As well as failing an IQ test and revealing that he doesn’t know the price of a tube ticket, Boris Johnson’s appearance on LBC this morning also saw him subtly shift his message on inequality. In his Margaret Thatcher lecture last week, the mayor presented inequality as both inevitable and desirable, denouncing efforts to reduce it as “futile”. But today he qualified this message by conceding that at the moment “there is too much inequality”.
He said: “[I]f you look at what’s happened in the last 20 to 30 years, there’s been a widening in income between rich and poor – there’s no question about that, and what hacks me off is that people with ability have been finding it very difficult to progress in the last 20 years and we’ve got to do something about that.”
Boris’s declaration that the gap between the rich and the poor is too large sets him apart from Tony Blair and other New Labour figures, who tended to respond to questions on the subject by quipping that they didn’t go into politics to make David Beckham earn less money. He is also entirely right to recognise the link between social mobility and inequality. As I noted last week in response to his Thatcher lecture, it is the most unequal countries, such as the UK and the US, that have the lowest levels of social mobility, while the most equal, such as Sweden, Canada and Japan, that have the highest.
But Boris’s belated acknowledgment that inequality is too high only intensifies the question of why he is in favour of policies, such as a reduction in the top rate of tax (he has called for the government to consider a 30p top rate) and the return of grammar-style schools, that would make the gap even wider.