If the Murdoch press is so panicked about recession, why did it back austerity and Brexit? | Polly Toynbee

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The gloves are off and it’s bare-knuckle, below-the-belt slugging. Good. High time they grappled with the terrifying enormity of the waves of destitution rolling over millions already neither heating nor eating, facing unpayable bills. Liz Truss stumbled badly by telling the Financial Times she would only help them “in a Conservative way” with tax cuts not “handouts”, her gofers explaining she is “enabling people to keep more of the money that they earn”. No use now saying she was “misrepresented” yet again: she’s been panicked into promising her own emergency budget.

Rishi Sunak in the Sun makes lethal (and true) accusations that “Liz’s plan” to deal with rising bills this winter is to “give a big bung to large businesses and the well-off”. “Worse still,” he writes, “she said she will not provide direct support payments to those who are feeling the pinch most.” Scrapping the health and social care levy only gives the average worker £170 and someone on the living wage “less than £60”, while “pensioners will not get a penny”.

Trevor Kavanagh, old war horse of many Sun extreme conservative campaigns, now, improbably, canters over the horizon to bat for the have-nots. He backs Gordon Brown’s call for an immediate emergency budget this week, with no time to wait for this prolix leadership contest to end. Kavanagh is apocalyptic, warning of “the biggest crash since the Great Depression of 1929 … a national economic emergency … millions of hardworking families – including Sun ­readers – face hunger and ­destitution for the first time in living memory … money men say the UK economy is heading for years of high unemployment and mass bankruptcies unless there is massive government intervention.” He quotes a “seasoned economic analyst” as saying that “It will make the 2008 ­banking meltdown and the 1973 Oil Shock look like tea ­parties … No government can let 10 to 12 million people go to the dogs.” (Forget the Sun backed every wicked universal credit and disability benefit cut.)

Pause here to wonder at all who, like the Murdoch press, urged on politicians to bring the country to this plight, with the slowest growth in GDP, steepest inflation and worst prospects among similar countries – along with shrinking trade and the sinking pound. Traditionally they will blame all that on “global” and “Covid” causes, never on 12 crippling years of austerity or the hammer blows of their own Brexit.

But in this acid backbiting contest of pure personal ambition, the two candidates abandon concern for the political future of their party, gleefully pulling down the Tory temple and priming Labour’s electoral cannons with arsenals of ammunition. Truss’s crew fight back with a napalm shot of blame that will stick for years. They talk of the “Rishcession” and dub Sunak “the founding father of the recession”. Sunak may not score best on personality, but he is winning the argument against tax cuts: a Times poll finds 64% of voters think inflation is the priority and only 17% choose tax cuts.

On this at least the contenders reach the meat of the matter. But as they scatter an average of two or three pledges each a day that they won’t, can’t or certainly shouldn’t fulfil, they keep their eyes tight shut to the pile-up of emergencies sitting in No 10’s neglected in-tray: the boiling climate, a nonexistent energy or water policy and public services collapsing inside every ministerial portfolio they will be handing out.

Extraordinarily, Steve Barclay, the new health secretary, himself sounds a klaxon warning that the NHS is in such deep emergency it can’t wait for a new prime minister in post. He calls for more visas for foreign staff. One failing service knocks over another: the chief inspector of constabulary reports officers spending a third of their time on non-policing matters, neglecting crime, as police officers become the “first, last and only resort” to attend cardiac arrests.

Every department is in trouble, but health bites hardest with voters. The fastest easing of the blockage would be by fixing the great social care collapse: last week’s blistering report from the levelling up, housing and communities select committee said there was “no roadmap, no timetable, no milestones, and no measures of success”.

I have been talking to care homes closing down beds for lack of staff, while hospitals call them hourly begging them to take patients. The flight of care staff is accelerating, with 165,000 vacancies and 50,000 staff lost last year. Lynne Taylor of Happy Futures Support Specialists for people with learning disabilities in Devon is mothballing beds, as it’s short of 24 staff. She’s sending out someone dressed as Superman handing out recruitment leaflets saying “carers are superheroes”. She spent £3,500 advertising and got just one part-timer who won’t do evenings or weekends. When a group of Scarborough homes held a recruiting open day last week no one came. Why earn £10.10 an hour when there are jobs cleaning holiday caravans for £15 an hour? Recruiting from abroad is no answer: they have to earn £20,480, it’s expensive for small homes to import and train people and often doesn’t work out, they say.

Here we go: the real world is finally colliding with this government. Wherever you look, in every threadbare service, there is no leeway, no resilience, no slack as the tidal wave of recession rolls in to expose all the damage done by years of austerity and low pay. Now that ministers themselves, these architects of decline, are pressing the panic button, their time is up. There is no plan and no roadmap for anything.

August 9, 2022 at 02:53PM Polly Toynbee

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