Tomorrow’s Queen’ s Speech sees both the politicians and the people exposed to a triple threat unique in modern times – one at least as problematic as those of the 1970s.
Its first element is structural. In 2003/04, 59 per cent of households led by someone aged 25-34 were homeowners. This fell to 41 per cent in 2019/20.
If the aspiration of a home to call one’s own is no longer achievable for young people, they put off having families. So it is for the first time recently, half of women in England and Wales remained childless by their 30th birthday.
That can only mean pressure for higher immigration, which the EU referendum was partly a vote against. If employers can’t find British labour, because potential employees here can’t afford to move, they will look elsewhere.
Which is why the year to March 2020 showed a net migration figure of 313,000. There’s no reason to think that the post-pandemic figure won’t be roughly the same.
That business can’t find the trained workers it needs does much to explain why our productivity is 20 per cent below the level it would have reached if it had continued on its pre-crash path.
Division of voters between the two main parties on age rather than class was a striking feature of the 2017 general election in particular. It remains to be seen if the next one reverts to this norm.
The second element is circumstantial. The problem I describe has been exacerbated by a crash, a pandemic and now a war, all within the last 15 years.
The Coalition worked to tame the structural deficit, reduce debt, and get the economy back on track. It was helped by a long period of low interest rates.
Measures to stop a economic heart attack at the start of the pandemic have sent the deficit back up to 3.8 per cent of GDP after the achievement of a small surplus in 2019.
It would be higher were the tax burden not due to hit the highest percentage of GDP in over 50 years. Not so long ago, it was possible to cut taxes, let borrowing take the strain and the deficit “take care of itself”.
Rising interest rates have slammed the door on that option. To what degree quantitative easing, post-Covid supply bottlenecks worldwide and the Ukraine war are each responsible, no-one can be sure.
Stagflation is back, and with it a cost of living crisis. If the economy doesn’t grow at the rates that it did before the pandemic, there can be only one consequence.
Namely, the return of “austerity” – in other words, a further slowing of the rate of growth in spending, and real cuts in most departments as during the Coalition years.
The third element is constitutional. The heartland of the Conservative vote is in England. The local election results in Wales were strikingly bad, and alienation from Boris Johnson seems marked.
Gordon Brown and an articulate coalition within Labour want Keir Starmer to commit the party to “radical federalism” – whatever that might mean in practice.
This would have implications not only for Wales, where support for independence is relatively low, but for Scotland – where polls show that backing for leaving the Union and for staying divides almost fifty-fifty.
Nicola Sturgeon is caught between the caution of Scottish swing voters, for whom independence is not a priority when they support it at all, and the passions of her own activists.
The SNP prospered last week because it presented itself as a focus of domestic resistance to a Westminster Government to which Scotland is a stranger.
Sturgeon would not be able to keep that up during a general election, and downplay the independence issue as much as the present thrust of her leadership suggests she would like to.
Finally, there is Northern Ireland. The Protocol does not have to spur a border poll – talk of one is exaggerated – to continue to eat away at the Belfast Agreement with which, in practice, it has turned out to be at odds.
I don’t know what Boris Johnson will do next about the structural and circumstantial challenges I describe. But I know what he will do about the constitutional one.
He, Dominic Cummings and company defined Labour as a menace to Britain and toothless over Brexit, with the second being a consequence of the first.
To date, Johnson has presented Starmer as an opportunist. If the Labour leader is still there in 2024, the Prime Minister, Lynton Crosby, Isaac Levido and company will portray him as a danger.
Stand by for a re-run of the 2015 election, and a Tory campaign that seeks to spook voters with the spectre of a weak Starmer and a strong Sturgeon – with the latter propping up the former in office in order to bust up the country.
Such a negative message would be fully justified, though potentially short of a positive policy to go with it – namely, faster localism throughout Britain than the Government is presently delivering.
Ministers are doing some good stuff, much of which is going unnoticed. If Universal Credit had not been in place during the pandemic, for example, disaster would have followed.
“On the old system, these claimants would have to be processed physically and the queues and chaos at job centres would have dwarfed anything we have seen so far,” Iain Duncan Smith pointed out on this site.
Elsewhere, Nadhim Zahawi is rolling academisation forward. Sajid Javid is pushing personal health budgets. Perhaps the most under-reported initiative has come from Michelle Donelan.
Fines for under-performing universities has shift the university policy balance towards expressly utilitarian outcomes – the ideal of higher education as a good in itself is fading.
Britain in the 2020s doesn’t have the trade union problem of the 1970s, but does it have an equivalent which is less concentrated, more diffuse?
Namely, that our political culture would penalise a party that spelt out with a clarity of a Margaret Thatcher what needs to be done.
For all the nobility of levelling up, Britain needs a proportion of new owner occupied homes where people actually want to live. Some of these will have to be in the Greater South East if mobility is to rise and migration to lessen.
By the same token, the third of public spending that goes on health and welfare disproportionately supports older people, who also benefit from asset ownership and pension and capital tax breaks.
Both the Government and Labour seem willing endlessly to pile up taxes instead on the working and business parts of the population, of which the Health and Social Care Levy was a vivid example.
Britain cannot become a National Health Service with a Union Flag on top – at least, if the growth doesn’t come to provide the wages which in turn provide the taxes that pay for it. In which event, a reckoning will come.
Meanwhile, the Partygate and Beergate stories are important to many voters, because the Government set rules that were broken at the top, and because Starmer is exposed to the charge of hypocrisy.
But it is unnerving that, in the face of the triple challenge I’m trying to describe, so little energy, by comparison, goes into rising to it.
The lesson that Johnson’s 2019 manifesto learned from Theresa May’s of 2017 was not to take any chances – don’t plug reform; promise more spending.
In electoral terms, it worked brilliantly, and delivered Brexit. In polititcal ones, it and events have left this Queen’s Speech as his last chance to make the most of leaving the EU, and tackling the greatest crisis in a generation.