Where’s Boris Johnson’s ‘Roadmap’ Out Of Inequality?

With a nation even divided about how divided it is, rising poverty is a reminder of political choices.

You’re reading The Waugh Zone, our daily politics briefing. Sign up now to get it by email in the evening.

Thanks to Keir Starmer’s “constructive opposition”, there was no way Boris Johnson was going to lose the latest Commons vote on extending coronavirus restrictions for another six months.

Yet the 76 MPs from different parties who did oppose the renewal of draconian powers were a reminder that our national consensus is fraying, and not just at the edges.

As surreal as it sounded, Sir Charles Walker did us all a service with his extraordinary pint-of-milk speech (backed up by his Channel 4 News interview) on the basic liberties that are being sacrificed, however willingly, during this pandemic.

Bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase lactose intolerance, the Tory backbencher’s protest was admirably random in its symbolism. Yes it was bizarre, but no more bizarre than the idea that it is illegal to leave the UK without permission or to kiss your grandma. Anything that jolts us into remembering just how abnormal our “new normal” has become has got to be worthwhile.

And although the Tory rebellion (35 MPs defied the whip) was slightly smaller than previous ones on lockdown votes, other parties are starting to share their unease. It’s worth noting that the Lib Dems have rediscovered the “liberal” in their job description. Perhaps with one eye on the local elections, they not just voted against the Covid extension in the Commons but also tabled a “regret” motion in the Lords and triggered a vote there too.

Labour’s own 21 rebels were pretty variegated. As well as the leftwing Zero Covid grouping, there were centrist MPs like John Spellar, Derek Twigg, Andrew Gwynne and Ben Bradshaw (who is particularly worried about the tourist and aviation trade being hammered) who voted against the renewal of powers. The PM had better hope this really is the last national lockdown because getting backing for a fourth one will be much more difficult politically.

And as much as we like to think we’re all largely united on the pandemic, there are signs we are in fact pretty divided in key ways. I was particularly struck by the latest King’s College London/ipsosMORI study on public attitudes this week. It showed that we are even divided on how divided we think we are: some 38% think the pandemic has deepened divisions, while 35% believe it has brought people closer together.

Nearly a third of the public (32%) say the past year has been similar to or better than average for them personally, while a majority (54%) say they’ll miss at least some aspects of the Covid-19 restrictions (like more family time and quieter roads). One in five (21%) say their finances are actually better than they would have been if the pandemic hadn’t happened.

And yet on Thursday we also saw the latest poverty statistics released, and they revealed that child poverty hit a 12-year high even before the pandemic hit. New figures published alongside the poverty stats also showed for the first time the estimated level of “household food security”, with 1.1 million children “food insecure” in 2019/20, along with 1.7 million working-age adults and 100,000 pensioners. And that’s before the sticking plasters on free school meals and Universal Credit uplift are due to be ripped off the arms of the poorest later this year.

Just as it’s important not to forget how abnormal current Covid curbs are on our liberties, it’s also vital that we don’t lose our sense of shock at these poverty figures. Child poverty is not inevitable, as the Blair government proved when it slashed the rates. Adults relying on foodbanks and children facing holiday hunger ought to be abnormal, not a commonplace greeted by a stoic shrug of the shoulders.

Similarly, the health and economic inequalities laid bare by the pandemic should be seen as a catalyst for action to reduce them. Health minister Lord Bethell said on Thursday that “one of the reasons why we have been hit hard by the pandemic” is that “large parts of our population, simply aren’t in great shape at the moment, they have either poor health, poor living conditions, or poor circumstances”.

Yet this was a minister of a party that has been in power not since 2019 but since 2010. The calculated amnesia of somehow projecting the Johnson administration as a brand new start, rather than the third in a line of Tory premierships, is the defining characteristic of his government.

And for all the talk of “levelling up” there is as yet no strategy, no masterplan of policies drafted to reduce those health and other inequalities. As I mentioned earlier this week, it was striking how it was Chris Whitty, not Boris Johnson, making the link between the pandemic and deprivation in the latest No.10 press conference. Even before the virus hit our shores, “excess deaths” rose every year from 2012 to 2019 (see below).

The newly published Andrea Leadsom review of early years has come up with recommendations for more “family hubs” where parents could better access services. Funnily enough there was a pretty good system of family hubs in place until 2010, they were called SureStart centres. And at least 500 have been closed over the past decade. For any government with a sense of shame, that ought to sting.

With lighter nights and warmer temperatures beckoning, the challenge to remember how we got here is a constant one. Personal freedoms have been suspended during a year of Covid. But freedom from poverty and ill-health have been steadily lost over the past decade too. It’s a lot easier restoring the former than doing something serious about the latter.

The PM has a clear route out of lockdown, but where’s his “roadmap” out of inequality? That’s the question he should constantly be reminded to answer.

Before You Go