It is almost as though the Coronavirus hasn’t happened. Boris Johnson planned to spend ziggurats of public money, piled heavenwards in a heap of borrowing, before Covid-19 paralysed the world economy. And he still plans to spend them. Just even more so. Those terraces will stretch higher, the bills will be even bigger.
He will reportedly announce today a £5 billion programme of faster capital spending on hospitals, roads, rail, prisons, courts, schools and high streets. Rishi Sunak will take charge of a new infrastructure planning process called “Project Speed”.
The programme will have a green tint. Where Roosevelt had a Civilian Conservation Corps, the Prime Minister will announce a Conservative Rangers scheme, which should go down better at Ibrox than Parkhead. Or perhaps he has Aragorn and his merry men in mind.
Johnson is certainly thinking of FDR, describing his plan as “positively Rooseveltian. It sounds like a New Deal. All I can say is that if so, then that is how it’s meant to sound and to be – because that is what the times demand.” We publish Andrew Gimson’s chapter on FDR from his brief lives of American presidents this morning.
Now Roosevelt’s name is, almost literally, a red rag to a bull – the animal in question being a swathe of the Right, especially in America. Whether or not his New Deal speeded, created or stopped a recovery is ferociously contested by different schools of historians.
Andrew writes that FDR “gave people hope” and “discovered how to bypass a predominantly hostile press”. Remind you of anyone? He also believed in “bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
That sounds a lot like a major section of Michael Gove’s speech last weekend on civil service reform. Or vice-versa. “We need to move to a system where those who propose the innovative, the different, the challenging, are given room to progress and, if necessary, fail.”
We find it easy to imagine the Prime Minister as Roosevelt, settling daily with his advisers to determine the price of gold. “No-one had a clue how they went about settling [it],” although everyone presumed that some subtle analysis…went into their calculations, writes Liaquat Ahamed in his Lords of Finance.
“In fact, the choice of price was completely random. All they were trying to do was push the price a little higher than the day before. The exercise brought out the juvenile in Roosevelt. One day he picked an increase of 21 cents, and when asked why, replied that it was a lucky number, three times seven.”
Now Johnson’s speech has yet to be delivered, so we aren’t yet able to work out how much of that £5 billion is simply money re-badged, and it is in any event a piffling sum – at least when set beside the stonking £298 billion that the virus is expected to cost the British economy this year.
We also don’t know how determined the Prime Minister is to face down opposition, and how much Conservative backbenchers will wear. Building would seem to be popular enough, and a majority of sounds big enough to back it up.
But Britain is a densely populated country, at least when compared to most other European nations, and while building, say, hospitals commands consent, building houses does not, as far as Tory MPs in south-eastern seats and their constituents are concerned. All too often they want them to go up – but somewhere else, please.
Planning reform is clearly part of Johnson’s programme, even though today’s briefing is light on it. As for large infrastructure projects, the fate of Heathrow expansion is a reminder that this is a country rich in protesting constituents, planning appeals, judicial review and, now, newish climate change targets.
Roosevelt controversies and Commons resistance aside, it makes sense, since we are stuck in this Coronavirus hole, to try and grow our way out of it. That suggests either borrowing money or printing it (we nod in that last case to Nick Boles), and the Government is set to continue the first route, paved as it is with more quantitative easing.
This would be a great deal harder had not David Cameron and George Osborne put in the grunt work of driving the deficit down so that, in a crisis of this very unusual kind, their successors would have the elbow-room to pull it back up again
Conservatives will welcome the tax cuts that are certain to be the other main short-term part of the programme. Sunak won’t take up all of Sajid Javid’s ideas, but a reduction in employment taxes is likely. If the Chancellor can tack on a Ryan Bourne-style regulation cull, as he should, that will doubtless go down very well.
In the meantime, the Prime Minister’s plan has the additional merit, as far as he is concerned, of shooting Keir Starmer’s spending fox as it trudges towards former Red Wall seats. When Labour’s leader calls for more money to be spent, Johnson will counter that he’s already spending it.
Some on the Right will worry about a lurch to the Left, and itch for a Thatcherite macro-programme of immediate spending cuts – not remembering that the recovery of the 1980s was triggered by Geoffrey Howe’s tax-raising Budget of 1981, which allowed interest rates, pushed higher by North Sea oil, to start falling.
The difference this time round is that those rates are low, and that governments can borrow with impunity at the moment. But that only raises a question which this generation of Conservative MPs, who are getting used to Never Saying No, is ill prepared to answer, if it is suddenly posed in real life.
Namely, what if the markets become unwilling to lend to the Government at current rates? What happens then to public spending on public services – whose reform was the missing element in Gove’s dazzling speech? Reform of civil servants; reform of politicians themselves. Both were dealt with. Public service reform not so much.
We wish Johnson’s programme well and him all of FDR’s luck. But post-war history is littered with dashes for growth, Wilson’s white heat, the Department for Economic Affairs, “abrasive” Ted Heath, Gordon Brown’s no return to boom and bust. If the growth doesn’t come, we will go broke.