Jhere is a book that accurately predicted this summer’s Conservative leadership race, although it was first published in 1980. It’s a slim volume about denial and neglect, making its point in little of words and colorful illustrations. His name is Not Now, Bernard by David McKee.
The titular hero is a boy who attempts to alert his parents to the presence of a child-eating monster in the garden. They are busy with other things. “Not now, Bernard,” said the father, hitting his hand with a hammer. “Not now, Bernard,” said the mother, watering a plant.
The monster eats the boy.
The next inhabitant of 10 Downing Street will find the garden teeming with monstrous economic and political threats. A chorus of Bernards sounds the alarm. Economists, MPs, former Tory ministers, charities, unions, businesses, local councils – all can hear the rustling in the bushes where a bestial crisis lurks, ready to bully the new prime minister.
Anyone who pays an energy bill and runs weekly errands can feel the clutches of a budget squeeze closing on the nation’s trachea. There’s an ogre in the health department. “Not now, Bernard,” Rishi Sunak said. There is a demon in the financial perspective. “Not now, Bernard,” said Liz Truss. There are demons in the details of your policy. “Not now, Bernard!
And then there’s that other monster, the one that’s become such a fixture in the backyard that even the opposition seem to overlook it. Can we talk about Brexit? Not now Bernard!
Britain’s self-exclusion from continental markets is not the main cause of the current economic difficulties, but it will be difficult to imagine any remedies in the absence of any rational audit of this decision or any re-examination of the ideological fixations that caused it. But for Brexit supporters, it is still too early and too late to judge.
Too soon, because the benefits of freedom are not claimed under the stake of the “retained” European regulations that Truss and Sunak promise to incinerate. And too late, because Brexit is the strong will of the people and any hint of downside is sedition.
The Conservative party recognizes only two possible positions on Britain’s relationship with the EU – a heroic insistence on further separation and a cowardly plot to rejoin. Labour, unwilling to take the first position and fearing being thrown into the second, says nothing significant on the subject.
Meanwhile, the erection of unnecessary tariff barriers between Britain and its closest markets has hampered trade, imposed costs on businesses, blocked supply chains and fueled inflation. The end of free movement has led to labor shortages for food producers, nursing homes and a whole range of intermediary services.
Free trade agreements with non-European states that sought to compensate for the loss of continental custom had negligible impact. (Most are copy-and-paste works from agreements Britain had as a member of the EU.)
The pound depreciated, but without the offsetting improvement in export competitiveness that would be expected from a devaluation of the currency. Business investment has remained flat since the referendum, largely because the political climate has been so unpredictable. This volatility – two general elections and three Prime Minister changes in six years – is a function of the struggle to turn an ideal Brexit, fueled by Eurosceptic parochial imagination, into a reality-based Brexit involving other countries and real jobs.
It cannot be done. Opinion polls suggest that a majority of voters think it was all a mistake. Liz Truss, the likely winner of the leadership contest, insists otherwise with the vehemence of a zealous convert.
Truss was a stayer in 2016 because she was a sidekick to George Osborne. The then Chancellor convinced his follower that Britain would not be stupid enough to give up EU membership. The campaign would be on the economy and the smart thing to do for an ambitious young minister was to come back to the winning side. She did it quickly once the results were known.
Truss now claims that backing the wrong horse in the referendum taught him to reject orthodox economic thinking. This created a mental void, which she filled with radical Brexit dogma. In 2019, she privately claimed Britain could safely leave the EU without a comprehensive deal. Brussels, she said, would be immediately bullied into “side deals” to mitigate any possible harm, the threat of which was, in any case, vastly exaggerated by lily-liver whining.
Having learned to despise the wisdom received from the Treasury, Truss grew to despise diplomacy as traditionally practiced in the Foreign Office. Reports of her encounters with foreign counterparts suggest she stumbles on the fine line between direct and abrupt; candid and rude.
This trend was evident at the press event last week, where Truss was asked if French President Emmanuel Macron was friend or foe. “The jury is out,” she said. It was in a mischievous spirit, with an eye only for the conservative activists in the room. Foreign secretaries and aspiring prime ministers avoided such nonsense before Boris Johnson infected both offices with his marauding recklessness. And even he does not hesitate to call France an ally.
Conservatives now speak more and more fondly of the outgoing Prime Minister, not because they remember him as a capable leader, but because his unique talent hypnotizes them into forgetting what good government is all about. supposed to look like. Truss doesn’t have that magic touch. The Brexit reminder wand is clumsily held in his hand.
The Conservatives’ willingness to turn Johnson over is not a measure of his reputation in the country, but the leadership race is not a national election. For at least another week British politics is contained in this sealed chamber where there is a legacy of Boris to celebrate, where the solution to poverty is corporate tax cuts, where the solution to everything is tax cuts, where tax cuts have no impact on public service budgets, where life outside the EU is upside down and can only get better.
But there is a monster in the garden.
McKee’s story doesn’t end when Bernard is eaten. In a brilliant twist, the monster then enters the house and takes up residence in the boy’s room, smashing his toys and eating his dinner. Parents still don’t notice. “But I am a monster,” the monster finally moved to inform them. “Not now, Bernard,” they say.
This is the next chapter for Britain. The monster is there, announcing itself with roars and growls. The crisis is upon us, demanding a capable and serious government. When will this cry be heard? Not now, Britain. Not now.