‘Cancelling Christmas’ days after deriding the possibility shows how the prime minister is caught in the trap of populism

20th December 2020

Just days ago, at the last Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), this exchange took place.

Click and watch it.

At this point, the prime minister knew that there was a real risk that, to use the phrase, ‘Christmas would have to be cancelled’ – at least for London and the south east.

A responsible prime minister would have used the moment of PMQs – where there is a platform both before elected representatives and before the media and public – to prepare people for this sad possibility.

(Indeed, it may be that on Wednesday he knew that it was far more than a possibility.)

But what did this prime minister do instead?

He derided the leader of the opposition and he dismissed the risk.

We once had a prime minister – who was not without other faults – who candidly warned the public of sweat and tears.

We now have a prime minister who goes for claps and cheers.

Indeed, ‘populism’ can be illustrated, if not defined, by this prime minister sneering that others want to ‘cancel Christmas’ for claps and cheers – days before then having to cancel Christmas.

The constant putting-off of difficult decisions, and the promotion of easy answers.

(On this, this column by Rafael Behr is magnificent.)

Now some government-supporting politicians are spinning that this is a prime minister unafraid of difficult decisions.

This is untrue.

The difficult decision was not the one forced yesterday – there was by then no real choice – but at PMQs, where there was a choice to be made.

Does the prime minister tell members of parliament and the watching media and and public to brace themselves that something bad may happen – and to thereby give everyone time to plan accordingly – or does he go for the glib jibe?

Watch the footage again, and see what he decides to do.

It is difficult – genuinely – to imagine a more incompetent prime minister.

Yes, other government-supporting politicians – from the home secretary to the leader of the house of commons – would be just as dreadful.

But they would only be as bad in different ways.

For as, scientists tell us, one cannot go below absolute zero, one cannot go beneath a level of absolute incompetence.

No prime minister would have relished facing up to ‘cancelling Christmas’ for millions of people.

But our prime minister is caught in the trap of populism.

And politicians that can only play to the crowd invariably end up letting the crowd down.


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15 thoughts on “‘Cancelling Christmas’ days after deriding the possibility shows how the prime minister is caught in the trap of populism”

  1. It will be interesting to see if any serious Brexit concessions are made in the background whilst this captures everyone’s attention.

    1. You are probably correct, and you may also illustrate Mr Greeen’s point.

      There may already be a broad outline of a Brexit trade agreement, but Mr Johnson cannot bring it before Parliament for ratification until the very last moment because he needs to rush it through without any scrutiny from his own MPs.

      If that happens, the resultant carping from his own side – when they scrutinise it properly and their constituents start asking them ‘is this all there is?’ – may be when the crowd-pleaser disillusions his audience.

      I wonder if Mr Johnson begins to consider ‘no deal’ as a more viable alternative, for him?

      Of course it’s all very sensible for Mr Green to point out our PM’s myriad defects, but it would be even more interesting to read his thoughts on why significant chunks of the English electorate voted for him despite knowing or suspecting this at the time.

      1. The electorate did not vote for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party in much larger numbers at the 2019 General Election than they had for May in 2017.

        Between the 2017 General Election and the 2019 General Election, Boris Johnson gained around 600,000 votes, but lost 300,000 or so, in the process, to the Liberal Democrats.

        A net increase of 300,000 over May’s performance in 2017.

        Jeremy Corbyn lost Labour 1,200,000 voters, alone, between 2017 and 2019 to not voting. The 1.2m could not stomach voting for Labour under Corbyn, but at the same time were unwilling to vote for any other party.

        The 600,000 votes Johnson picked up were almost wholly from Labour. The 300,000 he lost went almost wholly to the Liberal Democrats.

        Finally, Labour lost around 300,000 votes to the Brexit Party and 600,000 votes to the Liberal Democrats.

