On Monday, the Prime Minister laid out his plan for unlocking the country. It was not – obviously – the first time that he had made such an announcement. We had one in Spring last year. We had one in late Autumn. But this time, it was different.
On those occasions, Johnson made big, boosterish promises about everything going back to normal on a specific date. He seems, finally, to have learned from past error. We now have a roadmap, with data points determining each next step rather than being driven by arbitrary dates. It is a more cautious approach. But it is also less likely to dramatically fail – with the consequence of the unlocking having to be hastily undone – because it is staggered. Boris Johnson has told his aides and ministers that the objective is to avoid – at all costs – another blanket lockdown. He believes that his future depends on that and he might be right, though there have been few political consequences to the many false starts he has presided over so far.
As is now customary, the opposition to Johnson’s approach comes not from the opposition parties so much as from the Tory backbenches. Deprived of Brexit to squabble and grandstand over, Conservative misfits have been urging greater pace and a specified end date. Einstein’s theory of madness – that it is demonstrated by a person doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different outcome – has not percolated into the minds of a certain sort of Home Counties MP. But Boris has calculated that this opposition is neither a serious risk in the short term nor an existential one in the longer term. Where else, who else, do these people have to turn to?
The Chancellor believes that – one day – the someone else might be him. And as he delivers his budget next week, Rishi Sunak has to balance that ambition against some stark realities. We have spent a lot of money on mitigating COVID. We will probably have to spend a lot more. Sunak is not a culture war Tory for whom the economy is the fiddly, secondary issue to the more exciting stuff – statues, fighting with museums, that sort of thing. He is actually more of a Hammond/Osborne type – rather keener on balancing books than burning them. But his Prime Minister never liked austerity and is not about to slash public services and income support for the voters who handed him an eighty seat majority. Thus all the floated stories this week about tax hikes on business – you gotta square the circle somehow. Whether Sunak ups taxes next week or merely signals that such a move is coming down the track, if he wishes to perform prudence without austerity then he will have to do so at some point.
Which leads us back to a certain sort of Home Counties MP and the potential for more serious internal opposition to the Johnson regime. Because whilst lockdown might have riled them up, there is no evidence that it has had an adverse impact on the electability of the Tory Party in the seats that they represent. Or no special adverse effect when compared to – say – former Red Wall seats anyway.
But tax hikes on businesses, freelancers and high earners? Closing loopholes for self-employment? Moving the Treasury to Teesside and blowing billions on tunnels to the Isle of Man? We don’t know for sure, of course, but this does not feel like an economic policy mix that is focussed on the average voter in Surrey or in Kent. And we can expect more than a little unease from the Tory backbenchers who represent seats in Surrey or Kent if it starts to look like their voters are being ripped off to keep first-time Tories in Sunderland or the West Midlands happy. This is the long- term problem that Boris’ stunning 2019 victory has created. His electoral coalition is incredibly unstable.
So when Sunak steps up this is the balancing act that he will be seeking to manage. Both for the sake of the government he serves and for the sake of his own political ambitions. And you know what? The best answer so far to keeping that coalition together is the one that his boss has come up with. A bit of culture war and a touch of largesse and nothing to rock the economic boat too much one way or the other.
For these reasons, Rishi’s prudent instincts may not survive contact with political reality. In which case, don’t expect too many of the ‘hard truths’ or ‘tough choices’ that predecessors Hammond and Osborne have been calling for. The easiest thing and the thing most immediately beneficial to him personally is – essentially – to do nothing big, bold or brave. So what he decides to do on tax and spending will tell us an awful lot about who he is as a politician. Is he someone who takes the easy, politically convenient path – who will keep spending high and taxes low despite his private feelings? Or is he someone who will press ahead on the rockier road, certain of his convictions? Sunak is a politician at the crossroads – which path he takes will determine our collective wealth over the next few years but will also dictate his own political future.