The Tories want you to think they are back. In truth, they are stuck on a loop. Granted, the departure of Sir Mark Sedwill and the demise of Dfid are strong opening riffs to the Whitehall Revolution. All the right noises are coming out of Brexit negotiations. And now, a?multi-billion spending pledge to restore the 'health of the nation'?falls to the energetic beat of the party’s levelling up agenda.
And yet something feels very, very wrong. The momentum is robotic. No 10’s demeanour is steely but the eyes are dead. From pledging new school buildings when children are still yet to return to their lessons, to doubling down on a travel infrastructure drive at a time when the future of commuting has never looked more uncertain, it is strategising and spinning as if lockdown has changed nothing. And yet lockdown has?changed everything.
Downing Street is?clinging to a fundamentally bad?strategy. Since day one, its overwhelming political priority has been to get through the Covid crisis with Red Wall support intact. It believes it can do this by following the polls in its response to the pandemic, while following through on its manifesto pledges.?It is in denial that these two parallel strategies have?spectacularly collided.
Not least because public opinion, quite understandably,?failed to see into the future. In spring, support for lockdown was highest in the Midlands and North East. Polling showed the majority of Brits believed Covid-19 would not economically affect them. Early analysis suggested that London was seeing the sharpest drop in business activity caused by retail, hospitality and venue closures, a sentiment relayed in Northern media, encouraging a false sense of security.
But so it goes that ex-industrial towns are the worst hit by lockdown job losses, according to the Institute for Employment Studies. These regions are expected to see an average fall of 12 per cent in output over the next five years, more than double that in the South East, at 5 per?cent.? The myth that the Government could somehow put the economy on ice and then unfreeze looks absurd in retrospect. Unfortunately?for the Red Wall though, the lockdown lie has taken on a life of its own. Boris Johnson’s refusal to explicitly pursue a strategy of business as usual while shielding the vulnerable means that economically ruinous local lockdowns in certain Red Wall provinces now look inevitable.
The Tories are stuck in a similar rut with their levelling up agenda. This flagstone policy was always all about making simple, visible improvements in deprived towns by?the next election: gleaming new hospitals and schools, spruced-up high streets and “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects. Perhaps this would have been just?enough to create a sense of progress in normal circumstances. But, in the middle of an unprecedented economic crisis, it looks like window dressing when the house is on fire.
If ‘Jobsageddon’ ?is coming to Britain, one would be forgiven for expecting a Conservative government to try and douse its flames with authentically conservative policies. It should be slashing employment red tape, particularly around the hiring of?agency workers, and freezing the minimum wage to encourage employers to keep on staff. It should be driving a tank through planning regulations, and aggressively pursuing tax cuts.
Instead, Boris Johnson continues to pursue strongman statism, pouring billions into road and rail connections, and flashy housing developments. Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak runs scared of tax cuts, even dithering over a temporary reduction VAT. In fact, from paying people not to work through lockdown, to effectively renationalising the railways in a cap-tip to Corbyn, it is difficult to discern anything particularly conservative about this government, or its response to the pandemic.
Perhaps the so-called party of business has forgotten how much politics resembles the economy it continues to trash. Parties that lack a strong USP are easily undercut by cheap imitations. Just as voters traded in trite Blarite passion in favour of cuddly Cameroonism, the avuncular and meticulous Keir Starmer might yet outmanoeuvre Boris Johnson’s pitch as the command-and-control father of the nation.?