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Is Boris Johnson Serious Enough To Stem The Jobless Tide?

By Paul Waugh

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Booster or Wooster?

We waited for the line, but it never came. Setting out his ‘Build, Build, Build’ plan to drag Britain out of the coronavirus crisis, Boris Johnson was meant to say: “It sounds positively Rooseveltian”. But although the R-word was in the overnight trail of his speech, the phrase didn’t materialise.

Perhaps, given the huge rise in borrowing and some taxation suggested by his own ‘New Deal’ programme, he feared his Tory MPs would think it all sounded too negatively Rooseveltian. Always keen stress the upside not the downside of any project, Johnson notably ducked questions about tax rises just as he dived away from the tricky issue of the Leicester lockdown.

Perhaps too the PM realised how ludicrous it would be to actually compare today’s £5bn policy package (not even new money but fast-tracked from previous plans) to FDR‘s massive injection of public money to fend off the Great Depression. An upgrade to the A15 on Humberside is not quite the same scale as building the Hoover Dam.‌

From schools to planning to hospitals, the BBC’s Reality Check website shredded most of Johnson’s boasts in a matter-of-fact fashion. Of course, the huge amount of support spent on combating coronavirus is separate from all this, but the PM did himself no favours by trying to spin his pre-corona plans beyond their limited nature.‌

And it was a yearning to go back to life before Covid, the heady days of a newly-minted election victory in December and of the UK finally quitting the EU in January, that seemed to be the dominant emotion powering the whole speech. Johnson himself began by admitting that it “may seem a bit premature to make a speech now about Britain after Covid” while the virus was still rampant across the globe – let alone resurfacing locally at home.

But betraying that impatience that always lurks beneath the surface, he said “we cannot continue simply to be prisoners of this crisis”. That was an odd choice of words, given that the people of Leicester may well be prisoners of their geography in coming weeks. As he spoke, Nottinghamshire police warned they would act if anyone tried to come to their county over the border.‌

As I’ve written before, amnesia is part of Johnson’s political modus operandi, a trick he pulls off time and again to distance himself from his own past and that of his party. It worked a treat last December and at times today he sounded like he was getting his excuses in first. A cryptic reference to “the parts of government that seemed to respond so sluggishly” to the pandemic sounded very much like a swipe at Whitehall or scientific advisers or both.‌

The PM talked, rightly, about using the “Covid lightning flash” to tackle deep-seated problems like social care and regional inequalities, and “the problems in our country that we [forgetting Tory rule since 2010] have failed to tackle for decades”. The real problem is the “thunderclap” after the lightning that Johnson himself recognised: the economic downturn caused by the disease.

When asked how many jobs his £5bn investment or other plans would create, the PM curiously had no answer. His trepidation was understandable after the ONS revealed this morning that the UK economy shrank by 2.2% in the first three months of 2020 – the sharpest decline in more than 40 years and 0.2 percentage points bigger than first estimated.

The better news was Bank of England economist Andy Haldane telling a webinar his forecast of the shape of the recovery: “It is early days, but my reading of the evidence is so far, so V.” But even Haldane pointed to new Treasury stats that 9.3 million people had been furloughed as part of the coronavirus job retention scheme, plus 2.5 million self-employed workers are claiming income support.

Taken together, half the UK workforce is currently either unemployed or underemployed. Just get your head around that. That’s why the PM’s plan for an ‘Opportunity Guarantee’ of an apprenticeship or retraining needs much more detail – and yes money – than we’ve had to date. It is also why the Chancellor is under huge pressure to retain targeted furlough schemes for those in retail, aviation, the arts who can’t plant a shovel into the few ‘shovel ready’ plans unveiled today.‌

Today’s latest shocks were the threatened wave of job losses at Easyjet (1,300) and Airbus (1,700) and even shirtmaker T.M. Lewin (600). I remember growing up in the early 1980s recession and ITV’s News at Ten had a nightly ‘hotspot’ of redundancies on a map of the UK. Margaret Thatcher unsurprisingly loathed the impact it had on national morale. But we have barely started on unemployment impacts of Covid, it seems.‌

The air industry workers and pilots must have felt particularly queasy last week when the PM unveiled £90m on a paint job for his own plane. “I’m alright Jack” isn’t a great message for those receiving P45s, even if the Jack is a Union Jack. If ever the PM was guilty of boosterism, he didn’t sound particularly sorry today.

In many ways Johnson is just bad at building things other than his own political reputation. His ‘Boris buses’ were overpriced, overheated follies. His cable car over the Thames was another expensive construction, and his fabled garden bridge never got off the drawing board despite millions spent on it. His ‘jet zero’ plan today for a plane with zero emissions sounded more like a pun than a policy.

Many people would prefer his priority to be to build a properly functioning test and trace system that could at least act more effectively than it has so far in Leicester. Today is the last day for the PM to meet his target of a 24 hour turnaround for most tests. We may only find out if he’s ‘done a Hancock’ and miraculously fulfilled his promise tomorrow (in time for PMQs?) or later in the week.

The most notable thing about his speech today though was the way it veered wildly in tone from after-dinner knockabout (‘the zap and elan’, the ‘psychic energy’, ‘bottle it, swig it’) to the St Thomas Hospital deathbed conversion to seriousness (“the selflessness and the love of the health and the care workers and the charities”). He talked about mass unemployment as “mere bumps” in the road, and predicted we would “bounce forward – stronger and better”.‌

Being a tone-deaf economic booster is one thing. Being an incompetent Bertie Wooster is another entirely. But it’s possible that unless he grips the twin challenges of unemployment and of covid more fully, he could be remembered as both.

Quote Of The Day

“Yes of course we clap for our NHS but under this government we also applaud those who make our NHS possible, our innovators, our wealth creators, our capitalists and financiers.”

Boris Johnson suggests a ClapForBankers movement

Tuesday Cheat Sheet

Theresa May has blasted Boris Johnson for replacing top civil servant Mark Sedwill with an adviser who has “no proven expertise in national security”. Watch her shake her head at Michael Gove’s response.

The number of deaths registered in England and Wales over one week has fallen below the five-year average for the first time since before lockdown was imposed, according to the Office for National Statistics.

The PM faced fresh claims that the Tory party is doing favours for its “housing developer mates” after he unveiled sweeping planning reforms to allow high street shops to be turned into housing.

Keir Starmer has further entrenched his authority as Labour leader after the party’s ruling body agreed to reforms expected to water down the influence of left-wing activists.

Digital secretary Oliver Dowden suggested US sanctions due in September could change UK policy on Huawei. “Given that these sanctions… are extensive, it is likely to have an impact on the viability of Huawei as a provider for the 5G network,” he said.

The EU announced that it would allow border entry from the UK as “safe” for Covid. But the US remains excluded.

The likelihood of the UK experiencing deadly 40C temperatures for the first time is “rapidly accelerating” due to the climate crisis, scientists have found.

What I’m Reading

Johnson Stumbles Blindfold Down A Hill – Gavin Kelly

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