As the Prime Minister set out his roadmap out of lockdown in the House of Commons yesterday, there was for the first time a real sense that the nation might actually be on the path back to the distant, half-remembered state of ‘normal life’.
But today’s unemployment figures are a sobering reminder of the serious challenges the Government will face even when, deo volente, we have finally brought Covid-19 under control. According to the BBC:
“The Office for National Statistics said 1.74 million people were unemployed in the October to December period, up 454,000 from the same quarter in 2019. The figures show 726,000 fewer people are currently in payrolled employment than before the start of the pandemic. Almost three-fifths of this fall, 425,000, has come from those aged under-25.”
The figure for young people should be especially concerning. Voters in that age group are already deeply reluctant to vote Conservative, and have made huge sacrifices to protect older citizens during the pandemic. If ministers allow a joyous unlocking for some voters to be simply a transition to further economic hardship for others, they risk alienating an entire generation.
Fortunately, the ONS also reports that there are ‘tentative signs’ that the employment market is stabilising. But decisive action will be needed. We have previously explored what it might be, and looked at the measures already covered in the Plan for Jobs. Centre-right think-tanks such as the Centre for Policy Studies have also published their own proposals in reports such as After the Virus and A Northern Big Bang.
The Budget will therefore be illuminating because it might start to give us a firmer idea of what ‘Johnsonist’ economic policy might look like. Freed from the exigencies of the pandemic, the Prime Minister will have to start making more obviously ideological decisions than he has to date. Will he rely on traditional Tory measures, as the CPS would doubtless prefer? Or will he seek inspiration from John Maynard Keynes, as Jacob Rees-Mogg advises in our latest Moggcast?
A man with Johnson’s sense of history will know that his legacy may depend on getting it right. Memories of the Conservatives’ hard-nosed attitude towards unemployment in the 1980s (however justified) helped to lock the Party out of many of the ‘Red Wall’ seats he captured in 2019. Voters will be swift to punish, and slow to forgive, a perceived relapse to being the ‘same old Tories’.