The Guardian view of Boris Johnson: neglecting the nation

Editorial
Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Two weeks after Storm Ciara rolled across Britain and Ireland and a week after Storm Dennis did the same, extensive parts of rural Britain remain under many feet of flood water. Heavy rains in the last 48 hours have prolonged the misery. The floods extend from Surrey to Cumbria, and from the Scottish Borders to the Welsh Marches. The counties in the Wye, Severn, Trent and Yorkshire Ouse watersheds are again hard hit. As the climate crisis deepens, such events are likely to be both increasingly common and increasingly severe.

People are extraordinarily resilient in the face of this kind of emergency. But human hardiness, community solidarity and individual kindness are not enough when floods repeatedly lay waste to homes, livelihoods, land, infrastructure and services. Ultimately it is only the state, both at local and national level, that can ensure the scale of preventive and responsive measures necessary to show that the whole nation is committed to enabling diverse ways of life to continue with reasonable security.

Faced with this week’s inundations, the state has been largely silent. These floods are a national crisis requiring national responses. Yet where has the government been when it is needed? Where is the prime minister? Who knows? His government has not been asleep at the wheel this week on other things. On the contrary. It has done one very big public thing, rolling out a new post-Brexit immigration system, and rapidly advancing another very big under-the-radar project, the assault on the BBC.

The immigration controls were advanced in the name of national needs. But they are not wanted in many parts of Britain, including Scotland and London. The millions who voted remain in 2016 do not want them. They will weaken, at least in the medium term, a variety of sectors of the economy, including agriculture, care services, the NHS, hospitality and construction, on all of which people at the sharp end disproportionately depend. And they will weaken the already fraying solidarity between communities within the nation to some degree, especially when promulgated by such a foolhardy fanatic as the home secretary, Priti Patel. Whether Boris Johnson cares about any of this is doubtful.

Meanwhile, the prime minister’s grey eminence, Dominic Cummings, was allowed to recruit an adviser (who has now quit) with a history of vile remarks, and to pursue an aggressive policy against the rightly revered national public service broadcaster. At the start of the week, Mr Cummings briefed the Murdoch press – which is about to go into the radio business itself – that No 10 is “not bluffing” about plans to scrap the licence fee, force viewers to pay a subscription, and compel the BBC to downsize and get rid of most of its radio stations. Both Mr Johnson and the now restored broadcasting minister, John Whittingdale, have apparently disavowed the briefing and said it is not government policy. But another threat to the nation has not gone away.

Mr Johnson talks about himself as a liberal Conservative leading a one-nation government. Such terms have been debauched almost to the point of meaninglessness over the years, but they ought still to embody something decent. Whatever her other faults, Theresa May understood, at least early in her prime ministership, about the importance of government in mending, not fostering, social divisions. Many millions in all parts of Britain still think this way. This weekend, politicians and activists of many parties and none, including Gordon Brown, Andy Burnham and David Lidington, are meeting in Newcastle at a These Islands conference to debate alternatives to some of the forces that are trying to pull the country apart.

It is hardly a surprise that neither Mr Johnson nor any of his ministers will be there, because they are not there for the nation either. During a week of crisis in the flooded lands, the unrolling of a divisive immigration policy, and the ongoing threat to the future of the BBC, Mr Johnson is not to be found, heard or seen. Instead, he is absent without leave. It is as though there is a Do Not Disturb notice on the door of 10 Downing Street. His is not a one-nation government. It behaves increasingly like a nationalist government.