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Friday, Jul 01, 2022

Ministers want Britain to be more like Netflix: debt-ridden and fast losing fans

Ministers want Britain to be more like Netflix: debt-ridden and fast losing fans

Only a government in full flight from reality would use the troubled streaming service as its go-to aspirational touchstone
I wonder which of Thursday’s developments will turn out to be more significant – Boris Johnson’s honkingly incoherent speech in Blackpool, or the same day’s news that Palantir is on track to become the underlying operating system for the entire NHS. This globally controversial black box of a company is already heavily embedded in the security, defence and intelligence sectors, as well as in mass surveillance and predictive policing. A number of sources confirm to the Financial Times that it’s now frontrunner to end up as the sole private firm the NHS would rely on for vital functions. “Once Palantir is in,” warned one person familiar with its expansion plans, “how are you going to remove them?” Anyway, prime minister: you were burbling something about tariffs on bananas … ?

“Sometimes the best way that government can help is simply to get out of the way,” gibbered Johnson yesterday, having absolutely refused to get out of the way when 41% of his own MPs asked him to do so earlier this week. “To do less or better, or simply not at all.” Admittedly, no one could question the PM’s commitment to doing nothing much at all, given how strikingly little he has achieved thus far, and how alarmingly nonexistent his ideas for tackling various crises seem to be. Despite his best efforts to look busy – now more than ever – Johnson hasn’t been. Yet the country has rolled on, after a fashion. One inference is that real power has increasingly migrated away from No 10 Downing Street. Maybe they should have a leaving do for it.

Away from the situation room where they make decisions about bananas, the government spends vast sums of money, but often ineffectively and frequently scandalously, from Covid cronyism to the effective write-off of furlough fraud. Multibillion contracts are quietly awarded, and influence is surreptitiously acquired. Newspaper proprietors such as Rupert Murdoch want working from home to end because it hits their circulation – so Johnson punts that “policy” about for a bit. Then there’ll be a speech about some other thing, which itself will become a casualty of a lost byelection or simply a lost train of thought.

The prime minister resembles little more than a sort of deranged front-of-house figure – radiating the mad bonhomie of a restaurant maitre d’ assuring diners that the kitchen is not on fire, even though they can see the smoke belching out of the door. Is it any wonder more and more people are sucked into conspiracism to explain it? I enjoyed the focus group member this week who concluded there must be a conspiracy, or someone more powerful controlling Boris Johnson behind the scenes, because “one man surely couldn’t be that daft”. Well now. It’s a yes and no, isn’t it? But were Family Fortunes to pose the timeworn question “who really runs Britain?” to its survey respondents, you’d imagine the answer “the government” would be in danger of slipping down the rankings.

The government appears mainly engaged in theatre. Take yesterday’s response to the UK’s ever-intensifying housing crisis, which seems to be to relax lending requirements and allow tenants on housing benefit to buy their homes. Those making arch comments about the same thing having caused the financial crisis are way off the mark. The practicable scale of this is likely to be minuscule. By nightfall, one of Johnson’s own cabinet ministers, Thérèse Coffey, had already admitted it would possibly only help “thousands” of people, but some experts judge even this to be optimistic. The whole thing is probably best understood as a pseudo-policy – a minor sleight-of-hand to disguise the major sleight-of-hand in the speech, which was the formal abandonment of the manifesto pledge to build 300,000 new houses a year.

The much-vaunted (and much-criticised) scheme to send migrants to Rwanda is another pseudo-policy, designed only to yield headlines about leftwing lawyers trying to stop it. Clearly, the plan defies decency, but it also defies physics – we are constantly shown one Kigali hotel with 72 bedrooms. On some days, hundreds of migrants arrive by boat in the UK, so on its own grotesque terms the policy makes no credible sense.

Bizarrely, meanwhile, everything is required to aspire to emulate Netflix. Ministers started a few months ago, by claiming the profitable Channel 4 should be sold off to compete with the streaming service. By this week, the health service was being urged to upgrade from its supposedly Blockbuster-esque current state to something more befitting “the age of Netflix”. The British government appears to be the last entity to know that Netflix is built on eye-watering debt, is arguably an overall driver-down of quality and is losing subscribers fast. How can they not know any of this? How can they not care to know it? How long before the streams are further crossed and the right-to-buy pseudo-policy is hailed as the Netflix of housing?

How long, in fact, can the government’s alternative reality avoid contact with actual reality? On Wednesday, Johnson saluted our “robust and strong economy”, even as the OECD was publishing its latest forecast indicating the UK would have the slowest growth of any country in the developed world next year except Russia. Is this what you’d call a multiverse? Or a cultiverse? Either way, none of the big stuff ever gets fixed, and the way out is getting harder all the time.
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