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24 Nov 2020

Politics and Society

Not that he necessarily deserves it, but Boris Johnson now has the opportunity to attempt a second resetting of his Government.

The departure from the Prime Ministerial staff of the most senior Vote Leave advisers, director of communications Lee Cain and, most significantly, senior adviser and disruptor-in-chief Dominic Cummings, has been portrayed as signifying not only as the beginning of a battle for control of Number Ten, but actually a ‘row fundamentally about who governs Britain.’

The irony of a row about who governs Britain being led by rival factions of unelected advisers and bureaucrats employed within Number 10 will not be lost on those who have contested the Vote Leave referendum commitment to unchain Britannia from ‘unelected EU bureaucrats’.

However, for Johnson to reset his government, he must first choose between two rival models of political economy: the quintessentially Thatcherite ‘Britannia Unchained’ model, or the Bidenesque ‘Build Back Better’ model.

Johnson first attempted a ‘new deal but a fair deal for the British people’ resetting of his government at the end of June.

That initiative failed. Johnson’s ‘New Deal’ offered only £5 billion (or around 0.25% of GDP) of additional public investment. Roosevelt’s original 1933 New Deal had offered public investment of around 40% of GDP, which today would be equivalent to £800 billion.

With the 25 November 2020 Spending Review imminent, Johnson has now been presented with the opportunity to reset his premiership a second time and decisively. However, to do so, he must choose which model of political economy will underpin the post-Brexit phase of his administration.

On the one hand, Johnson could choose the ‘Global Britain’ and ‘Britannia Unchained’ model. This has been championed by three senior figures in his Government, namely Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, Dominic Raab, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss, and Home Secretary Priti Patel, all co-authors of the original Britannia Unchained book.

This model of market deregulation, liberalization and privatisation has viewed austerity and Brexit as further ‘stepping stones’ towards the ‘sea-change in Britain’s political economy’ first envisaged by Margaret Thatcher’s Centre for Policy Studies in 1977.

In her recent Chatham House speech, Truss affirmed this vision of Britain as the global champion of a ‘values-driven’ free trade policy.

However, in his Middle Temple Treasurer’s lecture, former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major delivered a forensic demolition of the delusional and fantasy qualities of this model, arguing ‘We are no longer a great power. We will never be so again’.

Moreover, detailed analysis of Truss’s own first major ‘Britannia Unchained’ trade deal with Japan has concluded that it will boost UK GDP by only 0.07%, has offered no change and no gain from the existing European Union Economic Partnership Agreement, and has omitted a key comprehensive investment chapter.

Rather than effective grand strategy, ‘Global Britain’ has delivered global grandstanding and cemented the Johnson Government’s reputation for over-promising and under-delivering.

On the other hand, from his inaugural 24 July 2019 Downing Street statement, to his 6 October 2020 Conservative Party keynote speech, Johnson has championed an alternative and very different model of political economy to ‘Britannia Unchained’ and further austerity: namely, to ‘level up’ and to ‘build back better’.

Precisely what is to be levelled up, by how much, over what time period, and where has never yet been defined or even clarified in any official document.

Moreover, while relentlessly couched as a project of British nationalism which will ‘strengthen that incredible partnership between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’, the previous devolution of power over policy elsewhere in the British political union means that Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ agenda for housing, education, training, social care, local government, housing and higher education applies to England only.

Furthermore, while then Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid’s Spending Round 2019, and his successor Rishi Sunak’s March 2020 Budget, formally marked the end of austerity, their measures were nowhere near sufficient to undo the domestic economic, social and political consequences of a ‘lost decade’.

For example, Rishi Sunak’s March 2020 Budget promised current government spending would increase by an annual average of 2.8% from 2020-21 to 2023-24, but this would still leave current spending outside of health 14% lower than where it had been in 2010-11.

In this context, the newly formed Northern Research Group of Conservative MPs have called for Johnson and Sunak to create an Northern Economic Recovery Plan to redress the ‘deep structural and systemic disadvantages’ experienced by their communities.

The landmark Marmot Review of health (in)equity in England, and the Northern Health Science Alliance’s devastating analysis of the impact of austerity, which has both increased mortality levels and resulted in £16bn of lost productivity in the north of England from 2011 to 2018, have attested that only significant and sustained increases in public spending on health, education, housing, local government and Universal Credit will ‘level up’ income and wealth, well-being and social mobility in England.

By now that lesson should have been learned and underlined by Johnson’s embarrassing u-turn over the extension of free school meals in England.

By timely coincidence, Joe Biden’s domestic Jobs and Economic Recovery Plan, his plans for sustainable infrastructure and equitable clean energy, and for restoring American leadership of the ‘democratic world’, have all been based upon the same unifying principle of ‘build back better’ championed by Johnson.

With the UK holding the Group of Seven (G7) presidency during 2021, and also hosting the postponed COP26 climate change summit in November next year, Boris Johnson could yet reset his Government’s domestic and foreign policy objectives to converge with those of the Biden presidency.

But to do so, Johnson must first abandon the damaging clauses in his UK Internal Market Bill affecting Ireland and empowering his government to break international law, so as not to sour relations with the incoming Biden administration. The dysfunction and delusions of ‘Britannia Unchained’ must be abandoned.

And then, the 25 November 2020 Spending Review, 2021 Budget and 2021 Comprehensive Spending Review must all in turn be used to deliver the substantial and sustained investment in public services and infrastructure, to reset domestic policy and deliver an authentic and more inclusive ‘levelling-up’ New Deal.

By Dr Simon Lee, senior lecturer in UK politics and government at the University of Hull.

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