Viewed in the light of a long career lampooning the nanny state and projecting an aura of indulgent, libertarian joie de vivre, reports that Boris Johnson is considering a new public health crusade against obesity might be faintly surprising.
It will come as less of a shock to those of us who paid close attention as he campaigned for the leadership on an avowedly unionist platform only to capitulate on the Irish Protocol. Or bow to institutional inertia and green-light HS2.
Perhaps in happier times we might have kept the Prime Minister who announced he was going to review the sugar tax, and vetoed its extension to dairy products (the ‘milkshake tax’). But the ‘public health’ lobby is an extremely well-established and powerful one, and his record on standing up to these never offered much cause for optimism.
There is no doubt that circumstances have primed even many of us who have intellectually or morally opposed to such programmes to receive Johnson’s new message. Whilst some people are managing to lose weight in lockdown, others are struggling without access to competitive or organised exercise, or with the new reality of being locked in with the fridge for the better part of every day.
I myself have had two years’ of slow but steady progress on my weight grind to a halt (on a good week) and have moved in further into the Prime Minister’s target audience by getting myself a bike. My pre-Covid fitness regimen comprised mostly swimming, personal training, kickboxing, and dancing – all gone, some perhaps until autumn or longer.
Yet using the current pandemic as an excuse to indulge the puritan lobby on measures they’ve always wanted anyway still seems like a stretch, no pun intended.
Notwithstanding questions of libertarian principle, any strategy built around squeezing products out of the market, and then trying to offset waterbed effects as people seek their sugar-hit elsewhere, are only likely to be effective (if at all) over a timeline much longer than the wait for a vaccine. We should not forget that Johnson was reviewing the sugar tax precisely to see whether or not it actually worked – an odd thing to ‘change your mind’ on.
Likewise, there are any number of worthy exercise-incentive policies – from Johnson’s cherished cycle schemes to making gym memberships and other fitness products tax deductible – which could make a difference, but not quickly.
The idea that a solution to Covid-19 might be a year or more away, so the Government should ‘solve the obesity crisis’ because that can be done quicker, suggests a government unfamiliar with history or scale of this particular problem. Any programme aimed at slimming the nation down in time to meet the winter wave of Covid-19 would have to be much, much more dramatic than any of these. If he isn’t mulling whacking VAT on food, perhaps the Prime Minister is flicking through that recent Ministry of Defence report on reintroducing national service.
Meanwhile the negative consequences of squeezing the disposal income of the worse-off will still be felt in full, including by many of the new voters who rallied to the Conservative at the election. Consolidating that loyalty, and reviving what George Dangerfield once described as the “little political fortresses” where working-class voters saw the Tories as a shield against hectoring elites, is a work in progress. Or at least was.