Johnson could use meal moratorium to finally find values
A week ago, the government announced it was delaying the introduction of a ban on so-called BOGOF (buy one, get one free) offers on foods and drinks high in salt, fat or in sugar. The ban, intended to help reduce overconsumption and therefore obesity, has been postponed, according to the Ministry of Health and Social Care, to allow ministers to assess the impact on household budgets in a context increase in the cost of living.
In political terms, it was a no-brainer: inflation is now front and center after an absence of almost a generation, and there are fears that prices will remain high even if inflation declines over the next couple of years. The effect on the cost of living, the prices of basic and essential items and services, is immediate and noticeable, and the government understands that this could be a fatal weakness to his chances of re-election in 2023 or 2024.
There was strong opposition to the postponement. Celebrity diet scold Jamie Oliver called it a ‘wasted opportunity’, while a Queen Mary medical professor accused the Prime Minister of ‘caving in to his own MPs’, a somewhat peculiar accusation when examined closely. A children’s charity called the decision “delay and hesitation”.
The disappointment of the health lobby which seeks ends regardless of means was inevitable: their position is clear and consistent, and applies to all public health risks, from smoking to Maltese. And their motivation is quite noble: obesity costs the NHS more than £6 billion a year, as well as leading to a range of poor outcomes that can affect the poorest in society.
As expected from this government, this is a position statement rather than an unambiguous statement of principles. The ban is still theoretically scheduled for October 2023, and a 9 p.m. turnaround for unhealthy food advertising is still scheduled for January 2024. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to note that those dates potentially fall after the next few general elections.
One of the most dangerous – and accurate – criticisms of the government in recent weeks has been that it lacks direction. For those of us with longer memories, there’s a drifting feeling reminiscent of the last major years of the mid-1990s; the administration in place became purely reactive, shaken by the weather but unable to advance against it. Losses in either, let alone both, of next month’s by-elections would add to the nostalgia. In the management of parties and information, John Major is not an example that a predecessor would seek to imitate.
Boris Johnson could stop some of this drift by declaring his vision and his principles. The delayed action against obesity, while relatively small, is in some ways illustrative: Is he a follower of state power, as has sometimes seemed to be the case during the pandemic? Or is he at heart a happy laissez-faire monarch, viewing freedom of choice as the highest goal for his people? Deciding on this question would make the next steps on obesity very easy to decide.
Many conservatives fear that the truth is a third way. Although his enthusiasm may have been dampened by his starring role in Partygate, the Prime Minister said: “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it.” More broadly, Johnson’s first recorded ambition to be “king of the world” is remembered and perhaps still his common thread. Politics is not important to him except insofar as it serves his own interests, which is why he has, to be charitable, been able to be ideologically nimble over the past decade.
The Prime Minister cannot be forced to choose. But the Conservative Party must, if it wants to avoid an electoral defeat and perhaps a catastrophe. It’s always been a big church, from Butskellism to Hayek and the Manchester School, but the public wants to know what it’s for. It risks becoming simply the vehicle for Johnson’s continued career, and that’s not enough.
Although the Metropolitan Police’s recent decision to no longer fine the Prime Minister has eased the pressure on him, there will come a time when he is no longer in office. The Conservative Party cannot afford to wait until then to look around and find that it no longer knows what it stands for.