Can Johnson’s New Deal Get The UK Out Of The Covid Downturn?

As Leicester proves coronavirus hasn’t gone away, will the PM build or destroy his way out of the pandemic?

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Bodge the builder?

When Boris Johnson smashed through that polystyrene wall (and Labour’s ‘Red Wall’) last December, in a bulldozer marked ‘Get Brexit Done’, his critics felt it was also a metaphor of a politician who just likes smashing things up. The disrupter-in-chief tearing through the soggy consensus of Westminster, speaking up for the little guy (and gal) who felt overlooked.

But the Brexit stunt was actually more about echoing a desire among a big chunk of the electorate who just wanted parliament to carry out the referendum result and move on to other priorities. And Johnson was careful to project himself too as a builder - of those 40 new hospitals. I remember being most struck at his manifesto launch in Telford not by the individual pledges but by the long-term vision of a 10-year government.‌

Of course that was all pre-coronavirus, but in his speech on Tuesday Johnson will return to the building theme. Today, he appeared in a hard hat and talked about plans to invest £1bn in schools (they need £6bn and Michael Gove slashed such funding 10 long years ago, but those seem to be mere details).

In his TimesRadio interview, the PM previewed his speech in Dudley (a key brick in that Red Wall) by FDR. “I think this is the moment for a Rooseveltian approach to the UK,” he said. Sounding more like Gordon Brown than Margaret Thatcher, he even added: “I do think that the investment will pay off, because this is a very, very dynamic, productive economy.”

I suspect many of the British public will be left as cold or as baffled by the ‘New Deal’ phraseology under Johnson as they were when Jeremy Corbyn used the American phrase in his ‘Green New Deal’, or when Brown used it in his 1997 ‘New Deal’ welfare-to-work programme for young people.

But the WestWing-isation of UK politics aside, the PM would be wise to invest not just in infrastructure but also in the green economy and in his own welfare to work programmes in coming months and years as we combat the corona downturn. The FT reported today that No.10’s arch paradigm smasher Dominic Cummings was uninterested in “boring old housing insulation”, even though it would provide both jobs and a means to hit zero carbon in 2050.

Moreover, what is worrying many in Whitehall is the way Cummings and Johnson are smashing their way through the civil service even before the pandemic is over. Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill was effectively sacked and the National Security Adviser post turned into a political appointment. Both moves seemed more akin to the White House than Downing Street.

Of course, new Labour faced similar claims too. Tony Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell and comms chief Alastair Campbell took ‘orders in council’ powers to direct civil servants in 1997. I vividly remember one meeting of the No.10 Policy Unit when a callow wonk called David Miliband denied a ‘Year Zero’ approach to reform.‌

But even Blair never dreamed of summarily sacking a cabinet secretary and putting a special adviser in charge of security and intelligence (Powell today compared the Sedwill move to Hungary or Poland’s authoritarian impulses). And the new undertone is that Cummings is suspected of believing that civil servants and structures have been badly exposed by the coronavirus crisis.

The bigger problems for Johnson may be twofold: he bodges the building works that prove far from ‘shovel ready’, and fails to focus on revenue spending (and people) as much as capital spending (and buildings). As we reported this month, many Red Wall Labour voters cared more about the 50,000 more nurses pledge than the 50 new hospitals pledge, or even Brexit itself. If nurse recruitment stalls, or waiting lists and times for A&E, operations and GPS all get worse, that will have more impact than any shiny, half-built new extension.‌

And if the DWP is not ready for a massive jobs and retraining programme, that could prove just as damaging. Therese Coffey today signalled that benefit sanctions will return tomorrow after a three-month suspension as Job Centres open again. Benefit sanctions have been shown to be both ineffective and damaging to the poorest, yet they persist as part of a culture war on ‘shirkers v workers’.

For many people who will be newly unemployed in coming months, the cracks in the Universal Credit system will also be felt viscerally for the first time. Johnson today said the past decade “wasn’t actually austerity” but if you relied on benefits to supplement your wage or had more than two children, the cuts felt very real indeed. As Marcus Rashford shrewdly pointed out, child poverty is about more than just free school meals programmes.

Aside from those in the building trade (or developers who bankroll the Tory party), those Bob the Builder promises may look irrelevant to the current crisis facing many Britons looking at job losses. It’s no wonder tonight’s news of a fresh lockdown in Leicester was held back until late, allowing newspapers to still focus on ‘Build, Build, Build’.‌

But the destructive power of coronavirus, and of the strategic impatience of some in No.10, is still a force to be reckoned with. The July 4 ‘independence day’ rhetoric, based on the ‘big bang’ return of everything from hairdressers to pubs, may feel a lot more jarring this Saturday. As Johnson’s own political idol Winston Churchill once put it: “To build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years. To destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day.”

Quote Of The Day

“If I had said the first time ‘yes’ it would have been a damn sight easier.”

Keir Starmer tells GMB his regret at not answering at PMQs whether schools should go back

Monday Cheat Sheet

Schools in England will be urged to deploy Covid-secure “year bubbles” of up to 240 pupils under government plans to get all children safely back in the classroom from September, HuffPost UK has learned.

A new study by the UK in a Changing Europe think tank found Labour was out of touch with voters on social issues and the Tories out of touch on economic issues. 72% of the public felt there was ‘one law for the rich, one for the poor’, compared to just 5% of Tory MPs.

Ex-civil servants and the First Division Association union heavily criticised the ousting of Sir Mark Sedwill as cabinet secretary.

Downing Street suggested the end of September was the deadline for the post-Brexit trade talks.

Keir Starmer said Rebecca Long-Bailey should even now take down her tweet about Maxine Peake. But it remained up, despite the former shadow cabinet minister writing in the Guardian that she had made an error in tweeting it.‌

A new strain of flu which has the potential to become pandemic has been identified in China by scientists. It is carried by pigs, but can infect humans.

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