"My friends, I am not a Communist"
Boris Johnson today addressed workers in the West Midlands to announce the acceleration of some £5 Billion worth of infrastructure projects. Boris argued the way out of the economic crisis induced by COVID was to 'build, build, build'. ONS figures show the economic contraction of 2.2% in the first quarter of 2020, is the joint highest since 1979's Winter of Discontent.
Amid this backdrop Boris has announced what he describes as a 'Roosaveltian' plan, comparing his plan to President Roosavelt's New Deal which revolutionised the role of the state in the US. However, the BBC's Norman Smith described this British effort as "distinctly much more limited". Critics have pointed out for example, that the £1 Billion earmarked for schools was actually £1 Billion which was intended to be spent in 2010, but was blocked by then Prime Minister, David Cameron. In any case experts have said the school rebuilding budget ought to be £6 Billion, in which case the current proposal represents 1/6th of what was required a decade ago.
In terms of targetting Boris is putting much of his focus on the North, and the Midlands, promising that "No one will be forgotten", in a clear overture to the voters in these areas who abandoned the Labour party to, many for the first time, vote for the Conservative Party.
Speaking in Dudley, flanked by a rack of hard hats and high vis, behind a podeum reading 'Build, build build' and in front of an audience of socially distanced workers he told them that we "Must not be prisoners of this crisis" and that the COVID crisis has taught us, as a country, that we need to more prepared, and more able to deal with challenges and crisis.
He celebrated the ingenuity the COVID crisis exposed, from British companies making speedy progress on ventilators, the pace at which Oxford University performed trials for dexamethasone, the efficiency by which HMRC implemented furlough, and the swiftness that the Nightingale hospitals were erected. In the end he said, a far worse disaster was averted by the coming together of society to protect the vulnerable, "In particular, the elderly". He described it as a display of solidarity not seen since the Second World War, and called on this spirit to set to work arresting the drop in GDP. The "Full economic reverberations" would be as a thunderclap to the lighting flash of COVID, Johnson told his audience.
If we are to deal with this aftershock comprehensively, we must, Boris said, deal with problems the country has failed to tackle for decades. He argued we are far too tolerant of the gaps between "The best, and the rest" and lamented our ongoing productivity slump, this despite what he described as the best doctors, globally outstanding universities and brilliant minds. Though he did say, too many degrees no longer provide value, perhaps an indication that a future skills programme will focus on Blue Collar jobs.
Boris went on to reject austerity, as he argued "The world has moved on, since 2008", and said this would be followed up by statements from the Chancellor concerning the economic recovery programme. "We will be doubling down on levelling up, if you can make sense of that" Boris said. He did not err from the capitalist system though, and said he believes no more in tearing people down, anymore than he believes in tearing statues down, but instead this new economy would serve to build people up. He went on to reiterate his past commitments to the NHS and pledged to end the injustice that some must sell their houses to fund their social care, and committed to forging a cross party consensus on the issue. He committed to making Britain "self governing" for the first time in 45 years, presumably this goes beyond Brexit, and speaks to a goal of increasing self sufficiency, this though is speculative.
Returning to familiar themes Boris pledged to "unleash the potential of our country" and reiterated his pledges to build 40 new hospitals, recruit more police, and end social inequalities in order that what he described as "equally spread genius" could thrive. This in addition to new woodlands to "enchant and re-energise the soul", and of course to stop floods, as well as 'Green busses', the latter leading him to emphasise the importance of speedy travel, restating his commitment to HS2.
"Now is the moment to strengthen our incredible partnership between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland."
Praising our union Boris credited "the might of the United Kingdom treasury" with the success of the furlough scheme, and argued the crisis had proved the worth of the union. On this basis he announced the accelerating of projects which would better connect each corner of the union to the other, and pledged to explore further road, rail, air and 'cross sea' links to the same effect.
He said this "infrastructure revolution" would end the decades long failure of successive governments to build enough homes, and that his government would address inter-generational injustice, and get young people on the housing ladder, as their parents and grandparents were able. Large procurement projects take 80% longer in the UK, than in Germany, and HS2 will cost the taxpayer the GDP of Sri Lanka, while our house building lagged behind Europe, which Boris blamed on "newt counting" delays in the British planning system which he described as a drag on British prosperity. He announced the setting up of 'project Speed' to "scythe through red tape and get things done".
He levelled with the country that many jobs will not return, "We know in our hearts furlough cannot go on forever" he said. That these new projects would bring new jobs to replace them, on site, in the supply chain and elsewhere. He described his project as a 'New Deal' which he said was what the times demanded. He pledged that this New Deal would actually be a 'fair deal' which would end reliance on food banks, and homelessness, by investing now while the cost of borrowing is at historic lows.
"My friends, I am not a Communist"
Boris once again re-announced his support for the capitalist system, celebrating the financiers and the entrepreneurs who made possible the good functioning of the NHS. He celebrated the innovators who had made the West Midlands a centre for Green energy, and a world leader for battery technology, "The most successful countries will be the most innovative societies" he concluded. He pledged this innovation would manifest in nuclear, wind and solar, with an aim to reach net zero by 2050, including an intention to build a long haul plane of no net emissions, which he called Jet Zero. Surprisingly, Boris conceded Britain was no longer a military superpower. He offered the hope however, of becoming a scientific super power.
He came to conclude his comments by promising to "build back greener, and build back better"
Is it enough?
Laura Kuenssberg queried that the spending announced accounts for just £100 per person.
Boris replied that this was part of a wider package, though the sums he reiterated had already been announced as part of his election campaigning.
Kuenssberg again said that these new proposals merely constitute a speeded up version of that which was promised in the Autumn.
Boris did not robustly disagree, and actually put emphasis on the important of the speed element of the package.
Robert Peston asked about the mass unemployment we could be on the precipice of facing.
Referring to 2008 Boris referred to his record of Olympic Park construction and the speeding up of Cross Rail to arrest unemployment, and reiterated his belief infrastructure and construction is the best way to push through a crisis of this type.
Just Debate Snap Analysis: After having compared himself to Roosevelt, and promising a new deal, launching a major speech to announce a meagre infrastructure expenditure of just £5 Billion is to say the least, anticlimactic.
The efforts to overcome bureaucracy and planning laws may well pay dividends in terms of efficiencies, though how long this will take to have effect is unclear. What is clear however, is that an attempt to revitalise the economy with this package will be a failed one. This entire new package is worth less than 5% of the cost of HS2.
How this was ever sanctioned by the inner circle of No 10, as some huge "Roosaveltian" transformation of the economy, is beyond me.
It's clear there will be more announcements from the chancellor (not infrastructure related) later in the week, though to open with this damp squib as an opening gambit was not conducive to either fixing the economy, nor the Conservative Party's declining poll ratings.