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Johnson, the PM who delivered the opposite of what he promised


JOHNSON’S 1922 Committee victory is clearly pyrrhic, and without a radical and urgent change of direction his wound will probably prove fatal.

His fall from grace has been extraordinarily quick. For a man who continually beats the odds, be it winning in London, being a pivotal player in winning the EU referendum vote, or achieving the largest majority the Conservatives have seen since Thatcher, to throw away such goodwill is suicide.

Sure, many who voted against him on Monday evening were driven by their continuing refusal to accept that the UK has left the EU, or by personal ambition, but most of Johnson’s woes are self-inflicted. He has abandoned every conservative principle he was elected on.

We are, as a matter of fact, presiding over the most left-wing Government of my adult life and in many respects more socialist than the 1970s. I will explain this later.

Let us remind ourselves why Johnson received such an endorsement from the people in 2019. For Blyth Valley (ex-mining), Sedgefield (ex-Blair’s safe seat) and Workington (rugby league) to vote Tory, ‘Tory Sc*m’, is quite a thing.

Of course there are many factors as to why Johnson, and it was Johnson, won those seats. Most would accept the primary factors were a boiling frustration with the clear attempt to renege on Brexit, which to this day remains stuck in the deep state mud, disquiet over record levels of migration, bemusement over what was once called political correctness (the woke/BLM/XR and friends were then but a gleam in the deep state’s eye) and particularly for the Red Wall a resonant patriotism and traditional small ‘c’ conservatism which they believed instinctively Johnson supported.

Johnson’s manifesto made all the right noises about renewing British sovereignty, reducing migration levels to something far more balanced and manageable, a page 56 manifesto afterthought on the environment, jokes about political correctness in all its absurdity, Cabinet boycotts of the BBC and a sound approach to the economy including low and modest taxation.

Yes, Johnson has always liked the odd grandstanding project but the strong flow was this would be a radical Government that would turn the tide from an over-weaning state back to the individual. Johnson characterised this idiosyncratic, almost slightly eccentric individuality. People loved it and those who had never voted Tory before ticked the box.

Well, this has indeed been a radical Government.

In almost every respect it has been radical in the very opposite direction of what they promised to do, crowning 20 years of Blair/Cameron corporatist socialism and legal and regulatory encroachment to create a tragic state of affairs where the state has become the overwhelming agent of our society rather than its servant. Johnson’s Britain is increasingly not a Britain where the people are free.

On tax, the Sunak raid is more severe than any other post-war Chancellor, with tax as a proportion of GDP set to rise further than even the 1973-74 shock. Worse, one has to go back to the time of ration books and a war-wrecked Britain, in 1949, to find the tax take as pernicious as today.

On public spending, this Government has presided over the largest growth in the peacetime state ever. Public spending accounted for 51.9 per cent of the entire economy last year. Of course the self-inflicted lockdown played its part, but spending remains embedded at well over one trillion pounds a year. The chart below plots ex-defence public spending since 1900 relative to the economy. The picture is clear but the mass media and political debate remains overwhelmingly that Government is not doing enough. Quite extraordinary.

UK public spending – defence and non-defence % GDP

Source: ONS

On the delivery of this public largesse: abject failure. Public sector productivity has collapsed and is lower than 20 years ago. Civil Service numbers have mushroomed, nothing in the public sector works well from NHS waiting lists, to GP appointments, to passport renewal, to driving tests, the lot.

On lockdown, it’s not good enough to be not quite as draconian or illiberal as China, New Zealand and Scotland. A conservative’s instincts would have been more akin to Sweden, Texas or Florida which fared and continue to fare on almost all measures – economic, health, mental health, education and general contentment – rather better than the UK. Worse, this Government seeks to double down: should the WHO declare a future ‘emergency’, Johnson would outsource decision-making by international treaty to the WHO, which hardly fills me with confidence given its past record.

On woke? Johnson still tries to laugh it off, but it increasingly looks like official state policy. Why, for example, does the MoD Twitter account have a rainbow flag flying every day? What’s that got to do with the defence of the realm? Why does the Government sit back as diversity league tables are imposed on business? The truth is the Government is the largest sponsor of woke and supports it.

On immigration, what happened to the Brexit and indeed manifesto promises? Net immigration topped 900,000 last year, the largest number in all British history.

On education, increasingly elitism is not academic brilliance and a place at Oxbridge but ‘contextual offers’, social engineering and prizes for all.

On defence, the deliberate running down of all the UK’s forces, the Army in particular, is quite something. Despite all the grandstanding over Ukraine, the UK would struggle to put 5,000 troops in the field with heavy armour.

On energy security, delusion over a decade or more but compounded by this Government’s mad dash to net zero. The UK has sufficient carbon assets to provide heat and light cheaply for 150 years as a stopgap while a Moore’s Law of renewables might, or might not, kick in. If it does, super, as it will mean the technology works, cheaply. But until that day do we show any signs of exploiting our natural resources?  No, our Government goes on a mad, unproven and often impractical rush to renewable technology while China, India, Russia and even Biden’s US show little interest in following the fantasy.

On regulation, Britain has become Regulation Central, even topping the EU at its game, so little does this Government trust the people.

And on freedom of speech, the attack comes from all directions but none more so than Government itself seeking to regulate and censor news that it deems harmful. Since when did Ofcom have the right to decide what news was acceptable or not?

The tragedy is that those who seek to topple Johnson may be even worse, so bereft is the hierarchy of the Conservative Party. Not one of Hunt, Tugendhat, Truss, Wallace and Co has shown an ounce of conservatism in terms of strategic vision to roll back the multiple and possibly existential challenges this nation faces.

Today Johnson really is sitting in the last chance saloon. If he continues as he is, I doubt if he will last another six months. So far all that has saved him is lack of credible alternative. He has one last throw of the dice – follow his manifesto. Cut the size of the state, trust the people, de-regulate, adopt a sane and balanced energy security policy, cut taxes and build up a truly plural and free society where debate flourishes, not quotas, division and intolerance of alternative views.

If he can’t do that, he’s toast, and so too will be the Conservative Party. I very much doubt if any of the pretenders to the throne will get much sympathy in Workington, never mind Waitrose . . .

This appeared in Brexit Watch on June 7, 2022, and is republished by kind permission

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Ewen Stewart
Ewen Stewart
Ewen Stewart is a City economist who runs the consultancy Walbrook Economics. He is director of the think tank Global Britain and his work is widely published in economics and political journals.

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