Classical scholars must surely see parallels between the embarrassing sequence of prime ministerial changes in the British government this year and events in AD68-69 in the ancient Rome so beloved of Boris Johnson.
AD68-69 was the year of the four emperors. First there was Galba, murdered by soldiers of his Praetorian Guard – this year’s parallel being the removal of Johnson by his long-suffering cabinet. Then there was Otho, who took his own life – this year’s version being the political suicide committed by Liz Truss with her lunatic budget.
Finally there was Vitellius, murdered by his successor Vespasian’s troops. The modern equivalent of Vitellius must be Rishi Sunak, and of Vespasian’s troops a motley collection of Faragists and Sunak’s extreme rightwing “colleagues” on the Conservative benches.
Sunak can hardly move without being challenged by Vespasian’s troops. The word gets out that he knows in his heart that Brexit is an unmitigated disaster, and wants closer relations with “Europe” and – hey presto – the locusts descend. A Swiss relationship? A Norwegian relationship? Any closer relationship? The locusts demand instant denials, and get them!
At the pre-Christmas presentation of his show Rock & Roll Politics, the journalist Steve Richards asked his audience for a show of hands on whether they expected Sunak to survive for the whole of next year – thereby resisting the modern equivalent of Vespasian’s troops. The overwhelming majority believed the Tories could not do this again, and voted for his survival. Now, I did not get where I am today by making forecasts about the survival of Tory leaders, but I cannot help reflecting that the more deluded of his fellow Brexiters are out to get him.
Which brings us to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, and the question: why the hell are they ruling out any question of rejoining the customs union and single market?
Here I have to acknowledge that while there is a growing, indeed almost overwhelming, recognition in this country that Brexit is a fully fledged catastrophe, the conventional wisdom is that either we can never go back or that it will take many years to do so.
This sort of stuff is almost wilfully defeatist. What I do understand from a longstanding European Union source is that there is not much chance of our former EU partners believing they can enter into trustworthy negotiations with a totally discredited Conservative and Brexit party.
But if it got its act together, Labour could do it. It is time for Starmer and Reeves to highlight the real costs of Brexit and the holes in the economy caused by the self-harm of a policy that knocks 4% – £100bn a year – off GDP and some £40bn off the government’s annual tax revenues, thereby having a major impact on the resources available for health, education, social services and all the goals that Labour is expected to champion.
Which would you prefer? Starmer and Reeves to continue paying obeisance to a minority of Labour voters in the so-called “red wall” constituencies – who were wilfully misled into voting leave – or a far-sighted effort to rise to the occasion and do more for the whole country, including the red wall? Yes, sorry, it’s a rhetorical question.
The fact of the matter is that Starmer, like one of his political mentors, the late Dick Leonard – formerly Brussels correspondent of the Observer – was right to be a passionate remainer. Both businesses and citizens are realising that the end of freedom of movement is causing widespread frustration, the ultimate irony being that the net migration figures the Brexiters wanted to reduce are actually rising, while the economy is suffering from the exodus of continental European workers. You couldn’t make it up.
It is no good Labour saying things were bad before Brexit. The point is that the economy has been dealt an extra hammer blow. Things are a lot worse precisely because of Brexit.
Talking of which, while I understand Labour’s determination to emphasise that it is fiscally trustworthy, the economists at the National Institute for Economic and Social Research have been pointing out that now is not the time for spending cuts and tax increases. There is a difference between the crazy Truss-Kwarteng approach of borrowing to finance tax cuts for the rich and of increasing borrowing to encourage investment.
At the moment it seems that Labour is content to sit back and watch in the hope the Conservatives will destroy themselves. But the worry is that Labour, through being pusillanimous about Brexit, is not facing up to the size of the economic problem facing it if it wins the next election. Meanwhile, we watch to see what Vespasian’s troops do to Vitellius Sunak.