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24 March 2021

Boris Johnson believes the vaccine roll-out is a by-product of greed. Why the surprise?

The idea that the profit motive yields success is essential to Conservative thought. So why is Johnson embarrassed?

By Stephen Bush

What is wrong with Boris Johnson’s comment to a meeting of back-bench Conservative MPs that the United Kingdom’s successful vaccine roll-out is “because of capitalism, because of greed”? I ask because, while the answer is obvious if you want to dismantle capitalism, it is, to be frank, unclear to me what the answer to that question is if you don’t.

Indeed, Johnson’s implicit argument – that the profit motive, free competition between different pharmaceutical companies in search of a buck, and so forth – is essential to all Conservative thought about the economy, much Liberal Democrat thought about the economy and a large chunk of Labour thinking about the economy, too.

It’s true to say that the developers of one of the coronavirus vaccines, AstraZeneca, have agreed to forego some profit by selling it at cost during the pandemic and on a no-profit basis to low- and middle-income countries in perpetuity. But they will, of course expect and hope to make a profit selling doses to the rest of the world once the pandemic is over – and the reality is that AstraZeneca’s dealings with poorer countries during the pandemic are more complicated than the headlines suggest. Yet no sooner had Johnson said it than he tried to unsay it, telling Conservative MPs “actually I regret saying it”, and adding “forget I said that”.

While you can point to the light-hearted phrasing, the actual statement is no more surprising than if Keir Starmer were to say: “This country, like a marriage, it is at its best when we all come together”. It would be particularly surprising to hear Starmer make an argument for social democracy in that way and that manner, but as a bland statement of what the Labour leader believes, the subtext is not new or surprising.

Part of the problem is that Johnson’s government lacks intellectual self-confidence or coherence. We saw this, again, at Prime Minister’s Questions on 24 March in which Starmer opted to major on cuts to the armed forces. What was interesting is how Johnson dealt with the issue: not by making an argument for the spending cuts but by trying to claim they simply weren’t happening. 

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That’s been the pattern in the Prime Minister’s statements, whether to Starmer or to back-bench MPs from across the House since Rishi Sunak’s Budget. Whether he is facing questions from his own side about cuts to international development or from Labour about nurses’s pay or the armed forces, the Prime Minister’s approach is simply to argue that, actually, these cuts aren’t really happening, and when you look closely at the figures the government is being incredibly generous.

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There is, of course, another approach available, which is to make an argument that these cuts and tax rises are happening but they’re necessary, because we need to “balance the books” after the pandemic: the argument made by the Conservatives in 2010, 2015 and 2017. But like the argument that “greed” is the cause of the UK’s successful vaccine roll-out, it is, avowedly, a case rooted in a philosophical argument for the government’s political aims and, for whatever reason, Johnson seems nervous of making it, both in public and in private.