Britain has its most upbeat Prime Minister—at least publicly—any of us can remember. Yet he appears at a time when the country is facing its greatest crises since the Second World War.
Boris Johnson, writer and raconteur, sometimes politician—if full-time show man—seems to see no problems where others see them in abundance. His recent performance at the October Conservative Party conference in Manchester was breathtaking in its optimism and bounce. It was equally breathtaking in how the Prime Minister refused to acknowledge that the country is facing huge difficulties at present.
Petrol stations across London and the South East of England recently ran out of fuel or experienced long queues of motorists trying to refuel. The reason given for this situation, we are told, is that there is a shortage of Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) drivers. Allegedly, the United Kingdom has a shortfall of 100,000 HGV drivers. This current crisis, however, has more to do with recent panic buying at fuel forecourts than an actual fuel shortage. There has been, for some time, and there continues to be, a Europe-wide shortage of truck drivers. In 2020, it was recorded that Germany had a shortfall of HGV drivers of between 45,000 and 60,000; since 2019, France has had a similar shortage of around 43,000 drivers. Yet these shortages have not resulted in what we have seen recently on British roads. So, the lazy headline-grab about the effects of Brexit is just that: lazy.
If anything, regarding truck driver shortages, the British situation has been made worse by the sluggishness of the authority tasked with granting the necessary HGV licenses. During recent lockdowns, the testing of new HGV drivers collapsed. Figures for January 2021 show that 173 of such licenses were issued. A typical January in previous years would have seen around 3,000 licenses granted. In the whole of 2020, just 24,600 drivers were approved in the UK, which is about 17,000 fewer than in a normal year. We heard the predictable calls by some to bring in the military to drive tankers, which is another knee-jerk reaction as lazy as the aforementioned Brexit headlines. Calls to bring in the military may make a good media sound bite but belies the fact that there are only 100 HGV drivers currently in the British military. Even if all 100 were redeployed, they would hardly make a dent in the present problem.
The knock-on effects of HGV driver shortages have been felt in the food supply chain. Today, supermarkets have noticeably empty shelves. Already there is tabloid talk of no turkeys for Christmas. Linked to these food shortages is the widespread labor shortage, especially in retail, hospitality, and agriculture. In fact, at the moment the UK has over one million job vacancies—a record, and one with no straightforward solution since the ease with which people moved from within the EU to the UK has disappeared following Brexit.
Another major problem facing the UK concerns energy supplies. In recent months, a number of small energy supply firms have collapsed—Avro Energy, Green, People’s Energy, Utility Point, PfP Energy, and Money Plus Energy have all ceased to trade. And we have been warned that the price of household gas and electricity is set to rocket.
Then there is the ongoing health-related fallout from the recent pandemic. We are told that the National Health Service now faces a backlog of 5.6 million hospital treatments. In short, it is easier to say where there are no shortages in Britain today, which brings us back to the Prime Minister and his abundant supply of boosterism.
Johnson is an unstoppable force of nature. A quick glance at his career—or more properly, at his multiple careers—shows a man who knows how to get to the top and, more importantly, how to stay there. Whether in journalism or as Mayor of London, he appears to defy gravity as he turns situations around in his favor. The 2019 British General Election is a good example of this. People forget how close a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour Party came to being in government. In the 2017 General Election, the outgoing Prime Minister and Tory party leader Theresa May threw away a slim Conservative majority, only to be forced to lead a minority government with the help of the Democratic Unionists. It was a humiliating defeat in all but name for May’s Tory party. Furthermore, it acerbated the already vicious parliamentary divides on Brexit and plunged the country into yet another two years of acrimonious debate and stasis. The 2019 election changed all that. The Tories won a previously unthinkable 80-seat majority, claiming many of those seats in Labour heartlands in the North of England. As a result, the debates over Brexit ended with one fell swoop of the ballot paper: the UK would leave the EU.
All of this was down to one man: Boris Johnson. For nothing had really changed in Tory policy or even presentation during the election campaign except that the dour May had been replaced by the effervescent Boris. Johnson has many gifts: he is a talented writer and speaker, a shrewd editor, and he is, without doubt, a brilliant campaigner. If in any doubt of this, then remember that this is the man who won two mayoral elections in London—a city that is far from Tory.
On one occasion, I had the benefit of witnessing the charisma of the Prime Minister. It was a bleak winter’s day in 2009 and Boris, as Mayor of London, was opening a new train station beside Chelsea Harbour. Present were the assorted press and various hanger-ons who had been deputed to cover the event by their editors. The minute Johnson appeared, he began to attract a much wider audience than many a politician could muster. I noticed how people who had been going about their everyday work, like me, were being drawn to hear this larger than life figure. I remember little of what Boris said that day but I can remember how he said it—with zest, with bravado, with wit. I can also remember the ripples of laughter and approval that seemed to flow spontaneously through the audience once he started speaking. A showman, yes, but one had to admire this showman par excellence.
The name ‘Boris’ signifies fun, laughter, and, in the old-fashioned sense, gaiety. Johnson’s ‘Boris-act’ is a brand or, more precisely, what is known in show business as one’s ‘shtick’ i.e. a well-honed performance. And, like any great performer, Boris knows his audience. So when, last month, it came to his first in-person speech at a Tory Party conference as leader—last year’s was a dismal online affair due to Covid-19—it is not surprising that we heard little about the challenges facing the UK, let alone any policy solutions to them. Instead, we were left smiling at jokes about lockdowns accounting for the fall in reported crime or, better still, about the return of beavers to the British countryside—“Build back beavers”—and enough alliteration to keep a poet happy for months. Here was Boris promising nothing except that it would all be alright. Detailing nothing, heaven forbid, but telling us not to worry—as, clearly, he is not worried.
Maybe this is what the country needs. The alternative was someone like May telling us how dreadful things are and how they are just about to get worse. Perhaps, right now, we need the sunshine of Boris’s words. And when one remembers that politicians are not prophets and they have never been prophets, it could be that Johnson is as right in his predictions as anyone else. This leads to the surprising conclusion that, after all is said and done, Boris Johnson may be just the man to lead us out of our current predicament.
K.V. Turley is an award-winning journalist and author whose work has appeared on both sides of the Atlantic. He writes from London.