The state opening of parliament dramatises a persistent delusion in British politics. The Queen makes a speech listing a bunch of proposed laws and MPs pretend that this is what it means to govern. The myth is that declaring the intention to do something is most of getting it done.
Boris Johnson is especially vulnerable to that fallacy because words have never let him down before. Opponents hold his promises up to the light and call them forgeries but, as last week’s elections showed, the currency is still tradable in many parts of the country.
That does not mean the prime minister lives without fear of a reckoning. He is said to be mindful that the Tory vote in former Labour strongholds is borrowed. Tangible local improvements are expected in exchange. To that end, the prime minister recently asked Neil O’Brien, a clever, non-dogmatic MP, to give substance to the hitherto nebulous agenda for “levelling up”. That appointment follows restoration of the delivery unit that Tony Blair set up to impose his will on Whitehall. (David Cameron, seeing only bureaucracy and waste in the New Labour apparatus, scrapped it in 2010).
“My government will level up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom,” the Queen declared from her throne in the House of Lords yesterday. There followed the menu of ways in which that slogan might be realised in law: investment in skills and infrastructure; funding for research and development; planning reform and a new era of industrial subsidy.
Also in the Queen’s speech, more discreet, was a reminder that fiscal terms and conditions apply: “My government will ensure that the public finances are returned to a sustainable path once the economic recovery is secure.”
Levelling up can mean many things, but all of them are expensive. So far the cost has not been a feature of political debate for three reasons. First, throwing a protective shield around people during the pandemic has made budget discipline look redundant, even to a Conservative chancellor with austere instincts. Second, Labour is not going to complain about higher spending on social protection. The opposition argues that resources are wastefully deployed, but that sounds more like a quibble over process than an assertion of principle. Third, Westminster characterisation of levelling up tends to dwell on identity-based grievance more than economic imbalances.
There is a familiar story told of a patriotic, Brexit-supporting working class recoiling from Labour’s uppity metropolitan remainism. That picture contains truth, but some Conservatives, especially in the party’s more affluent bases, are rather too enamoured of it. They like symbolic rows over flags and the like because fighting endless culture wars is so much cheaper and easier than redressing social and financial neglect.
But plenty of Tory MPs are anxiously scanning the economic horizon. They know there is pain coming to a jobs market that has been anaesthetised by the furlough scheme.
Buoyant consumer demand, pent-up in lockdown, could sink again. The Treasury bites its collective nails at the thought of even a modest rise in interest rates (perhaps in response to rising inflation) pumping up UK debt-servicing costs. A three year comprehensive spending review, deferred from last year, is due this autumn, at which point every minister will insist that their department is vital for levelling up. Rishi Sunak will ponder ways to increase revenue, but none will appeal to a prime minister whose winning strategy has been to defer reckonings. Johnson governs as he has always lived, on the never-never.
The cost of subsidising the Tories’ newly captured electoral territories will awaken the party’s dormant fixation on fiscal discipline. The choice will come down to cuts that inflict pain in places that are meant to be levelled up or taxes levied on the Tories’ old, true blue heartlands. The obvious solution to that dilemma will be a general election well before the current 2024 deadline.
A Commons majority makes it easy for Johnson to override the fixed-term parliaments act, but he is repealing it just in case, to maximise personal control over the timing and manner of the announcement. There are grim choices ahead but, with an earlier election, voters might be spared some of the nasty consequences until after another term has been secured. Many Tories have already pencilled in May 2023 for a general election. Fear of the opposition is not much of a consideration when the Labour party looks threatening mostly to itself.
It might seem premature to talk about the next election when the prime minister’s time in office so far has mostly been consumed by the pandemic. He has barely started on a non-Covid agenda. But getting started is the bit he likes. Johnson is a great one for launching things, pointing at horizons, celebrating future greatness. When it comes to messy details, the managing of compromises in the present, he flounders. He likes the conception; delivery not so much.
The high points of his career are the campaigns, won in defiance of critics who think integrity and attention to detail matter. The low points are the in-between times, when he has to take executive responsibility, pick between imperfect options, manage expectations, confront the gap between rhetoric and reality. Right now he is flush with polling success and no doubt believes that the Queen’s speech marks the beginning of a great journey of implementation, of levelling up, of plans coming to fruition. Maybe so. More likely, it is the prelude to a period of incoherence and stasis, during which the prime minister finds, yet again, that he is no good at governing, doesn’t enjoy it and would much rather be doing what does best, which is elections.