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7 October 2020

How the divide between Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak is damaging the government

There is a mismatch between the lockdown measures across the UK and the limited economic support available.

By Stephen Bush

The government will roll out new 95 per cent mortgages for first-time buyers, invest in offshore wind and “explore the value of” one-to-one tuition in schools: those are just some of the measures outlined in Boris Johnson’s conference speech yesterday. Which is hard to reconcile, frankly, with the speech that Rishi Sunak gave the day before, in which he warned that, ultimately, all these extraordinary coronavirus measures need to be paid for, and that there is a real cost to increasing the national debt in the manner he has done. 

Whether you think Sunak is right, right about the overall problem but wrong on the timing, or simply wrong is neither here nor there. What matters is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer does believe that these measures need to be paid for and that this has real implications for the government’s agenda. What matters too is that whether or not you think the debt accrued during this crisis is worth worrying about, the long-term costs as far as our collective mental health and the particular challenges that will be experienced by essentially every school-age child during this crisis are very real. 

Westminster’s memory of the fraught personal relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown means that people are perhaps too keen to read into the fact that Johnson and Sunak have a warm personal relationship. There are two problems with this: the first is that practically everybody who meets Sunak has a warm personal relationship with him; the second is that Blair and Brown agreed on the big political issues of the day. That’s what made them so effective, just as the most important thing about the Cameron-Osborne duopoly wasn’t that they were close personal friends, but that they were closely politically aligned.

That lack of political alignment between the government’s two biggest figures is why there is a gap between the lockdown measures across the country and the economic support provided – and that gap will not only grow to dominate the government’s political life, but will have continued real-world consequences for all of us, too.

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