Imagine the following drama: a new conservative government is re-elected against expectation, however, it is immediately embroiled in crisis. The main character is a superficially mild mannered leader who is unable to contain the crisis. All the minor characters in the story become mired in some level of venal and self-inflicted scandal until a young and dashing saviour turns up to offer a way out. This is, in simple terms, the true story of John Major’s 1992 election victory and his ensuing government, and how, after the debacle of the ERM collapse, it spent its four years in office rudderless and lurching from event to event. Eventually it was ousted by the arrival of ‘Cool Britannia’ under the slick banner of Blair. Today it feels that we are watching a re-run of that 90’s drama.
There are, of course, many differences. In 1992 the city of London was at the start of its massive expansion phase, with the London Inter-Bank Offered Rate (LIBOR) as its main anchor. Economically, under the cautious chancellorship of Kenneth Clarke, the Blair government inherited an economy in solid shape. Today the landscape is different. The city of London is looking nervously at the Brexit negotiations, and LIBOR is being replaced with an American version, the ‘Secured Overnight Finance Rate’ (SOFR), with the likely dimunition of London’s pre-eminence. Also the opposition Labour party has yet to prove itself to be a worthy government in waiting.
Prior to becoming snared in Covid-19 Boris Johnson was a technicolor politician, today he reflects John Major’s shades of grey. His earlier confidence and ebullience has now been tempered with indecisiveness.
The ERM departure was humiliating for the government, but the City had the winds of globalisation and financialisation at its back. The nation, although admittedly mainly the South East, benefitted greatly. Brexit and Covid combined are a much more toxic brew, and the response to both events from all political leaders has been confusion, paralysis, and waffling. If we are to watch a rerun of the 1990’s, perhaps we could get all the episodes at once ‘a la Netflix’, so we can binge watch the whole series and get it out of our system. At the very least Season 1 (the Brexit years) should be on our summer watchlist.
And as we edge into summer it is equally unarguable that in a further 12 weeks we will be heading into autumn and the second Season of Covid will once again hit our screens. I am already dreading the new slogans, the new five o’clock updates and the new regulations. This is all for a disease that we now know primarily effects the old and vulnerable. The data from the UK is stark - the median age of the people who have tragically died is 80. This means that the average age is probably around 83-84. Furthermore 90% of those who have lost their lives had an underlying health condition. This is in no way meant to trivialise this pandemic but it does mean that, for those under 60 yrs old, the normal yearly influenza outbreak is more dangerous than Covid. Sadly our leaders look washed up and we are condemned to watch a tired 90’s drama rerun. Time for new screenwriters.