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Leader comment: Boris Johnson’s Elsie moment

06 May 2022

ON TUESDAY morning, the Prime Minister met Elsie. Not in person, but as an example of the cost-of-living crisis presented to him by the Good Morning Britain interviewer Susanna Reid. Elsie, aged 77, on a pension of £170 a week, has seen her gas and electricity bills rise from £17 to £85 a month. Each day, she eats just one meal and rides buses on her Freedom Pass to stay warm. Boris Johnson’s usual response of bluster, irrelevance, and half-truth did not serve him well. “The 24-hour Freedom Bus Pass was actually something that I actually introduced,” he said — true, though only to the extent that, when Mayor of London, he had extended the pass, introduced when he was aged nine, to 24 hours. (It has since been restricted again.)

Finding a hard case with which to confront a politician is a recognised journalistic technique. Any prime minister in the history of this country could have been faced with similar examples from the poorest section of society. The difficulty at present is that there are so many examples, and that the standard answer from the past 70 years — that the welfare state exists to protect those who are hardest hit — has been undermined by deliberate cuts based on an ideology that even Opposition-party members might not have summed up as succinctly as one Conservative MP, an unnamed former Cabinet minister, who told The Guardian on Tuesday: “Boris doesn’t actually care about these people.”

The difficulty of choosing a wordsmith as Prime Minister — much was made last week of Mr Johnson’s Oxford Union debating training — is that his experience has convinced him that any problem can be argued away by rhetoric. This might have been the case in his chaotic personal life, but national problems tend to need actual solutions. On Tuesday, he was applauded in the Ukrainian parliament for his Churchillian speech of support. It is part of his rebranding as a war leader rather than a Covid rule-breaker. But this is not a Churchillian war, as the nuclear-strike simulation on Russian state TV demonstrated earlier this week. Vladimir Putin’s nuclear capability is the reason that other leaders have pursued the course of non-escalation and quiet, focused support for Ukraine. As is his wont, Mr Johnson appears not to have read the memo.

Large sections of the Old Testament conform to the typical pattern of history-writing, concerned with the actions of Israel’s rulers. What is clear is that the whole nation is tied up in its rulers’ toyings with realpolitik, and is implicated — despite few examples of direct democracy — in their sins and retribution. The UK’s electorate, in general, and the Conservative Party, in particular, have exercised good-humoured tolerance of Boris Johnson thus far. The biblical lesson is that they could end up sharing his eventual punishment. Elsie already is.

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