Dear Boris Johnson, if EU membership was responsible for UK's low wages, why are they so high in Europe? – Joyce McMillan

Boris Johnson is nothing if not optimistic; and in these gloomy times, it’s not surprising that some people, at least, find his upbeat tone endearing.

The facts in Boris Johnson’s speeches need checking but so do his arguments (Picture: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

For the Prime Minister, all is well in the best of all possible countries – his very own Brexit Britain; and those few things that, by his own admission, are not all right – massive inequality of opportunity, poor infrastructure, a tottering care system, the housing crisis – will be dealt with in a trice, by a can-do government that will somehow sort them, despite lacking any substantial policies for doing so.

As any fact-checker will tell you, the sunny Johnson view of Britain’s current situation and prospects tends to lose touch with reality at many key points; indeed the BBC website pointed out that his Conservative conference speech on Wednesday was dotted with carefully massaged facts and statistics, such as his claim that the UK now has the highest economic growth rate in the G7 – only even half-true because our economy plunged to such horrific depths early in the pandemic.

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The problem with Johnson’s speeches, though, is that if his facts need checking, then his arguments often require even closer scrutiny; a sophistry check, if you will, designed to spot the cosy juxtapositions and false elisions that help to create not just a vaguely inaccurate picture of reality, but an account of recent history that sometimes seems almost hallucinatory.

Even Johnson’s welcome to the delegates made the sweeping suggestion that they were able to meet in person only because of the UK’s special success in inventing Covid vaccines, vaccinating its population, and reopening its economy; whereas the truth is that the UK was not alone in developing a vaccine, now has roughly the same rate of vaccination as the rest of Europe, and has an open economy only because the government has decided that the restoration of the economy – and not saving lives – is its top priority.

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Next among these elisions and half-truths, of course, is Johnson’s absolute refusal to acknowledge any responsibility – on behalf of himself or his party – for the deep-rooted problems in the UK economy which he describes, with such Bunterish attempts at humour.

Have the Conservatives been in power for the past 11 years? Not in Johnson’s world. Have they, for the past decade, been pursuing an ideologically driven policy of austerity that has devastated the ability of local authorities to provide essential basic services, including care for the elderly? Nothing to do with me, guv’nor.

And have they, for the last 40 years, been relentlessly promoting the very low-wage economy against which they now pose as happy warriors, armed with the magic sword of Brexit? Not in the world according to Johnson.

The idea that Britain’s recent “low-wage addiction” was a direct consequence of our EU membership is a breathtaking rewriting of history, and one that can be demolished at a stroke, given the fact that the EU, with all its freedom of movement, boasts some of the highest wage levels in the world.

If EU freedom of movement had any negative effect on wages and conditions in the UK, it was because it took place in an economy already scarred by searing attacks on trade unions and their participation in economic decision-making, and by a succession of governments which failed to properly enforce even the existing legislation on wages and workers’ rights.

Yet now, in the world of Johnson and his colleagues, this entire culture of low pay and poor conditions is nothing to do with them or their party, but is entirely the fault of others. To this Orwellian attempt to distance the current UK government from the very economy its party has created since the 1980s, we can add – for example – the government’s extraordinary manoeuvres around the Northern Ireland Protocol, with Lord Frost mounting a vigorous conference denunciation of the agreement which he himself co-wrote and signed, and the truly surreal sight of supposedly freedom-loving Conservatives baying with approval, as Priti Patel announces, like some Soviet commissar of old, that “we have ended freedom of movement”.

We can say with some justice, in other words, that this week’s Conservative Party conference often passed into a parallel universe characterised by a truly Trumpian denial of recent history; one into which a majority of British voters will not want to follow them.

What is also true, though, is that that majority remains effectively powerless, wrong-footed by the Johnson government’s growing ability and willingness to play fast and loose with normal patterns of accountability, hamstrung by a constitution that gives the Prime Minister almost unabridged sovereign power, and undermined – from Edinburgh to Belfast, Cardiff, Manchester, and the office of the London mayor – by their profound inability and unwillingness to agree a common basis for bringing the Johnson years to an end.

The centre-left parties of these islands are not alone, of course, in finding this new form of right-wing politics hard to handle. Shifting the narrative has become the name of the game, with parties that want to deal with reality now at a permanent disadvantage to those who want to ignore real-world problems in favour of a good yarn.

Johnson built his early career, after all, on a series of entertaining lies and half-truths about the European Union and its regulations, published in sections of the British press that should have known better. And a quarter of a century on, despite all the responsibilities of Prime Ministership, Johnson has changed not at all. It was a technique – selling duff but amusing narratives that serve the interests of wealth and power – that worked for him then; and to the huge cost of us all, it is still working for him today.

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