“We are doubling down on levelling up – if you can make sense of that.” So spoke our Prime Minister in his ‘New Deal’ speech this week. He read it out. From a script that he wrote. So he knew that the message made little sense but he went with it anyway because he liked the sound of it.
Not a bad allegory for the contents of the speech, that. There were at least three overarching messages – ‘A New Deal’, ‘Build, Build, Build’, and ‘Build Back Better’. It’s not that these are contradictory, per se. It’s just that normally one would have a process and some editing in order to narrow your relaunch message into, well, a message.
The truth is that it all felt rather slapped together. And not just the language of the thing. The policy content was a case less of build, build, build and more beg, borrow, steal. Money re-announced for projects already green lit. Schemes brought forward by a couple of months. An ‘Opportunity Guarantee’ that sounded an awful lot like policies enacted under the coalition. And under Brown. And under Blair.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with any of this. Plagiarism is even less a crime in politics than in journalism. And for a good two thirds of his speech, Boris was merely plagiarising himself. But the overwhelming reaction for anyone who is keeping a fearful eye on our economy has to be this: well yes, Prime Minister, all of that sounds necessary but it is hardly sufficient, is it?
We are told that more will be announced next week, in the Chancellor’s I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-budget. And let us hope so. Because the scale of the hit to our economy – to our real economy, to real jobs in real shops etc – is not met by moving a couple of billion around and yet another ‘bonfire of red tape’ to make it easier to build a conservatory. And the thing is, if there really is more to come that is already planned then why did our Prime Minister – blessed as he is with a Government selected mostly for its meanness and biddability – not choose to announce any of it himself?
The Prime Minister may be ‘doubling down on levelling up’ but some members of his own party worry – in private, still – that he continues to lack a full picture of the challenge ahead. Boris boosterism is all very well but it butters no parsnips if the economy is shrinking and workers aren’t working. Sunak has a lot to do next week to steady the nerves of a country on the dole and getting jittery. If he pulls it off then Boris will get the benefit of public goodwill with the problem of an ever increasingly popular chancellor. If he fails, they will all suffer acute political fallout. This is the real New Deal at the heart of this Government – the deal that says it all depends on Rishi.