Boris: holding out till Christmas

We said a few days ago that British PM, Boris Johnson, still looked to be the indispensable man.

It’s hard to tell if subsequent events are qualifying or confirming that.

Two examples.

First, Lord Frost, Minister of State and the government’s EU strategist resigned citing the general drift of policy, most recently towards Covid authoritarianism.

It must be so much more painful for Boris that Frost is a true believer.  He gave up a diplomatic career rather than toe the orthodox line and he took on the scarifying task of building a machine and more importantly providing the belief and determination to negotiate effectively with the EU.

Most would have regarded him as one of Boris’s most loyal supporters, and as near to a friend as you can get at that level of politics.

So his resignation rather confirms the Prime Minister’s isolation from his natural body of support.

The second example is even more likely to make you scratch your head.

Nick Timothy (former right-hand man to former PM, Theresa May) then pops up in the Daily Telegraph to say (implicitly) that things really aren’t going in the wrong direction. 

Brexit is not just a fine work in progress.  It is an opportunity to take forward some of the things which appeal to Frost and his ilk:

to reform our planning system to get more and better housing built, get infrastructure into place, and make better economic use of our urban spaces.”

And more:

“There are some business taxes that can be cut – encouraging investment in technology and research and development, for example – and regulations and legal frameworks – on the use of data, life sciences and public procurement, to name just three”

But – there’s always a but:

“these are specific changes, to be made within a mixed approach that uses a stronger, more strategic state to rebalance the economy”

Because:

“The referendum was won among voters protesting against the way the world economy had destroyed job security and killed wage growth.”

What is so useful about this analysis is that it identifies the common ground shared by Boris and the wing of the Conservative party he defeated to become leader:  that the state can manage through by giving the right orders.  With us sensible folks in charge, of course.

Frost & Co, one can assume, reject this view.  They instinctively understand state intervention as a cost imposed on one group to provide a benefit (in many cases smaller than the cost)  for another.

Politics, they will agree, requires such tribute.  But if you believe in it as an end in itself you might as well join the other lot.  And if you believe it is the key to high economic growth and a successful transition (because ministers and civil servants know how to “rebalance the economy”) then you are deluded.

The irony on this reading is in the complete reliance of the Johnson-Timothy approach on the private sector: first, to continue to generate high levels of productivity growth in the less-trammelled market sectors (this unfortunately is also known as making the rich, richer); and secondly, to deliver astonishing levels of technological innovation in increasingly highly-regulated sectors like power generation, energy storage, transport design and manufacture, health services, and building and infrastructure.

Come to think of it – this sounds a bit like the Macron, Merkel, Biden, Key and Ardern approach too.

But the unlikely duet of Frost and Timothy will surely agree on one theme.  The argument will ultimately turn on whether the world economy or misguided government decisions are held more responsible for having “destroyed job security and killed wage growth.”

To remain indispensable, Boris – like any good politician – needs to be ready to change sides again.

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