        And the Greens, between 2017 and 2019, gained 300,000 votes from not voting …

        1. I grasp the explanation, but I suppose the swing to the Conservatives is greater than the stats suggest, because it doesn’t count voters who supported Labour in 2019 for the first time, in extremis, (despite Mr Corbyn being a problematic candidate). Which thus understates Labour disaffections to Mr Johnson.

          But the question remains – why?

          1. Labour did not gain any votes at the 2019 General Election to be deducted from those it lost.

            I think I would be testing David’s patience to its limits and beyond to detail here why Corbyn was such a vote loser.

  2. And just to make it even worse, as Johnson was leaving the press conference yesterday afternoon he casually dropped the remark that everything would be fine by Easter.

  3. I’m not so sanguine about “absolute incompetence”.

    Johnson and the cabinet change tack too late, and changing tack can always be still later.

    Johnson and the cabinet brief the dangerous proposal (warships in the fishing grounds), others might implement that proposal.

    It could be still worse. (Though I don’t think that negated the duty of Tory backbenchers to remove Johnson and the government).

    1. Strange days, indeed, when we deploy four warships to contest the Narrow Seas with the fishing boats of a NATO ally.

      The Channel is one of the busiest, if not the busiest of any of the seaways in the world’s oceans. Could the UK Government be sued for creating potential hazards to shipping?

      Meanwhile, two weeks ago nearly a dozen warships and combat aircraft from Russia’s Northern, Baltic and Black Sea fleets gave a “show of force in the waters off the British and Irish coasts,” according to General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff.

      Unless the Black Sea Fleet ships were in transit to other duties then it was a lot of money to spend on fuel for them to participate in this exercise.

      An exercise on a scale not seen since the last death rattle of the Soviet regime.

      Admiral Johnson wears two eye patches on such occasions?

      Or is General Carter’s contention that such a foray “… requires us to hold their backyard at risk, whether that’s in the Barents Sea, the High North, the Baltic or the Black Sea” in some way unpalatable to our latter day Winston Churchill?

      More recently it was announced that the Russians had gained an agreement with the Sudanese Government to use Port Sudan on the Red Sea as a naval base.

      Almost directly opposite from the port is Mecca. No comment from the Trump administration and none, seemingly from the Saudis, but what would be the point, if your major ally is looking the other way?

      Generations of previous Russian leaders would have given their eye teeth for a naval base in the Eastern Mediterranean. Putin now has one in Syria, north of the Suez Canal, complimented by the base in Sudan, south of the Suez Canal.

      British foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean for centuries was one of containment, putting pressure on the Ottoman Empire to keep the Russian Black Sea Fleet bottled up in the Black Sea. It then became NATO and US policy until Trump.

      Only a few days ago, Boris Johnson elevated to the peerage, the son of a former head of the KGB’s London Station.

      Lebedev Jr once owned two wolves, the one was named Boris and the other, Vladimir.

      A story idea that even John le Carré might have thought too outré for one of his novels.

  4. Winston Churchill, as you say had his faults, but when preparing his “Blood, Sweat and Tears” speech after the Dunkirk evacuation had been completed, he put in these lines towards the end of his peroration:

    “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”

    Yes, Dunkirk had been a success beyond the expectations of many, but it was still another Corunna. It took Sir Arthur Wellesley five years to defeat the French in the Peninsula, in which time he secured a bridgehead in Portugal, drove the French out of Portugal and defeated them in Spain.

    I suspect Churchill had that campaign in mind when addressing the House of Commons.

    The evacuation at Dunkirk had been such a success, in part, because Major Attlee, whom history has dubbed the Prime Minister for the Home Front, chided the military for a lack of ambition when it came to how many they thought they might take off the beaches of Dunkirk. And he was well placed to do so, having been the second to last man off the beaches at Gallipoli.

    The withdrawal of Allied troops, there were French naval and infantry forces there, from the Dardanelles is a textbook example of how to conduct such an operation. Much of the rest of the campaign provides examples of how not to exploit success.

