‘Boris Johnson et al: performs best to a crowd but provides little detail and often changes his mind. More improvement needed.’

4 September 2020

As the Government returns from Recess – and schools across England and Wales return – DRD Partner Paul Barnes discusses their performance so far and what improvements are needed…

It wasn’t meant to be like this. Prime Minister Johnson’s stunning electoral victory swept away three years of political quagmire— replacing it with an 80-seat majority, a Cabinet set to Get Brexit Done and a boost of optimism that would level-up Britain’s economy to secure those new Tory seats in the Midlands and North.

Covid-19 stopped all of that.  That feel good Brexit Cabinet responded relatively poorly to the public health pandemic.   Health and education ministers struggled to respond well when thrust into the limelight.  Boris’ cheerful, detail-light chairman-esque leadership style proved ineffective even before his dance with death and the arrival of a new baby. Social distancing has undermined the traditional bonding of a host of new Tory MPs who were not expecting, when they were elected, to deal with this.

But with over four years until the next election, the Government has time to recover, and despite everything it still has a slight lead in the polls, even facing a now competent and electable opposition.  So, what does the future hold for Boris’ government?

The task ahead is massive. Brexit on its own was going to be difficult enough. Brexit and Covid-19 is a huge mountain to climb, although the fog of Covid-19 may helpfully disguise the difficulty of the struggle of the Brexit peak.

The accidental Chancellor, drafted in following his boss’ surprise resignation just weeks before the biggest economic challenge ever, still feels in control. His short-term response was designed for a short-term pandemic. Annoyingly though, the virus has refused to go away.  A Chancellor who initially said that he would throw everything at protecting British businesses did not expect to be doing so six months later.  As the extremely expensive furlough scheme comes to an end, and business rates return from their holiday, the true economic impact is about to be felt.

The big economic slowdown has so far been on those parts of the economy that depend on mass gatherings – retail, entertainment, travel, hospitality. But even though many other businesses are currently operating well away from the office, the upcoming levels of mass unemployment and the impact on GDP of those failing parts of the economy looks likely to drive down overall economic activity.  And that’s before Brexit really starts.

The Chancellor has four years to turn this around, level-up the economy, minimise unemployment and re-establish that economic competence that the Conservatives are famous for. No mean feat, on top of that, the Chancellor is going to have to deal with a £2 trillion national debt (although ultra-low interest rates means that, for the foreseeable future, this can be just for electoral show rather than make any meaningful reductions).

Build, build, build seems to be the answer. More homes. More infrastructure. More training. More jobs. More knock-on effects. But this all costs money and adds to the historically high debt. It means forcing through a new planning regime that is already proving unpopular in Tory shires.

Part of the solution; trade, trade, trade. Once Covid-19 is out of the way (hurry-up with that vaccine) Boris must use his diplomatic charm to seal some trade deals at a time when the world is falling out of love with globalisation. Let’s hope these trade deals prove to be legendary rather than mythical.

Running in the background, Boris will want to cash-in on the massive amount of political capital he expended defending Dominic Cummings.  If Covid-19 has done anything it’s convinced the Prime Minister of what Cummings has been saying all along. The machinery of Government is simply not up to it. Six Permanent Secretaries have gone already. A hard rain is going to fall on Whitehall. Expect a lot of people and old structures to be swept away in the deluge.

Four years is a long time in politics. There’s still everything to fight for. It’s just an unexpectedly difficult place to be starting from.

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