Rishi Sunak thanks you for being so resilient

18/09/2023

The cost of living crisis is not a natural disaster – it's a policy decision

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By Raphael Henry

Recently, UK politics has been feeling like a TV show in serious decline: we’ve reached the thirteenth season, and everyone is just a bit fed up that the show hasn’t ended already. The memorable characters all left a few seasons ago, and so the showrunners keep reviving previous plotlines in the hopes of conjuring up fond memories of the good old days: the Covid enquiry plotline has returned, and once again Boris Johnson is in the spotlight! I’m certain I was meant to get excited about this development – it’s not every day that a major character from a previous season reprises their role – but instead the whole arc just feels hollow and unearned: he had outstayed his welcome on the show, and they only brought him back for a melodramatic resignation (not before rewarding Jacob Rees-Mogg with a knighthood – now that I didn’t see coming).

The same goes for the absurdly contrived plot twist of Nigel Farage, a chief architect of Brexit, declaring that our departure from Europe has been a resounding failure. I suppose this season was heavily affected by the current writer’s strike, so they had to make do with what they had (still, they could have at least chosen a more believable character to deliver this line).

These washed-out tribute acts to previous seasons are only occupying our attention because the current characters are simply too boring to care about. Rishi Sunak seems to have adopted the tactic of avoiding as much media coverage as possible, perhaps hoping that we’ll lay the blame at someone else’s doorstep. That doesn’t mean he avoids the news cycle entirely, with his well-endowed fortune often being placed under intense scrutiny (such as his donation of three million USD to a wealthy US college, when a school in his own constituency is unable to afford basic IT equipment).

According to polls by Ipsos, however, these news reports do very little to sway those who still support the prime minister. With a long stretch remaining until the next general election, and no credible replacement lurking on the Conservative backbenches, Sunak is largely free to ignore the discontent surrounding his performance. As a result, he might be the first prime minister to be so far out of touch with the British public that he has become literally untouchable: our struggles, and our anger, appear incapable of evoking a meaningful response in him. At least Boris Johnson had the good grace to care about whether or not he was liked.

Sunak’s whole brand revolves around making himself look like the reasonable adult in the room, to reassure people that their taxes are in safe hands. In a recent speech at the Northern Research Group conference, he warned that his opponents were “trying to turn politics back into a soap opera”. Perhaps he’s right: is the criticism that he is too boring the result of an addiction to colourful political antics? Did Boris Johnson’s tenure as prime minister blind us to what proper, functional governance looks like?



I wish the answer was as simple as that. The truth is that the UK is no less dysfunctional now than it was a year ago: in May, the Office for National Statistics reported that food and drink prices in the UK are now 19 percent higher than they were this time last year (the largest annual increase since 1977, and the highest level in western Europe), despite the slowing pace of inflation. Similarly, mortgage rates have soared, with The Times reporting that monthly repayments on mortgages have risen to their highest level since the 2008 financial crisis.

This should be setting off alarm bells across Whitehall, but instead the message from the top is that everything is perfectly fine, thanks for asking. Worrying that politics has become boring is nothing to do with wanting to be entertained: it’s about wanting to feel as though the people in charge care about what is happening on their watch. We seem to be sleepwalking into catastrophe after catastrophe, and anyone who rings the alarm bell is accused of reigniting the fickle flames of sensationalist politics – they are told to sit back down, stop making such a fuss, and admire the remarkable resilience of the UK population, as they shoulder the burden of soaring price tags on groceries, utilities, luxuries, and accommodation.

Resilience is a curious word, isn’t it? It can take an unquestionably bad situation and reframe it as a positive demonstration of that famous British stiff upper lip. The word conjures up grainy black and white images of a Blitz-stricken London, full of weary people trying to ‘keep calm and carry on’ amidst the burnt-out shells of their lives. Without a doubt, this resilience in the face of insurmountable odds can (and should) be praised, but that doesn’t justify neglecting to find solutions simply because those affected have coped admirably with the added pressure.

The cost of living crisis is not a natural disaster, it is the result of years of policy decisions that have eroded the supports and safety nets that were designed to safeguard us against these burdens. There are limits on what the government can feasibly do, of course, but currently it feels as though we are being lead through an ever-shifting maze by someone who is completely unwilling to chart a reasonable course, and entirely apathetic as to whether or not we make it out the other side.

Rishi Sunak and his government have singularly failed to provide us with any reassurance that they truly understand the pain of the cost of living crisis, share it, and wish to alleviate it. Rather, we are greeted with silence at best, and at worst with the admonition that we should just be a little more resilient.