    I had better leave it there. I know how irrationally some people behave when you mention Gallipoli and Winston Churchill. However, I will say that Attlee when questioned about the campaign said that, on balance it was worth the effort for the prizes, if it were successful were so great.

    Turkey knocked out of the war, freeing up 100s of 1,000s of Allied troops across the Middle East for campaigns elsewhere, in the Balkans, Northern Italy and on the Eastern Front; a secure, relatively short route to supply the Russian Empire via the Dardanelles with the materials for continuing the fight against the German and Austro-Hungarian forces and an example of how the war might be shortened, if not won without the need for further Allied sacrifice on the Western Front.

    There is a point here about Churchill reaching out across the Despatch Box to men and women of good conscience, patriots all, to form a strong Coalition to fight a war on a scale unprecedented in recent centuries.

    One might adopt the cynical view of Johnson and Kennedy that it was best to have them inside the tent, pissing out than outside the tent, pissing in, but that would be unfair on Churchill.

    If the Labour Party lasts a thousand years then May 1940 will, forever, be one of its finest hours. Attlee and Arthur Greenwood backing Churchill to the hilt against the desire of Lord Halifax to come to some shameful peace deal with Hitler, brokered by Mussolini.

    Churchill wanted and needed Labour with him. It is a little known fact that Churchill was not leader of the Conservative Party when he became Prime Minister on 10th May 1940. A majority of the Parliamentary Conservative Party favoured Halifax over Churchill to lead them. Churchill did not become their leader until 9th October 1940.

    Johnson, the wannabe Churchill has not sought to bring the Opposition Parties onboard over Covid-19 or Brexit. Like Jeremy Corbyn, he prefers division over consensus, as the recent speech by Liz Truss clearly shows. An ignorant, divisive, partisan speech that actually urinated all over the labours of Tory Prime Ministers from Baldwin to Thatcher.

    May be one reason for Johnson not bringing Labour into the fold is that the party got a boost in support from the electorate in the 1945 General Election, because they had shown between 1940 and 1945 that they could be trusted with the levers of power.

    I imagine a Government of All the Talents, today, would have little room at the top table for many members of the 3rd Eleven of a Cabinet that Johnson hand picked and now leads.

    Herein lies the rub, in being incapable or unwilling to form even a loose coalition with the Opposition Parties, Johnson gives the impression of being a Prime Minister governing without an overall majority. Staggering from day to day, ever fearful of making the necessary, but not always popular decisions required at a time like this.

    Johnson has a majority of 80 seats in the House of Commons. John Major had a majority of 21 seats after the 1992 General Election and at the end of the five years of that Parliament, he had no overall majority. He made a better fist of governing during that time than Johnson has achieved since the 2019 General Election.

  5. Sturgeon in Scotland announced the same Christmas policy (which made no sense if lockdown is the right thing to do) on the same day as Johnson, and the same U-turn yesterday. However, she won’t suffer the same opprobrium.

  6. Interesting fulminations from Charles Walker, vice-chair of the 1922 Committee now being reported by Lewis Goodall, indicating that he would like to see at least one resignation over this. “The government in my view knew on Thursday, possibly even on Wednesday they were going to pull the plug on Christmas but they waited til Parliament had gone. That on top of everything else is a resigning matter.” We shall see.

  7. I may have missed something, but didn’t the prime minister announce that Tier 4 was coming into force at midnight on Sunday? The regulations were not made until 14 hours later, at 6am on Sunday morning, and came into force an hour later. https://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2020/1611/contents/made

    Is the government incapable of drafting and passing urgent legislation? Don’t they have contingency measures drafted in advance for most expected eventualities? Or is a layman like me able to see what is staring us in the face for several weeks, but the government is wilfully blind to the obvious?

  8. Good point. The difficult decision would have been earlier, not yesterday when the choice was pretty much taken out of his hand. But sneering at Starmer was easier, so he went for that.

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