relative to non-Brexit projections. The new, much touted trade deals with Japan and Australia should each increase UK GDP by 0.1 per cent over fifteen years.

Why,​ with this record, did the Tories keep on winning? Let’s start with some qualifications. They have actually only won twice, failing to gain a majority in 2010 and in 2017. In 2015, Cameron achieved a tiny majority of ten; only Johnson went big with a majority of eighty in 2019, which by the time Parliament was dissolved last week had been reduced, by suspensions of the whip, by-election defeats and defections, to 47. But they have increased their vote share: in 2010 they won 36.1 per cent; in 2015 36.9 per cent; in 2017 and 2019 they won 42.3 per cent and 43.6 per cent respectively. In the last two elections, definitively in 2019, they created an ominous new electoral coalition, using Brexit to unite their traditional moneyed southern base with working-class, non-university-educated voters in the Midlands and Labour’s northern heartlands (the fabled ‘Red Wall’).

As Samuel Earle observes in his snappy (though under-edited) survey of the ‘Tory Nation’, the Conservatives, who were in power for most of the 20th century, are always able to draw on their identity as the party of government, committed to the ‘national interest’. This has been very helpful in girding their messages on the ‘necessity’ of austerity and economic ‘responsibility’. They have also had the booming, blue-faced support of the anti-EU Tory press. Bale, who refers to the ‘party in the media’, sprinkles choice headlines through his book. There was the Daily Mail declaring the judges at the High Court ‘ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE’, when it ruled that Parliament must be given a vote on invoking Article 50. There was a great deal of fawning over May, quite detached from the reality of her political situation: ‘STEEL OF THE NEW IRON LADY’ (the Mail); ‘May to EU: give us a fair deal or you’ll be crushed’ (the Times). Johnson (‘BORIS’) was adored (between his resignation as foreign secretary and his becoming prime minister, he wrote a column for the Telegraph and now writes one for the Mail). Truss (‘LIZ’) was too: ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the woman,’ the Mail said. Later, along with the Times, Telegraph, Metro and Express, it led with her declaration, on entering Downing Street, that ‘Together, we can ride out the storm.’ The Truss-Kwarteng mini-budget was greeted by the Mail: ‘AT LAST! A TRUE TORY BUDGET.’

Too often – no doubt cowed by the power wielded over it by a hostile government that has continually shrunk its budget – the BBC has allowed itself to follow the agendas set by the ‘party in the media’ and to accept uncritically the Tories’ ideological framing of events. Between 2010 and 2015, it became as fixated on the question of what Labour was going to ‘do about the deficit’ as Osborne could have wished. (Bale, writing in 2023, notes that ‘the wider media’s tendency to portray the nation’s finances as if they were a household’s is … likely to prove helpful to Jeremy Hunt – just as it was to George Osborne.’) The apparatchik status of much of the media has been underlined by a series of ‘revolving door’ appointments. Osborne, who had never been more than a freelancer for the Daily Telegraph, became editor of the Evening Standard after leaving Parliament in 2017; its owner was later made Lord Lebedev of Siberia by Johnson. James Slack, the Mail’s political editor, became May’s official spokesman; Jack Doyle, an associate editor at the Mail, became Downing Street communications director. Robbie Gibb, who had worked as an editor at the BBC’s Newsnight and on its flagship Andrew Marr political interview show, became Downing Street director of communications in 2017 (Johnson put him on the board of the BBC four years later). James Forsyth, political editor at the Spectator and a columnist on the Sun and Times (and best man at Sunak’s wedding) proved a remarkable diviner of government thinking; in 2022 he became Sunak’s political private secretary. Forsyth’s wife, Allegra Stratton, formerly political editor at Newsnight and national editor at ITV News, became the Downing Street press secretary in 2020, before being implicated in Partygate and resigning. And it is good to be reminded that Johnson tried, unsuccessfully, to have Paul Dacre, long-time editor of the Mail, appointed as head of the media regulator, Ofcom; and to have Charles Moore, former editor of the Telegraph and the Spectator (and still a columnist), appointed as chair of the BBC. In the end, he had to make do with putting them both in the Lords (Moore is happily ensconced; but Dacre’s elevation was blocked by the appointments commission, despite Johnson nominating him twice).

The Tories also had several pieces of political good luck, even if they didn’t always look that way at the time. First, they were able to ruthlessly exploit the hapless Lib Dems in coalition, gaining useful political cover for austerity and triumphantly defending first-past-the-post in the 2011 referendum on the electoral system (in one of their most brilliantly awful pieces of opportunism, the Tories argued that proportional representation would produce more unprincipled coalitions like the one they were currently in, adducing the Lib Dems’ breaking of their promises on student fees). In 2015, the Lib Dems were annihilated (going from 57 MPs to eight), and the Tories gobbled up their seats. The spectacular rise of the SNP after the narrow loss of the Scottish independence referendum granted by Cameron in 2014 also proved helpful: in the 2015 election, it purged Labour from Scotland (losing 40 of 41 seats) and in the long term gave the Scottish Tories a bit of a boost, allowing them to claim their old mantle as defenders of the Union. The SNP continued to claim that Scotland had no influence on who ruled at Westminster, but had the Tories not won thirteen Scottish seats in the 2017 election, twelve from the Nationalists, May would not have been able to form a government, even with the help of the DUP.

