A spectre is haunting Downing Street - the spectre of Dominic Cummings. This is Boris Johnson’s chief political adviser, who has all the appearance and demeanor of a mad scientist in the middle of an experiment.
Cummings wanted a “revolution” in government. He began a recruitment drive to hire - in the words of his blog - “misfits and weirdos”. He made clear: “If you’ve done something weird, this may be the place for you.” Apparently, the response was overwhelming, which says a lot.
One of those hired was an advocate of eugenics and the deeply racist idea that intelligence is based on ethnicity. He suggested enforcing the uptake of contraception in order to stop unplanned pregnancies from “creating a permanent underclass”. Although defended by Number 10, he was forced to resign under pressure.
This is a reflection of how far the Tory Party has shifted away from its traditional role as the far-sighted political representative of British capitalism. The clowns and circus acts have taken over the court.
Johnson is the head of a gang of upstarts - the Brexit zealots. Their new ‘points-based’ immigration policy, which plays very well to the party’s reactionary and xenophobic base, has alarmed big business, who require access to a pool of cheap labour.
Priti Patel, the Conservative Home Secretary, believes there is no problem, as shortages can be made up from “economically inactive” people, such as the sick, disabled and retired - all of whom would no doubt be a dab hand at picking cabbages or looking after the elderly.
As in the days of the ‘mad monk’ Rasputin, the dysfunctional Mr Cummings is operating behind the scenes, pulling all the strings - with the full support of the Prime Minister. He is intending to purge all those who are standing in the way of ‘progress’. The Northern Ireland Secretary, Julian Smith, for example, was sacked just weeks after he managed to get Stormont back up and running.
Cummings was also clearly behind the removal of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, who was regarded as being too close to the City of London. Javid was too much of the ‘old school’, with an orthodox view of the economy.
The “revolution” in government could not tolerate such traditional virtues. What was required was a pliant tool - someone who would do as he was told. Javid’s replacement, Rishi Sunak, fitted the bill nicely.
With an 80 seat majority, the Tories appear to be in a strong position. But they are ruffling a lot of feathers. For opportunist reasons, Johnson and Cummings want to loosen the purse strings and open the taps. This means pushing Sunak to expand his fiscal rules and increase borrowing for infrastructure. This is supposed to be part of the “levelling up” strategy; a means of holding onto former Labour voters in the north who recently switched their support to the Tories.
Such spending would threaten to raise taxes, especially on the well-off, to the alarm of traditional Tories. There is even talk of a mansion tax - a policy originally put forward by the Labour Party.
David Davis, the ex-Brexit secretary, told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show that such proposals were “all bad ideas”, claiming that a mansion tax would be “massively unpopular” and “economically nonsensical”. This is a traditional Tory response to tax rises.
But Cummings is not amused with such criticisms. In any case, there is no love lost between the two men, with our mad scientist describing David Davis as “thick as mince” and “as lazy as a toad”.
The storms that have battered Britain are a meteorological foretaste of what is to come politically in the period that lies ahead.
Scotland is chafing under the bit. The latest polls indicate a majority want independence. Johnson’s refusal to grant another referendum only exacerbates the situation. Pressure is mounting on the SNP and Sturgeon to force the situation.
In the North of Ireland, there is growing support for a border poll. Some surveys give as high as 51% in favour of unification. Brexit has only served to fuel this support.
Despite these problems, the Johnson government is keen to consolidate its support in the north. This means supporting the HS2 rail link, at a cost of over £100bn. It also means increasing spending, despite the economic difficulties. Up until now, the government wanted to continue with austerity and eliminate the current budget deficit by 2023. But Sunak is ready to relax this target, as his master’s voice dictates.
Given the crisis of British capitalism, this strategy is doomed to fail. In fact, tough times are in store. The economy is presently crawling along at 1 percent a year. There are growing concerns in big business circles. Almost half of the boards of British companies expect Brexit to damage their businesses, according to a survey of the FTSE 350.
Despite all the talk of a “Boris bounce” after the election, private investment is stagnant. Employment prospects are also looking grim, as a quarter of bosses announced they were cutting workers. Almost 40 per cent believed the economy would deteriorate this year.
Depending on the deal reached (or not, as the case may be), Brexit will have a major impact on the British economy. A no-deal outcome will plunge the economy into an immediate crisis as supply chains are disrupted or broken. Austerity will remain a permanent feature of life under capitalism.
While the US-China trade frictions have eased, the effects of the coronavirus are threatening to plunge the world economy - which was already slowing down - into a new slump, deeper than that of 2008.
Government of crisis
Whatever the intentions of Johnson or Cummings, this government of “misfits and weirdos” will be a government of crisis. It will not be able to fulfil its promises. There will be no “levelling up”. On the contrary, the Tories will seek to make the working class pay for the crisis of capitalism.
The Labour movement cannot simply muddle through. Instead, we must be armed with a bold socialist programme that will challenge the Tories, challenge capitalism, and offer a clear way forward for workers and youth.