Prime Minister Boris Johnson braces for a ‘winter of discontent’

There was a time when governments tended to be judged by how effectively they ran the country.

There was a time when governments tended to be judged by how effectively they ran the country and how true they were to the promises that propelled them to power in the first place.

Competence and delivery were two key watchwords before the electorate passed judgement at another election.

Modern government tends to be defined not by how smoothly a party governs, but in its ability to fire fight on many fronts and appear more able to weather the storms than those who would seek to replace them.

The dilemma between what a party wants to do and the practical limitations about what it can achieve is the fault-line that runs through the heart of a modern administration.

For firefighter Johnson, his inferno is defined by an energy crisis, an NHS at breaking point, a backlash over cutting Universal Credit, the crisis in the supply chain, the sluggish progress of post Brexit trade deals, the foreign policy debacle of Afghanistan etc, etc, etc.

Closer to home Nicola Sturgeon deals with the same NHS crisis, aggravated by delayed discharges and a backlash over ambulance waiting times.

Throw in discontent about closing the attainment gap in education, the colossal amounts of public money lost to poor procurement decisions, spiralling drugs deaths, an unprecedented crisis in the integrity of the Crown Office etc, etc, etc.

From a news agenda point of view, both Johnson and Sturgeon are in a near permanent state of crisis and yet for all of the obvious policy shortcomings the opposition fail to cut through in a way that suggests a change of government is on the cards.

Both leaders won handsome victories in 2019, and in May of this year in Sturgeon’s case.

The biggest challenge will come Johnson’s way in what could well be a ‘winter of discontent’.

The phrase entered the political lexicon during the winter of 1978 when a whole series of strikes undermined the authority of the Labour government of Jim Callaghan and paved the way for Margaret Thatcher’s victory in May of 1979.

A series of events are likely to conspire to provide the opposition with a series of open goals. If Sir Keir Starmer does not look like a Prime Minister in waiting by the first quarter of 2022, then Labour will be forced to look for an alternative leader. 

Johnson’s detractors point to his lack of grasp of detail, his forte for finding the wrong words and tone, and the deploying of the buffoon routine in the face of weighty problems. The coming months will test him as never before, and if the past is any guide he is likely to be found wanting.

The rise in energy bills will cut through as tariffs change and fixed-term deals come to an end. The rises will be steep. The wage inflation being experienced will be more than wiped out by the energy rises.

Council Tax bills will rise at the end of the first quarter of next year and the hike in National Insurance contributions will kick in as well. Household budgets will be further squeezed after more than a decade of a post-2008 austerity charge.

By that time furlough will be but a distant memory and businesses will have adjusted to the new normal which will either see them sink altogether or swim in a sea of economic uncertainty. Hospitality will discover it will be some time before they are out of the woods. 

The aviation sector will still be buffeted by Covid uncertainty and the possibility of further restrictions can’t entirely be ruled out leading to a fundamental crisis as public consent for further measured lockdowns evaporates.

In short, there will be lots of angry people, aggrieved at the never-ending attrition directed at their living standards. And that applies to those lucky enough to be in work and for whom the challenge will be to make ends meet. 

For those on Universal Credit, the coming months are the stuff of nightmare. The energy crisis might just be the issue that forces a government u-turn on withdrawing the £20 per week uplift.

If it goes ahead it could become the defining issue of Johnson’s premiership, as the poorest are left to struggle leaving TV news reports to document the ‘eat or heat’ dilemma. 

Food banks will see demand grow to even higher levels. This is fast becoming not an issue of benefits, or financial prudence, but of right and wrong in a time of crisis. The Prime Minister will make his choice and he will live with the consequences.

The next six months could make or break his premiership as well as the long-term sustainability and electability of his Government.

I sense the perfect storm of issues, one that transcends party politics and will be rooted in the kind of despair that could usher change.

Jim Callaghan was a far wilier politician than Johnson, a man of huge experience who had the thick skin to take the arrows of outrageous fortune. His winter of discontent buried him for all of his gravitas.

Johnson is not as equipped to deal with a similar national crisis. It remains to be seen if he will go the same way as Sunny Jim.