Mario Laghos is a political analyst and the editor of Just Debate.
During the 2019 election, Boris Johnson seemed a true pragmatist. He saw a gap in the market, and set about titillating the hankering for a politics which melded social conservatism with a far more relaxed approach to borrowing.
The Conservative campaign put Johnson on factory floors, construction sites, and in fisheries, not infrequently flanked by Gisela Stuart, promising interventionist modes of rejuvenation and state aid. All this was to be enabled by seeing Brexit through to the end, which would enable Britain to throw off suffocating EU state aid rules, and the burden of free movement, and bring to fruition a revival in industry and wages that a nation resigned to warehouse work and shelf stacking was crying out for. But the Johnson we find in government, bears little resemblance to the Johnson we saw on the campaign trail.
The Coronavirus crisis has eaten up 2020, will take up much of the Government’s time through 2021 and is set to have social and economic ramifications that could span a decade or more. No doubt this once in a century event imperils the cause of levelling up, and the blame lieth not with the Prime Minister for that. Whatever one may think about the government’s handling of the crisis, they have at least backed it up with sizeable financial support packages, like the furlough scheme, or Eat Out to Help Out.
But it’s the failures and oversights within those packages that belie the overall wrongheaded thrust of this Government, and its ideological drag anchor on our economy. It’s in the failure to roll out or even countenance a package for the aviation industry, upon which many high skilled unionised jobs depend. It’s in the failure to adequately relieve the self-employed; plasterers, carpenters, designers and artists on whom our country depends. It’s in the timidity of the scale and ambition of the ‘New Deal’, which amounts to rebranding pre-existing manifesto commitments.
That we have been hit by this pandemic is not an excuse to wave away any failings up of the levelling up agenda, but a shock to the system which necessitates a doubling down on it. Yet in the face of this crisis, furlough notwithstanding, Boris has sought to retreat to the safe redoubt of conventional free market economics that wrought on our nation the inability to build ventilators or manufacture vaccines. Prior to the pandemic outbreak proper, Johnson spoke in Greenwich spoke in Greenwich on the 3rd of February, in words which have since aged like warm milk, he proclaimed:
‘‘Free trade is being choked and that is no fault of the people, that’s no fault of individual consumers, I am afraid it is the politicians who are failing to lead. The mercantilists are everywhere, the protectionists are gaining ground.
From Brussels to China to Washington, tariffs are being waved around like cudgels even in debates on foreign policy where frankly they have no place – and there is an ever-growing proliferation of non-tariff barriers and the resulting tensions are letting the air out of the tyres of the world economy.”
One would hope that the shock of the pandemic would have disabused the Prime Minister of his post-election manoeuvre away from the economically populist themes of the campaign. He himself bemoaned in his September address to the UN, that the UK, which had once been the workshop of the world, could scarcely produce a surgical glove at the onset of the pandemic, a tragic indictment of his previous address in Greenwich.
But far from committing to onshoring manufacturing, or delivering an infrastructure programme to increase connectivity and deliver full employment, he doubled down on his commitments to free trade, and demonstrated his reluctance to meaningfully deviate from Conservative orthodoxy.
The cracks are already beginning to show, 1.3 million workers are set to have their pay frozen. The promise to roll out gigabit broadband to 100 per cent of households by 2025 has now been downwardly revised to just 85 per cent of households. Where the language of economic populism and renewal has been used, as with the New Deal, it is found to be obfuscating a whole lotta nothing.
To pitch oneself as Roosevelt, and then to announce some £5 billion in spending, much of which was pre-existing in the Conservative Manifesto, is wholly insufficient. Just as Trump failed to payback the Blue Wall in the US with the $2 trillion infrastructure bill that never was, so too is Johnson, on present trends, failing to deliver that which was expected.
A number of noble measures are now in their embryonic stage, such as reversing the Beeching cuts, relieving the A303, and increasing defence spending. However, these measures are necessary, but not sufficient. They will not lead to meaningful and lasting improvements in people’s quality of life.
The Prime Minister must go beyond these tentative acts of regeneration and move to incentivise, by tax breaks, subsidy or aid, high tech industries, manufacturing and science. He needs to normalise British labour in our agricultural sector and incentivise the purchase of British goods. We need to accelerate the progress of promising projects like Teesworks ,and get people back to earning high wages and spending in their own communities; Amazon warehouses will not do. If Johnson wants to be a historic Prime Minister, which he could well be, then he needs to be brave, resist the siren call of the Conservative orthodoxy and move to spend big, by doubling down on levelling up.