Boris Johnson needs a chief of staff less urgently than he needs a philosophy. Downing Street, supposedly the nerve centre of government, resembles a black hole at the epicentre of some astrophysical turmoil. Even those who vehemently opposed Dominic Cummings should be sufficient realists to recognise that his departure is taking place at the most damaging time and in the worst possible circumstances.
One of the most damaging perceptions is that Cummings owes his fall to the machinations of the Prime Minister’s fiancée, apparently heading a faction of her own within the Conservative civil war. It is a political axiom that the British public loathes divided parties; but it loathes kitchen cabinets even more, especially in this era of anti-elitist populism. There is an unhappy echo in Downing Street today of Harold Wilson’s later administration and the controversial role played in it by Lady Falkender.
Brussels, in classic hubristic style, has proclaimed that the eclipse of Cummings means Britain will now surrender its negotiating red lines and succumb to EU demands, notably the weasel concept of a “level playing field”, which is exactly what it is not. Boris Johnson needs to understand that any backsliding on national sovereignty would end hopes of his political recovery.
All this chaos is occurring against a backdrop of the highest infection rate yet experienced in the Covid-19 pandemic. How do the denizens of Number 10 and grandstanding Tory MPs imagine that plays with the electorate? Where in all this is the acute sense of urgency and fine-tuned, micro-designed response to the Covid emergency? What hope is the government offering of better health outcomes and sustainable support for small businesses, employment and the other lynchpins of our battered economy?
Nor is it only Number 10 that begins to appear unhinged. This week’s report from the Office of Tax Simplification (OTS), recommending increased rates for capital gains tax and reduction of tax-free allowances, would potentially treble the number of people caught in the CGT net. There is a kind of ingenuity to the proposal: how else, at a time of unprecedented economic crisis, could a body blow be delivered simultaneously to entrepreneurs, the City, investors, buy-to-let landlords, the property market and savers? Rishi Sunak should devote just as much time to this report as it takes him to deposit it in his waste-paper basket.
The way to drive down the deficit is to generate massive growth, supercharging entrepreneurialism, so that tax revenue is increased via wealth creation. That needs to be done within a different economic culture from the one that prevailed pre-2008.
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“Levelling up” needs to be translated from an aspiration into a reality. There is an aura of tragedy about the implosion of Boris Johnson’s election agenda. Today, on the threshold of the third decade of the twenty-first century, the “Two Nations” theme and “The Condition of England” debate are as unhappily relevant as in Disraeli’s day.
This week’s report from the Northern Health Science Alliance reveals how the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed gross inequalities in health and quality of life between northern England and the south. More than 50 per cent of admissions to hospital critical care were from the 40 per cent most deprived areas; during the first wave, 57.7 more people per 100,000 died in the North than in the rest of England. Reductions in mental well-being alone in the North cost £6.86bn in lost productivity.
Last December, the North sloughed off its atavistic prejudices and trusted its future to Boris Johnson. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Conservative Party: here is ideal ground for Tory paternalism and Thatcherite entrepreneurialism to work hand-in-hand to regenerate our country. It is still not too late, though the window is closing fast.
The question is: did Boris just want to get into Number 10, or does he aspire to enter the history books with a positive record of genuine achievements?
The squabbling and serial infighting around him is mostly about personality clashes and ego rather than substance. Is that because the factions know that there isn’t a coherent Boris agenda so they must pass the time playing court politics and pursuing self-advantage? It looks like it.
Boris must now choose. He either gets it together and leads, backing enterprise by going for growth, or he will go down as a lost figure lacking seriousness.