The government’s apology over the ballerina ad shows it can’t defend its economic policy

Ministers’ unwillingness to explicitly argue that workers must retrain reflects their wider uncertainty over how to handle Covid-19.

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The government has withdrawn an advert depicting a ballerina with the caption “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber” following a backlash. (“Cyber” for those of you not fluent in government jargon, is what Whitehall types call “information security”.) On Twitter, some actors and performers have linked it with an interview in which Rishi Sunak responded to questions about the future of the music industry by saying that “everyone is having to find ways to adapt” and that the government is providing “new opportunities” (ie, retraining) to those that can’t.

There are two points worth making here. The first is that the advert is not related to the Covid-19 recession and the economic consequences of the government’s public health measures. It is part of a long-running series in which a variety of advert-friendly demographics with a variety of jobs (you know the kind: smiling middle-aged white bloke in heavy industry, ethnically ambiguous type at a till, hunky hipster barista pouring coffee, and so on) are depicted with the slogan “[Insert name here]’s next job could be in cyber” in order to attract people to jobs in information security. The advert is categorically not saying, “Lost your job in the theatre due to social distancing and the coronavirus recession? Learn to code!” And, to be blunt, the government should have the self-confidence to point this out.

[See also: George Eaton on why the UK is sleepwalking into a jobs crisis]

The second point is that the implicit logic of the government’s coronavirus economic strategy is, “Lost your job in the theatre due to social distancing and the coronavirus recession? Learn to code!” and they should have the self-confidence to argue for that policy too – in addition to funding and implementing it properly. It was only in January that the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, was talking about how this government would not be “trying to ‘control the narrative’ and all that New Labour junk and this government will not be run by ‘comms grid’”, adding that the government had “a significant majority and little need to worry about short-term unpopularity”.

Now the government can’t even say: “Not every job can survive in an era of social distancing and we have precisely zero intention of protecting every job until either palliative treatments or a vaccine allows us to end social distancing – so learn to code and stop kvetching about a poster!” Or failing that, just ignore a Twitter storm because, you know, it’s Twitter, so who cares?

Why does this matter? Because the government’s coronavirus policy as a whole bears the imprimatur of that same lack of self-confidence: its implicit position is that people need to adjust to the novel coronavirus by, among other things, learning to code, but it hasn’t funded that aim properly. Meanwhile, it has reduced the size of its economic support packages for the country as a whole – albeit not by enough to prevent an increase in the size of the United Kingdom’s national debt. The government’s lack of self-confidence in defending its position on the Covid-19 economy is a corollary to its wider lack of certainty about how to respond to the novel coronavirus.

[See also: Stephen Bush on why Rishi Sunak's middle way on Covid spending is the worst of all worlds]

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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