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Empty forecourts, smoking abattoirs

The prime minister does not see why problems are his department


Why are people so hard on Boris Johnson? He didn’t want any of this. He just wanted to be loved. But somehow he was forced to be prime minister, and now it’s just one bloody thing after another. Petrol shortages, pig surpluses. Too many immigrants. Not enough immigrants. You people are never happy. Would it hurt you to stop whinging for five minutes and just stand outside your houses chanting his name adoringly?

And yet he is, for reasons that seem to mystify him as much as they do his critics, prime minister, and so he was being interviewed by Andrew Marr at the start of the Conservative conference in Manchester. This is the sort of punishment that we voters, ungrateful bastards that we are, put him through these days, instead of just getting him to host Have I Got News For You? in return for a large cheque.

Marr wanted to know what Johnson was going to do about everything, a question to which the answer was, in essence: Do about it? What’s it got to do with me?

Take petrol. Keen followers of the discourse will recall it is only a week since the government was assuring us there was no shortage of petrol, and that once the silly panic buyers had stopped their silly panic buying, forecourts would be awash with so much of the stuff they would be giving it away free with bars of chocolate. If you’re familiar with Johnson’s work, you won’t be surprised to learn that this is not quite how things have panned out.

Hadn’t he been warned about all this, Marr asked, in June? Oh tosh, Johnson replied, they’d known about the problem “long, long before then”. It’s not clear who is supposed to be reassured by this.

“When you look at the particular issue on the petrol forecourts, there you’ve got a problem that actually now is very largely driven by demand,” Johnson explained. A minute or so later, he expanded on this: “The issue at the forecourts is fundamentally one of supply.” So it’s supply and demand, eh? Thanks for that, Milton Friedman.

For some days, Tory outriders have been assuring us that Europe too is experiencing shortages of things. “We have checked,” Marr said, “with the equivalent of the Petrol Retailers Association in France, Poland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, no other country in the EU is seeing the kind of problems on the petrol forecourts that Britain is.” Johnson gave him the look of pure hatred that he reserves for journalists who check things. There was a “particular problem to do with demand in this country,” he said.

It might not make much difference to the pig, but it surely matters to the farmer

The problem, it turns out, is that the government has just been doing too good a job. “What you’re certainly seeing is the stresses and strains caused in a UK economy that is now the fastest growing in the G7,” the prime minister explained. Things are only going so badly, it turns out, because they’re going so well. Ministers are victims of their own success.

And so to pigs. Marr explained that 120,000 of them will have to be killed and incinerated if there is no answer to the shortage of abattoir workers in the next 10 days. “Yeah,” replied Johnson, in the tones of a man who has really had enough of your problems.

“What are you going to do?” Marr asked.

“I hate to break it to you, Andrew, but I’m afraid our food processing industry does involve killing a lot of animals,” Johnson said. Usually in order to eat, Marr pointed out, rather than simply for cremation. It might not make much difference to the pig, but it surely matters to the farmer.

Abattoirs should invest in automation, Johnson replied. Did the prime minister have a short-term solution, Marr asked. He did not. What, Marr asked, would people think when they saw the animals being slaughtered and burned. “They always were going to be killed,” Johnson said. Perhaps he is trying to engender a vegetarian consciousness in us, by exposing the brutal nature of industrialised agriculture. That will go down a bomb at Tory conference, where vegetables are often viewed as a Marxist plot.

The path of the coming days is now clear. First Nadine Dorries will assure us that there is not, repeat not, a surplus of pigs, before finally George Eustice announces that the Army is going to be sent in.

Meanwhile Johnson, poor bullied Boris Johnson, beset on all sides with demands to read this or understand that or fix the other, all he wants is to be loved.

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