There was a moment on the BBC news last week which seemed to capture the spell Boris Johnson has cast over the very people who have suffered most from Tory policies.
Its journalists had pitched up in Burnley, a predominantly working class constituency in Lancashire which had just returned a Tory MP for the first time since 1910. After the camera had lingered on dilapidated back streets, it homed in on Jordan and Anthony, two men living in a bedsit, working zero hour contracts, and looking to Johnson to transform their lives.
At no point did they seem to consider their hardship might be linked to nine and a half years of Conservative-driven austerity. Nor did the BBC bother to point it out. “Have you got hope that Boris Johnson’s Conservatives can lift you guys out of this poverty?” the reporter asked. “Absolutely,” they replied.
This sleight of hand; this ability to foster a false consciousness in those who have nothing to gain from five (or, God help us, 10) more years of Conservative rule, is a already a trademark of Johnson’s premiership.
You could see it again as he set out his “blueprint for the future of Britain”. Earlier this year, the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty offered up a damning indictment of the impact of successive Tory governments. Philip Alston described their austerity policies as “an ideological project causing pain and misery” enforced by ministers in a “state of denial” about “exacerbating inequality and poverty”.
But now here was Johnson, bright-eyed and bushy-headed, promising to usher in a “golden age”, as if his party had not spent the best part of a decade taking a wrecking ball to British lives and British values.
And oh, how much worse are things going to get? After Donald Trump’s victory it quickly became clear those who believed he would rein himself in once he took office were deluded. So too with Johnson.
Within hours, he was showing his contempt for the voters of Richmond Park by making newly unseated MP Zac Goldsmith a peer so he could keep his cabinet role.
The programme set out in the Queen’s Speech was a harbinger of things to come. It offered up a harder Brexit than we had been led to expect, complete with an erosion of workers’ rights and – surprise, surprise – a watering down of a commitment to take unaccompanied refugee children from Europe.
There was a peppering of hardy perennials. The Tories wouldn’t be the self-styled party of “law and order” if they weren’t pledging more police officers and tougher sentencing for serious criminals.
We need an Extradition Bill because not only are we no longer going to belong to Europol, but we may well be thrown out of the European Arrest Warrant system. This is something we were promised wouldn’t happen if a Brexit deal was secured, but hey ho, we know how much such promises are worth.
As expected there was the end to that one-time fundamental of post-Schengen life, freedom of movement and the introduction of an Australia-style points system in an attempt to ensure only the “right” kind of people make their homes here.
And a “terms and conditions apply” caveat means an advertised increase in the living wage from £8.21 per hour to £10.50 will now take place “provided economic conditions allow”. As the Tory government will be the arbiter of those economic conditions, that’s a pretty big loophole.
But the most worrying aspects of Johnson’s programme are those which help him impose his ideology on others; or increase the government’s powers in an undemocratic way. There’s the Thatcher-esque clamp-down on public institutions taking part in “boycott, divestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries and those who trade with them”, which is, presumably an attempt to prevent universities expressing solidarity with Palestine and so consolidate the government’s pro-Israeli credentials.
Not to mention the bill which would force people to show photographic ID before they are allowed to vote, although in 2018 the Electoral Commission said there was no evidence of widespread electoral fraud.
At present, you can walk right into a polling station, give your address and put your X in the box. This legislation would require the estimated 3.5 million voters with no passport or driving licence to apply for a local electoral ID. This document would be free; but it’s hard enough to get people to turn out. Adding an extra layer of bureaucracy can only further disenfranchise those who are struggling to get by from day to day (as similar measures do in the US). And – despite results in places like Blyth Valley and Burnley – such people are less likely to be voting Tory.
There was no direct reference to giving politicians the power to appoint judges, a move mooted after the Supreme Court ruled Johnson’s prorogation of parliament illegal. But he did announce a Commission on the constitution, democracy and rights which could result in a host of undesirable reforms from a gerrymandering of constituency boundaries to further consolidate the Conservatives’ majority to limiting the use of judicial reviews.
Johnson has already said the government will move to end the fixed parliamentary term, so general elections could once again be called on the whim of the Prime Minister. Might he also go through with a threatened crackdown on C4 and the decriminalisation of not paying the TV licence fee, which would undermine the BBC?
And Johnson has shown no inclination to recognise the democratic rights of the Scots. His response to Nicola Sturgeon’s demands for a Section 30 order was dismissive and arrogant. Division had “poisoned” public life, he said. Well, if anyone is an expert on division, it’s him. Though you might think upping the ante in an ongoing dispute with your next door neighbour an odd way to foster greater harmony.
In his first few days, then, Johnson has laid the groundwork for a power grab. His vision for Britain is one where the executive is strengthened at the expense of the legislature, the judiciary and the fourth estate; where a nation’s right to self-determination can be vetoed in the face of repeated SNP victories.
Furthermore, it is clear that, as far as he is concerned, this is only the beginning. He has, he says, “invincible confidence for the future”, by which, of course, he means “invincible confidence for his own future”. And why wouldn’t he? He flaunted his indolence and selfishness in the face of the electorate and it rewarded him with the biggest Conservative victory since Margaret Thatcher’s in 1987.
While Johnson relaxes into the role of Emperor – abusing the power those blighted by poverty handed him – the streets are awash with misery. In places like Burnley, homelessness is on the rise and the queues at the food banks grow longer. How long will it take the Jordans and Anthonys of this world to realise he has no clothes?