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11 May 2022

Boris Johnson is always ready to promise but never ready to pay

The government looks increasingly spent. This is an opportunity for Labour, which emerged from the May elections stronger than it first appeared.

By Harry Lambert

We are nearly three years into Boris Johnson’s tenure as prime minister and yet his government still feels like it’s searching for a plan, or perhaps merely for the appearance of one: it’s not clear how bothered Johnson is by the apparent incoherence of his government’s statements and policies.

Johnson, unlike Thatcher, Blair and Cameron, did not spend any time as leader of the opposition. No seminars were therefore ever held on the meaning of Johnsonism, as I touched on in October 2020, when the Johnson project first appeared to be falling apart during Dominic Cummings’ last days inside No 10. The conflicting forces behind his project weren’t identified until he was in office and already wielding power.

Daniel Finkelstein has a sharp piece on this in the Times today (“the government believes in low taxes but is raising taxes, the party believes in free trade but is presiding over vast increases in trade barriers for Britain”), although I would quibble with the headline. It is not so much that the Tories have lost their bearings under Johnson as that they never really had any, or that those bearings never all pointed in the same direction. Rafael Behr captures the inherent conflict in the Guardian: by trying to level up the country or ease the cost of living without sufficiently funding either aim, Johnson, he says, is “trying to cook up egalitarian ends with libertarian means”.

I think this is the context in which to see yesterday’s Queen’s Speech. Or, as David Miliband put it to me on 6 May, the threat Britain faces – and that Johnson’s government seems to be all too poorly addressing – “is a really serious national decline”. And the villain, as Miliband puts it, is “12 wasted years” under Tory rule. Keir Starmer spoke in similar terms yesterday: “This government’s failure to grow the economy over a decade, combined with their inertia in the face of spiralling bills, means that we are staring down the barrel of something we have not seen in decades: a stagflation crisis.”

This is the opportunity for Labour. The government looks increasingly spent. And Labour is progressing. The party did better in the May elections that it at first appeared, as pieces by the New Statesman‘s Ben Walker and by Oxford’s Stephen Fisher (who helps run the election night exit polls with John Curtice) make clear. Labour is on course to be the largest party at the next election – I think in large part because the Tories promised voters so much after Brexit but aren’t willing to pay to deliver on those promises. The government’s fiscal restraint is jarring with the public mood.

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