Boris Johnson became the PM on the 24th of July, 2019. He won his landslide electoral victory on the 12th of December, the same year. Assuming this parliamentary term lasts five years, which is no sure thing, then only four remain, of which COVID will occupy at least another six months of the government’s time. Hamstrung at first by a hung parliament, and now by the pandemic, Boris is running out of time to level up and repay the trust of the Northern voters who elected him. The cracks are already starting to show. He promised to roll out gigabit broadband to 100% of the country, now that target has been quietly rolled back to just 85% of the country by 2025. Having promised consign austerity to the dustbin of economic history, he is now imposing a pay freeze on 1.3 million public sector workers. We don’t know yet whether the Brexit deal to come will vindicate fishing communities’ decision to back Boris, or whether they will be left at sea. Boris needs to level up his levelling up agenda, and he needs to do it now, else he’ll reap the political consequences come the next election.
Perhaps sensing the sands of time are against him, Boris has announced a boost in defence spending, sure to be popular in the North East and to strike a chord with blue collar sentiment. The Prime Minister announced a generous spending boost worth £16.5Billion, but as ever with this government, it’s 40,000 ‘new’ nurses and it’s 50 ‘new’ hospitals, it’s never what it says on the tin. As the BBC reports:
‘ Economist Ben Zaranko, from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, said that while this represented a big rise in spending, the figure of £16.5bn was a "misleading way to present this announcement". He continued: "It would be more accurate to say that by 2024-25, defence spending will be £7bn higher than it would have been under previous plans."’
That the money being spent is less than half what is being advertised notwithstanding, unless the new ships, missiles, munitions and so on are made in the UK, it will be all for nought. It’s jobs that count. Nothing we have seen from Boris indicates a commitment to onshoring British manufacturing, despite the fact he toured Sunderland’s factories promising state aid with Gisela Stewart at his side (during the election, of course). In fact, the opposite would appear to be the case. In his September address to the UN, he lamented that the UK, which had once been known as the workshop of the world, could not manufacture its own PPE at the onset of the pandemic. But far from outlining a plan to onshore our production capacities, he again preferred to bash tariffs and economic populism, making appeals to the mystical powers of the free market to set right all ills. Much the same as he said in his Greenwich speech on the 3rd of February.
‘Free trade is being choked and that is no fault of the people, that’s no fault of individual consumers, I am afraid it is the politicians who are failing to lead.
The mercantilists are everywhere, the protectionists are gaining ground.
From Brussels to China to Washington tariffs are being waved around like cudgels even in debates on foreign policy where frankly they have no place - and there is an ever-growing proliferation of non-tariff barriers and the resulting tensions are letting the air out of the tyres of the world economy.’
If this stubborn ideological drag on our industry continues, the constituencies relying on Boris will find themselves very much levelled down, as the smoke clears and they find the high street in rubble, and no decent manufacturing, construction, scientific or agricultural jobs to turn to for respite. Oh, and no gigabit broadband to start their own businesses of course.
Boris declared on the 30th of June the launch of a Roosaveltian style programme of infrastructure renewal, a great New Deal for the British public. Of course, just like the half baked broadband, the over egged military spending, the very not new ‘new’ nurses, and the 50 schools, this was nothing more than false advertising. The spending that was announced amounted to £5Billion, money it turned out, which had already been announced. There was no new money whatsoever, just a fastracking of an existing spending commitment. Monies which were announced subsequently, such as the £1Billion package for schools, was found to be a decade overdue, and binned off by Cameron’s lot. This ‘New Deal’ was old money, being spent on the basis of a decade old need. But then again, we are getting HS2, which nobody wants, and a tunnel under Stonehenge. While we’re on rail, weren’t this government going to reverse the Beeching cuts and form new capillaries reaching into the arteries of the nation? Some 30 schemes have apparently been approved, but only £500 Million committed to bringing them to fruition. I see no evidence of a single mile of track having been laid thus far.
As it stands, levelling up looks like perpetual lockdowns and tax breaks for Amazon warehouses, and that won’t do. With an ascendant Starmer, flagging poll ratings, and the COVID slow motion car crash, Boris should be worried. He needs to step it up a gear, and level up his efforts.