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Politics

Imperial measurements? What’s really on the government agenda

While Boris Johnson floats ideas about imperial measurements and Irish sea bridges, families across the UK are at risk of falling into poverty

Covid cases and the cost of living are both rocketing up, but the government knows what people really want: imperial measurements on their shopping.

This week Lord Frost, the Brexit minister, pledged to review the ban on selling products in pounds and ounces, something the EU had prohibited.

The announcement grabbed headlines as people questioned who, if anyone, really asked for this. It doesn’t require a tinfoil hat to wonder if ministers are keen to distract from the news of the day, just weeks before it pulls a number of Covid support schemes and cuts benefits for the UK’s poorest families despite furious opposition from across the political spectrum.

The Big Issue asked: Does this government have form for floating relatively trivial discourse-fodder when it’s under the microscope for policy decisions?

Imperial measurements

At the end of September, the furlough scheme will end, despite 1.6 million people still relying on it for income and workers in sectors such as aviation concerned they could lose their jobs entirely.

At the same time, ministers will cut universal credit by £20 per week for more than 5.5 million people, and end the six-month notice period for landlords to give tenants on evictions.

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Anti-poverty experts are concerned the government is creating the perfect storm for a surge in poverty, homelessness and unemployment. 

Cabinet reshuffle

Rumours of a cabinet reshuffle were leaked to the press days in advance. But Boris Johnson didn’t start firing, hiring and demoting secretaries of state until Wednesday afternoon, after Prime Minister’s Questions. Just as the debate began on Labour’s motion not to cut universal credit.

The benefit decrease will mean low-income families across the country lose £1,040 from their annual incomes and has been condemned by campaigners, Commons opposition, Conservative groups and former Tory welfare ministers. 

The demotion of Dominic Raab to justice secretary and move to housing secretary for Michael Gove dominated the news agenda. 

Labour’s motion to scrap the cut passed by a majority of 253 to 0, with all but four Conservative MPs abstaining. 

Few Tories actually turned up for the vote, with roughly six of the party’s MPs on the benches for the debate.

But the vote isn’t legally binding and the cut is expected to go ahead on October 6.

Irish Sea bridge

The proposed bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland has been occupying column inches since 2018 and received fresh attention when Boris Johnson included it in his campaign for the Conservative leadership job.

By 2019, SDLP spokesperson Sinead Bradley blasted the “fantasy bridge to Scotland” as a distraction to divert attention from post-Brexit chaos consuming the Conservative party.

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“It’s hard to blame them for wanting to talk about anything other than their government, which appears to be on fire, but this really is a pathetic attempt at distraction,” she said.

The much-mocked plan for a 45km structure costing around £20bn made headlines once again in June 2020, when the prime minister’s spokesperson reiterated Johnson’s enthusiasm for the project and even indicated it could be a prominent feature of the country’s recovery from the Covid-19 crisis.

Slammed as a vanity project by many – though the plan did pick up some support from devolved governments – it was the idea that wouldn’t die, particularly in October 2020, when soaring virus case numbers triggered speculation that a new lockdown was on the horizon. 

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As other parts of the country reintroduced restrictions, all eyes were on Westminster. Johnson announced an independent review of the Irish Sea bridge. Days later, the prime minister was forced to put England into a new lockdown.

But in September 2021, amid mounting criticism of the government’s speedy removal of Covid support schemes, the plug was pulled on the prime minister’s novelty bridge for good.

Footballers’ salaries

When the government was failing to provide sufficient PPE and Covid-19 test kits for NHS staff last April, Conservative MPs were concerned about the inflated pay of professional footballers.

Julian Knight, head of the digital, culture, media and sport committee, accused Premier League clubs of operating in a “moral vacuum” after furloughing low-paid staff while paying footballers their full wage.

The MP, who has a track record of opposing increased benefit payments, helped move public attention to the behind-the-scenes workings of football clubs just weeks after the country plunged into its first lockdown.

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Politicians were keen to divert focus to football once more earlier this year after the government’s disastrous handling of Covid over Christmas, with a last-minute and ultimately lengthy lockdown and the NHS running low on life-saving supplies. They highlighted the issue of footballers embracing on the pitch in goal celebrations, which Clive Efford MP said was “absolutely disgusting and beyond contempt”.

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