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My first home in London was the Paddy Hole. Our landlords felt guilty – but not enough to let us live above ground

A friend was so alarmed by our windowless basement that he threatened to alert the authorities. Now all of Britain seems to be living in a pit of despair

There’s a sickly familiarity to the low hum of dread setting in around Britain. With Rishi Sunak installed to clean up the mess after the sugar high of Boris Johnson’s boosterism and the deranged lab experiment that was Trussonomics, the nation is braced for something it knows all too well: austerity. And it will be administered by a man richer than the king.

I moved to London just as another Tory prime minister, David Cameron, ushered in the last “age of austerity”, the first of its kind since the aftermath of the second World War. I lived with some other Irish lads in a windowless basement beneath a hostel. We called it the Paddy Hole.

The hostel we lived beneath was run by two Irish men who’d lost their shirts when the Irish property market crashed and had come to London for one last shot at the big time

The room was lit by a dirty fluorescent bulb and had shelves stacked with washed linen, which gave the air a chemical tang. We paid £70 a week, or about €80 a week at the current exchange rate, to sleep in bunks and thought that was a great deal. Eventually a friend came to visit and was so alarmed that he threatened to alert the authorities. He was only half-joking.

The hostel was run by two Irish men in their 40s, which seemed impossibly old at the time. They’d lost their shirts when the Irish property market crashed and had come to London for one last shot at the big time. They felt guilty about charging us to sleep in an underground linen closet – but not guilty enough to let us live above ground.

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Sometimes they bought us alcohol to make themselves feel better. They’d take us to dive bars and we’d observe them stumble around drunkenly in a gross caricature of male middle age. I made a mental note never to end up like them (outcome TBC).

The hostel caretaker was a delicate man who blamed his hardships on mass migration. That his xenophobia seemed out of step with his job in an international youth hostel was a point I didn’t press him on. His outlook was decidedly bleak. The British financial system had been destabilised by decades of deregulation, but for some reason he seemed to think it was immigrants who were responsible. This fundamental misallocation of blame ultimately manifested itself in the Brexit referendum. The data is unambiguous: Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has not only failed to improve the lives of ordinary people but is actually making things worse.

It is perfectly legitimate for a democratic country to opt out of a political and trade arrangement that is feels no longer serves its interests. Norway has never been part of the club, and it is not treated like a pariah. The problem isn’t Brexit but the confrontational way the divorce has been pursued. At times it has felt as if the British government is less interested in getting a good deal from Europe than it is in acting out Alfred the Great schoolboy fantasies. The UK’s upper-class negotiators have acted in bad faith from the beginning, endowed with the luxury of ironic detachment from the economic consequences of their behaviour.

While Covid, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and many of the other issues putting a drag on Britain’s growth are largely outside the government’s control, the country’s combative relationship with its biggest trading partner is a policy choice. What’s worse is that the topic is too toxic for politicians to have an intelligent conversation about it. Tories who suggest a closer relationship with Brussels are shouted down while the Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, is terrified to even broach the issue.

The impact Brexit is having on growth is there for all to see, but Britain is no longer a country where politicians feel confident stating that the sky is blue.

The hardship facing the country’s poorest is now comparable to what followed the banking crisis. In lieu of new ideas and honest reflection on the mistakes of the past, the Conservative Party seems set on a grisly national Groundhog Day. The new home secretary, Suella Braverman, has decried what she calls an invasion of migrants, while the spending cuts set to be imposed by the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, are expected to be punitive.

Sunak might feel like a safe pair of hands compared with his predecessors, but their scorched-earth approach to governance has left him with limited manoeuvrability. Like a no-nonsense mum, he’s been brought in to tell us that the party is over. Many will be wondering if they were ever invited to it in the first place.

Peter Flanagan left Ireland in 2016 to perform stand-up comedy in London. He is on Instagram and Twitter

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