Things fall apart. So what would you do? The Office for National Statistics has just announced a rise in unemployment of 600,000, with many more expected to be out of work in the coming months. The economy has tanked by 20%. The UK has turned into a world leader in coronavirus deaths per head of population. The Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford has just skipped past the defence of Grant Shapps and Thérèse Coffey to set up the prime minister with a tap-in own goal on free school meals. You’re also worried that Harry Kane will now enter the Brexit talks and nutmeg you with an extension to the transition period.
Ordinarily you would expect Boris Johnson to do nothing. Partly because he’s naturally lazy and the idea of leaving Downing Street to sort out the chaos brings him out in a cold sweat. But partly also because Boris is at his best when he says nothing at all. He’s yet to find a situation that he can’t make worse by opening his mouth.
On this occasion, the prime minister chose to deal with the ongoing shitshow by going to the Commons to make an entirely unnecessary statement on his proposals to merge the Department for International Development with the Foreign Office. Just imagine. You’re in the middle of the worst global health pandemic for 100 years, the economy is falling apart all around you, children are going hungry and the most important item on your agenda is an entirely pointless departmental merger that no one except a few Tory ultras was calling for.
Boris did his best to talk up the futility of the exercise by calling it Global Britain, but the longer he spoke the more it became clear the Britain he had in mind was Little Britain. Only without the jokes but keeping the casual racism. It was something of a surprise he didn’t reprise “picaninnies with watermelon smiles”.
He was fed up with the poorest countries treating us like “a giant cashpoint in the sky” or taking the money and “then chopping people’s heads off”. That kind of largesse was very late-1990s. Now was the time for the lazy scroungers to give us back something in return. If they wanted the dosh then they had better start doing as they were told.
Opposition MPs were predictably outraged, denouncing the merger both as a diversionary tactic and a chance not just to cut the foreign aid budget but also to redirect it to richer countries of more strategic influence. Tory MPs were rather more indulgent. For some this was a welcome end to a department they had never seen the point of, while others sought reassurances that this wasn’t just an opportunity to be less generous to the poorest countries.
“Absolutely not,” Boris replied. Just trust me. The rearrangement of the deckchairs was purely an administrative convenience. The faces of Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Dominic Raab seated further along the frontbench rather gave the lie to this. The DfID secretary looked inconsolable while the foreign secretary appeared ecstatic at his land grab.
But trust him the Tory MPs did. Though why was another matter, given that his word is now officially meaningless. Only the day before he’d insisted there would be no U-turn on free school…