After an election governments tend to do two things. First, ministers take advantage of their opponent’s disarray by framing the script for the next parliament with a compelling narrative, deploying catchphrases that will make their story stick in the public’s memory long after the headlines have faded. Second they administer the bitter pill of spending restraint, so that fiscal goodies can be doled out ahead of the next election. BorisJohnson is bucking the trend by doing the first but not the second. He has taken high-stakes gambles to win power. Whether his latest bet pays off will depend on how right the prime minister proves to be about both politics and economics.
Mr Johnson says he wants to keep the Labour votes he says were “lent” to the Conservatives in December’s election. At the top of the new government’s agenda is the idea of “levelling up” and squashing regional inequalities. This is a desirable goal, not least in swathes of the country where people have been left feeling disenfranchised and ignored. But this will take time. There is no quick fix to tackle entrenched problems such as: why pupils in the poorest areas in the north are four times more likely to attend schools graded less than good than their London counterparts; or why men in Manchester can expect to die nine years younger than those in leafy Hampshire; or why the average northern worker produces £4 less per hour than their counterpart in the south.
However, Mr Johnson is in a hurry to consolidate his grip, and the signs are that the government is preparing for a splurge. The prime minister has signalled that he is prepared to rewrite Treasury rules to ensure that the focus of this cash will be on the north of England, Wales and the Midlands. His welcome announcement that HS2 will go ahead speaks to this agenda.
Such spending ought to help an economy which at the end of 2019 had ground to a halt, bringing an end to the worst decade of recovery in two centuries. Far from spurring a rethink, the 2008 financial crash accelerated the concentration of wealth and power into the hands of a few. Mr Johnson’s Treasury team is said to be weighing up a big tax raid on higher earners, and perhaps even a mansion tax to pay for his “levelling up” agenda. Wearing Labour’s clothes is uncomfortable for many Tories. One Daily Telegraph reader fumed that “Corbyn’s ideas did win over the electorate”.
The Treasury does not need to raise taxes. In the upcoming budget, thanks to relaxed spending rules Sajid Javid will have £60bn extra to spend over the next four years. Two-thirds of this will be skewed towards investment and the rest left for day-to-day spending. Claiming to be attuned to the “people’s priorities”, Mr Johnson won’t be constrained by conventional Treasury cheeseparing. He is right to spend more and run a higher budget deficit. However, the flaw at the heart of his policies is that Britain’s unequal economy is a product of Conservative thinking which remains fundamentally unchanged. Too many announcements – such as locating the House of Lords in York or seating the BBC director general in the north – appear not to be about redistributing power but a chance to deride “metropolitan” London. Lurking behind Mr Johnson’s rhetoric is an attempt to move past Brexit and the UK’s defiant stance in trade talks to return to business as usual – but with no greater say for the voters than before. He has not responded to the 2016 referendum result with an idea to build a more democratic and sustainable economy. For that voters will have to look somewhere else.
Source: Read Full Article