If you were to look up the term “midterm blues” in a dictionary of political terminology, the definition might very well include a photo of the United Kingdom Prime minister, Boris Johnson right now — and the image might show him sitting rumpled in a children’s fairground ride at Peppa Pig Park in Hampshire, about 80 kilometres to the southwest of London.
Up to this week, I had no idea that Peppa Pig Park existed, and I would be reaching into the depths of my daughter’s daytime television cartoons many, many years ago to even come up with any memory of the porcine character.
But right now, Peppa Pig is likely trending on Google — nothing to do with a sudden love of cuddle cartoon characters, everything to do with Johnson and his ramblings about his family’s visit to the theme park last weekend.
I have done my fair share of public speaking down through the years and yes, it can be nerve-racking. But when you’re Johnson, the Prime Minister, a former Foreign Minister, a former Mayor of London, a raconteur of tales seemingly at the drop of a hat — certainly a larger-than-life personality who has never been known to be stuck for words — when you’re suddenly stuck for words, that’s a worry.
And more so when you bumble on about the theme park, how the character could never have been dreamt up at the BBC, start to make humming sounds to describe a car accelerating away and, most shocking of all, stand at a podium, awkwardly shuffling papers and muttering “forgive me” three times in a space of 30 seconds, it is noticeable.
Bizzare, rambling speech
And when that speech is supposed to be a chance to address the Confederation of British Industry — the nation’s top manufacturers and exporters who would dearly love to know about the government’s plan for the economy, for building Britain back better in a post-Brexit world — the lack of words and bizarre interlude were, frankly, very worrying.
Is it any wonder that there’s a growing body of Members of Parliament within his Conservative party who are wondering if indeed Boris has what it takes now to lead their party.
These weeks are a pivotal moment for Johnson — almost as if he needs to fully press the reset button. Again. He was in Marbella a month ago for a week’s holidays — and even that came with the scrutiny of who paid for the trip and whether it came with strings attached.
They’re the same questions that have plagued him for the past 18 months since he moved back into the renovated private apartments above 10 Downing Street. And so too the same questions from a previous holiday to a private Caribbean island.
The fact is that right now, in this midterm blue period, Johnson is facing multiple questions on multiple fronts — many of his own making.
For long-time observers of British politics, this current tempest on multiple fronts seems very akin to the many sleaze incidents that fatally undermined the premiership of John Major a quarter of a century ago. Is history about to repeat itself?
Shooting itself in the foot
Even when there is seemingly good news, the government appears to have the uncanny ability of shooting itself in the foot, reversing course and generally being seen to be dysfunctional and incapable of making cohesive or progressive moves forward.
Social care has long been a contentious issue that needed tackling by consecutive governments. Just who is entitled to care and how it will be paid for are questions that worry many Britons as they approach old age. Will they have to see their homes to pay the cost? Will there be anything left to pass onto family after a life’s work paying mortgages and taxes?
Johnson appeared to have cracked the nut with a scheme that meant that the full cost of social care would be capped at £86,000, with workers paying more in National Insurance taxes from April to pay for the scheme.
But the government has now moved the goalpost, changing the administration of the scheme meaning that everyone now would have to pay £86,000. The problem is that if you live in a house that costs £120,000 — any house prices in poorer, northern areas are lower — you’re left with £34,000. In the south — areas that are generally Conservative-supporting in nature, houses cost way more. So you’d still pay £86,000 on a house worth £500,000 — leaving you with £414,000. The scheme isn’t equitable.
Wrath of furious constituents
The new rules have some Conservative voters from northern regions, where Boris proved to be popular in the election two years ago, now facing the wrath of furious constituents.
The social care debacle comes just days after the government decided it was axing the major component of the HS2 high-speed rail network that would link London with northern England, the route to Birmingham — where trains will take just over an hour to travel between the two cities — is going ahead.
But Leeds and much of northeastern England lose out. And the planned modification and modernisation of current railways announced as part of the revised rail plan simply don’t meet the needs of the North.
So much, voters are saying, for Johnson’s plans to “level up” the underserviced north with the south.
And the party is still up in arms about Johnson’s ham-fisted efforts to alter parliamentary rules to save a close colleague after a disciplinary committee said he should be suspended for sleazy lobbying practices — a chapter that has merely highlighted the many Conservative MPs who are moonlighting with second jobs.
What remains to be seen is whether this is all just a blip, a temporary trip or a slide that may lead to more questions down the road. Unlike Peppa Pig bedtime stories, this one might see all the Conservatives living happily ever after.
Mick O’Reilly is Foreign Correspondent at Gulf News. Source: Gulf News