Government strategy: everything’s changed
“A week is a long time in politics.” So said Harold Wilson, allegedly, in 1964 at a lobby briefing for journalists during the sterling crisis. If a week is a long time then Boris’ huge election victory in December seems like it happened in a different century, not just four short months ago.
The received wisdom then, and enduring into January and February, was that Boris was going to ‘get Brexit done’ and govern like a new Tony Blair: the public spending taps would be wrenched to ‘full open’ and taxpayers’ cash would be hurtling to a red wall seat near you as fast as possible in an effort to ‘repay the trust’ and build an unassailable winning position for a 2024 General Election.
But Covid-19 has put a massive spanner in the works of that plan for sure. Whilst we have all been distracted by becoming armchair Wikipedia experts in infection rates, death rates, the Italian health service and Swedish lockdown strategies, the economics of the next five years in the UK have changed. And changed dramatically.
And can any of you tell us how the Brexit deal is progressing? No, that subject is ‘so last year’ too.
The reality is that Boris’ immediate political reputation and long term political legacy is going to be absolutely defined by Coronavirus. Far from splashing the cash ala Tony Blair, Boris is actually going to have to govern like David Cameron fighting the aftermath of the 2008 GFC. The first half of this Parliament will be taken up by the initial Covid-19 response and the lockdown lifting strategy, the managing of the normalisation and then easing of social distancing, then the inevitable reinfection moment(s) when the disease gets a second wind before that herd immunity starts to kick in. And in tandem with that, managing the inevitable deep, but hopefully short, economic recession.
The second half of Boris’ first term will be all about ‘Austerity 2.0’; cue “we are all in this together” again and that we will once more need to “fix the roof whilst the sun is shining”. But will Boris be able to convincingly carry a message of fiscal rectitude and prudence with the additional much trickier challenge that he can’t blame Labour for the country’s deficit this time, (which was integral to the Cameron/Osborne messaging), because it is clearly the result of Coronavirus.
The now ballooning deficit will once more need to come down: rising taxes, cutting public expenditure, sacrificing all other Government spending to hurl taxpayers’ cash at the NHS, which will move from mere sainthood to full on, all-consuming religious observance for the political class. With Boris Johnson’s personal resurrection over Easter and heartfelt paean to the NHS nurses who saved him, he will now be a rare thing: a Tory leader (like Cameron) who can speak with personal authenticity about how much the Tories love the NHS, always a tough sell to the sceptical public sector unions and the wider voting public. The surprising soaring of the Tories’ fortunes in the polls, the highest support for any Government in polling history, give an indicator of how the Boris story is going down with voters. Mark Twain allegedly told us to “buy land, they’re not making it anymore”. Right now we should be telling our graduates: ‘get into healthcare because that’s where all the money will be for the foreseeable’!
All those red wall seats are going to be rather disappointed. This could have implications for the Tory 2024 election strategy. Good news for Kier Starmer perhaps? And that Boundary Commission review that apparently gives the Tories around 24 more seats at the stroke of a pen, well it might just get dusted down again, despite the Government already saying it won’t.
Coronavirus has fundamentally changed the Government’s future path.