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ANDREW NEIL: There IS a path out of this mess… if Boris Johnson can find the grit to take it 

Recent political history is strewn with the dashed hopes of those around Boris Johnson who thought he could change. Who were confident he would grow up and grow into whatever job he was doing.

That he would eschew his trademark bluff and bluster for the hard grind of government, developing a hitherto unknown interest in serious policies in the process.

That he would surround himself with talent — independent-minded people of stature and experience — and deploy his formidable linguistic skills to sound serious and statesmanlike, abandoning his now-tedious default shtick as an impromptu comedic act on the after-dinner speaker circuit, which is unbecoming in a prime minister.

That he might even learn to tuck his shirt in, straighten his tie and sort out his askew collar. That he would, in short, look, sound and act like the leader he’s meant to be — and so many of his supporters wish him to be.

Now that he’s kept his job — so far — by the skin of his teeth, we’re hearing these siren calls again, not least from the man himself, as in yesterday’s so obviously staged-for-the-TV-cameras address to the cabinet. This reduced ministers to nodding mannequins, like the Chinese politburo when listening to its Great Leader.

It’s as well to remember that his track record to date suggests, sadly, that nothing of substance will change. Bluff and bluster will continue to rule the day. He just can’t help himself.

That became apparent within hours of his lacklustre victory when he emerged to declare it ‘convincing’ (more than four out of ten of his own MPs voted against him) and ‘decisive’ (there’s already talk of changing the rules to allow a second vote).

He even claimed he’d done better than when he was running for leader in 2019, which is about as absurd a comparison as it’s possible to make.

Johnson is setting himself a test by which to judge him. Tomorrow, he will make a speech calling for tenants of housing associations to be able to buy their own homes at substantial discounts; the way Margaret Thatcher made it possible for millions of council tenants to become homeowners in the 1980s

Back in the summer of 2019, the Tory parliamentary party was choc-a-bloc with Remainers who were never going to vote for him.

And, since he wasn’t prime minister, he had no hold on the 140-strong payroll vote, as he did on Monday. Nor did any MP then owe their seat to him, as many did after the December 2019 general election.

His crazy comparison indicates he intends to remain a stranger to truth, to think he’s still the political escapologist par excellence and with one bound he’ll always be free. Johnson is not for changing. The man is incorrigible.

It must be particularly frustrating for loyal Tories because, despite the current morass (largely of his creation) all is not necessarily lost.

The country has clearly fallen out of love with Boris Johnson, but it has far from fallen in love with Keir Starmer. There is still time to right the Tory ship and set it on course for another victory.

Take the economy, which nearly always determines elections. At the moment it looks bleak, with recession looming and households caught in a cost-of-living vice. But inflation will peak before the year is out and fall for all of next year.

Employment remains strong, wages are rising faster than they have for over a decade and, with the right economic policy, any recession could be short and shallow — over in plenty of time for the next election.

Part of a ‘right’ economic policy would be to undo the damaging rise in national insurance and the freezing of income tax thresholds (which, in effect, means an income tax rise for millions). If Johnson really wants a fresh start, this would be a good place to show he means it.

The problem for those who want cuts in income tax or VAT is that it would require borrowing to finance tax cuts, which is pretty unconservative (and potentially inflationary).

But to reverse tax rises that should never have been made in the first place is prudent and would give households more money to spend when they need it most which, in turn (and along with the multi-billion pound cost-of-living package already announced), would boost consumer spending and mitigate any economic downturn.

Yes, the budget deficit has to be coaxed down and interest rates nudged up. However, to tighten both fiscal and monetary policy too much with a downturn looming would be the height of folly. A little more latitude with both and growth could return and living standards rise again before 2023 is out.

But I fear Johnson doesn’t understand much of this, which is why his government is gripped by Treasury orthodoxy. His grasp of economics has always been on a par with my expertise in brain surgery.

Which is a great pity. Because there is time to get the economy back on track if action is taken now. That is not so when it comes to levelling up, which is running out of time to make much of an impact before the next election.

As the Red Wall crumbled to the Tories in the last election it made political as well as economic sense to place a renewed emphasis on increasing the prosperity and quality of life in the Midlands and the North.

The country has clearly fallen out of love with Boris Johnson, but it has far from fallen in love with Keir Starmer

The country has clearly fallen out of love with Boris Johnson, but it has far from fallen in love with Keir Starmer

But the approach has been typically Johnsonian — long on promise and rhetoric, short on practical policies that would make a difference.

London and the South are now growing faster than the rest of the country, so the gap is widening, not narrowing.

It is too late to do anything dramatic. However, there is still time to make a visible difference to many provincial urban areas with projects to revive town centres, improve transport links, schools, hospitals and playing fields — anything that consigns dereliction to the past and conveys hope for the future.

It might also be a good idea to audit all steps towards net-zero carbon emissions — a strategy devised by the affluent middle class, embraced enthusiastically by Johnson but with serious financial repercussions for the struggling working class — in terms of their impact on levelling up.

Our manufacturing is based largely outside the South and has been crippled by rising energy costs.

Then there is housing, the most serious of all Tory Achilles’ heels. The old verities of British politics are being upended by new voting patterns (the middle class more Labour, the working class more Tory) but there is still one metric that holds true: if you own your own home, you’re more likely than not to vote Tory.

But home ownership has been in freefall for most of this century, even under Tory governments and young people in particular — the new Generation Rent — are struggling to get on the housing ladder as never before in modern times. It is a trend that contains within it the potential demise of the Tory party.

Let’s see how he does: will he achieve a genuine breakthrough in housing policy or will it be more fine words and precious little action, like levelling up? It’s more likely, in the aftermath of two probable catastrophic Tory by-election defeats on June 23, Johnson will stumble into the summer like a wounded beast

Let’s see how he does: will he achieve a genuine breakthrough in housing policy or will it be more fine words and precious little action, like levelling up? It’s more likely, in the aftermath of two probable catastrophic Tory by-election defeats on June 23, Johnson will stumble into the summer like a wounded beast

And here, conveniently, Johnson is setting himself a test by which to judge him. Tomorrow, he will make a speech calling for tenants of housing associations to be able to buy their own homes at substantial discounts; the way Margaret Thatcher made it possible for millions of council tenants to become homeowners in the 1980s.

At a stroke, home ownership would be boosted. The revenues could be poured into building new houses, for rent and purchase. But Tory prime ministers, such as David Cameron, have been here before and made no progress. It is much more complicated than selling council homes and the associations are fiercely opposed.

Let’s see how he does: will he achieve a genuine breakthrough in housing policy or will it be more fine words and precious little action, like levelling up?

So there you have it. There is a path out of the current mess, if Johnson has the foresight and grit to take it. I’m not holding my breath.

It’s more likely, in the aftermath of two probable catastrophic Tory by-election defeats on June 23, Johnson will stumble into the summer like a wounded beast, aimless and unfocused, with nothing having changed when he re-emerges in the autumn.

By then, Tory MPs will be seriously running out of time if they want to avoid oblivion come the election.


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