Austerity, in the short term (appropriately), was a vote-winner. The public, as judged from opinion polls, bought wholeheartedly into the Tory narrative about the deficit and the need for ‘tough decisions’. Labour’s post-2015 election post-mortem found that it had lost partly because it ‘was perceived as being anti-austerity’. But the Tories were riding a tiger. As Hindmoor writes, public attitudes began to shift not long afterwards, away from the belief that austerity was necessary, to a majority in favour of tax rises and spending increases. Perversely, this initially helped the Tories. The changing of guard in 2016 meant that May was able to respond to this mood and define herself against the Cameron-Osborne government: her pitch to voters was anti-austerity in tone, if not in practice, and her 2017 manifesto talked pointedly about ‘the good that government can do’. Johnson, as in all things, did it louder and without blushes. He ran hard against his own party’s record, going into the 2019 election shouting about ‘Levelling Up’ and promising among other things to deliver twenty thousand more police officers, not mentioning that it was the Tories who had cut twenty thousand police officers in the first place. (The anti-austerity turn also produced a Corbyn-led Labour Party, which helped make itself a convenient enemy.) As the cases of May and Johnson prove, it has not been entirely unhelpful for a party so long in power to have had five prime ministers. Each one has formed a ‘new’ government and presented it as such, wildly indulged in this notion by the ‘party in the media’.

The Tories were luckiest of all that, after thirteen years of New Labour investment, as for Thatcher after more than two decades of postwar social-democratic consolidation, the state they sought to wither was in robust health when they went to work. Headline cuts move slowly through layers of bureaucracy and service provision. Safety nets fray, but hold for a time. People don’t at first notice the change, or when they do are prepared to accept it as ‘necessary’, or to put faith in the new tone of the latest prime minister. But that period is now over, and the Tories wasted the chances they were given to switch course. There inevitably comes a time, as in the mid-1990s and now, when the country suddenly looks exhausted, hobbled and gaunt. In 2008, 12 per cent of Britons thought that young people would have a worse life than their parents; now more than 40 per cent do. With the effects of austerity buckling every limb, Labour regularly refers to ‘national decline’ and makes hay with the idea that ‘nothing works in this country any more.’ The Tories’ poll ratings confirm that this is an accurate reading of the public mood, as does a recent YouGov poll, which found that 73 per cent of Britons think the country ‘is worse now than it was in 2010’.

Yet​ it would be a mistake to think that what has happened to Britain since 2010 is an accident, an unforeseen side-effect. The Tories are short-term thinkers, judged by any objective standard. But by the standards of a motivating ideology, which tends to dispose of inconvenient facts and justify any amount of harm in the service of a general vision of the way things ought to be, they are not. A neo-Thatcherite ambition can easily be discerned in the country they will bequeath to Labour. The size of the state and the quantity of its contacts with the public have been greatly reduced. Local government – a mini welfare state of its own, and a long-term Tory bugbear – has been destroyed. Trade unions have been further hampered. The right to protest has been restricted. Workers’ rights have continued to diminish. Britons now access most of their services through private companies. The housing market is roaring, and so is the rental market, with little social housing between. Universities have been thoroughly marketised. Schools have been detached from local government supervision as ‘academies’. The NHS looks more susceptible to capture than ever before. Taxes on the rich remain low by Western European standards. So does corporation tax. Britain has left the EU, is in charge of its own immigration policy, and has made a series of (God help us, Truss-negotiated) independent trade deals. The market is freer, its strictures more unfeelingly enforced.

Thatcherism degraded the social fabric to the point where the Tory Party was removed from office in 1997 on a wave of discontent. Thatcherism in its second guise – represented finally by Sunak announcing the election in a downpour, soaked through in his skinny suit – has done the same, and the Tory Party looks set to be removed again. But Keir Starmer and his soon-to-be chancellor, Rachel Reeves, are, like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the children of their political moment. Blair and Brown, for all their achievements, continued to inhabit the house that Thatcher built. Starmer and Reeves, with their aversion to tax rises and rhetorical endorsement of the household budget/national budget parallel (‘to my mum,’ Reeves has said, ‘every penny mattered … and the basic test for whoever is chancellor is to bring that attitude to our public finances’), their embrace of the private sector, their courting of the City, their exclusive focus on economic growth and insistent acceptance of the grim and limiting Tory ‘inheritance’, look set to do the same. The structures of the post-1945, pre-Thatcher socio-political settlement are becoming traces. Fourteen years ago, Cameron and Osborne justified austerity by saying they were ‘fixing the roof while the sun is shining’. But the roof is gone now, and there is nowhere to escape the rain.

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Vol. 46 No. 13 · 4 July 2024

In Tom Crewe’s account of the last fourteen years of Conservative government, he repeats something that has become a shibboleth of progressive thought: that Boris Johnson’s ‘dither and delay’ during the Covid pandemic ‘cost lives’ (LRB, 20 June). For the combined years 2020 and 2021, according to figures published in the Lancet, the UK’s excess death rate was 126.8/100,000, close to that of France and Germany and far lower than the US or Italy. As Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh, has written, ‘the case for the second lockdown in England remains weak.’ Scotland (which did not have one), Wales (which had a short ‘firebreak’) and England had similar excess deaths, respectively, 130.6, 135.5 and 125.8 per 100,000 population.

Roland Salmon

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