Voters are looking beyond partygate – and that’s Boris’s problem

25 June 2022

9:20 PM

25 June 2022

9:20 PM

Why did the Tories lose the by-elections so badly? Boris Johnson is offering answers in his various interviews at the Commonwealth summit in Rwanda. ‘If you look at the by-elections, people were absolutely fed up about hearing about things that I had had stuffed up,’ he said. ‘An endless churn of stuff. What they wanted to hear was: what is this guy doing? I want to talk about our plan to help people with the cost of living, what we’re doing for a stronger economy, our plan for a stronger economy.’

But this is the problem. When they ask ‘what is this guy doing’ the answers are not encouraging. This the guy who signed a manifesto pledge not to raise taxes, then ordered his MPs to vote to abandon that pledge – with a National Insurance hike that hands government a further 2.5 per cent of salaries as of last April. In a very real way, what this guy is doing will be felt by every earner whose take-home pay has just been hit by his tax rises. Johnson’s government is part of the cost-of-living problem.

As Allister Heath argues in an unsparing assessment, the economic chickens of lockdown are coming home to roost. The recklessness with which the economy was shut down was always going to carry a price. Johnson had the chance to reopening early last year after the vaccine success, but let Whitty et al talk him out of it. How much thought did he give to the likely economic consequences of this? Where was his cost-benefit analysis? But it fitted a trend. tax-and-spend Labour has been replaced by borrow-tax-print-and-spend Conservatism – and we’re now seeing the results.

Johnson asks us to look at his ‘plan for a stronger economy’. So let’s do so. He plans the highest tax burden in 74 years: what chances does the economy have under the weight of a government that is now 55 per cent bigger than it was under Tony Blair? Look beyond partygate, look to the future, and what kind of economic future can we expect under Boris Johnson? What does his ‘plan for a stronger economy’ amount to? The worst growth of any G20 country apart from Russia. And (below) the worst in the G7.

This is the problem: not only that Johnson ‘stuffed up’ the past but the lack of any decent ideas for the future. I’m not one of those calling for him to go, as I don’t see right now anyone coming up with a better agenda. Politics is always a choice, a swap. It’s not enough to say “Boris should go” you also need to be confident that Jeremy Hunt (or Liz Truss or whoever) would do a significantly better job. And that the improvement would be worth the upheaval of a leadership putsch. Have a look at the below list and ask: who meets that test? Which of the below would be so much better as to make the spectacle of feuding and regicide worthwhile?

The problem is policy – not personality. The Tories have finally run out of other people’s money. That’s why our tax burden is the highest in living memory. Some 5.3 million are being kept on out-of-work benefits in the middle of the worst worker shortage in history. A third of all households are on means-tested benefits. This costs a fortune. For as long as the Tories are committed to spending so much money – way more than Blair or Brown spent – they’ll have no option but to keep rinsing the public to pay for a state that has grown out of all proportion to its usefulness.

Word is that a the next Boris relaunch will detail plan to “curb inflation”, “help with the cost of living”, “boost the economic security of families” and “invest in public services.” The time to worry about inflation was before Johnson decided to borrow money as fast as.the Bank of England was printing it. What could possibly go wrong?

The inflationary milk has been spilled. Pretty hard to get it back in the bottle. He can “help with the cost of living” by reversing his April tax grab. And when it comes to “investing” that’s Brown-speak for “spending.” An excess of which, of course, is the original problem.

Until we can find a Tory leader willing to say break this cycle and say that spending is too high then – as The Spectator argues in the leader column of this week’s magazine – nothing will change. So in a way, I’m more pessimistic than the Tories who think a change of leader would address these problems. It’s about a lack of ideas, not personnel.

If the PM genuinely thinks that he lost the by-elections because voters were not thinking of the future, then he ought to think again. His problem is that voters are looking to the future, they’re open to convincing solutions to their problems – but they don’t see any. Unless this changes, the Conservatives can expect a lot more such electoral defeats.

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