Blair and Boris – who would have thought it?

At last, a glimpse of bipartisan analysis in the chaos engulfing Boris Johnson’s premiership.

Say what you like about Tony Blair, but he is a serious politician.  What he says is worth taking seriously.  

It is also not great for Boris.  And worse for everyone else.

In a speech to the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College, London (and reported in our favourite Eurointelligence), the amazing Dr Muldoon Blair sets out his diagnosis.  It will be oddly familiar to readers of Point of Order.

The problem he generously admits is not Boris qua Boris; it’s the lacuna where a strategic plan should be.  In a characteristic Blairite triad, he identifies three revolutionary changes demanding a response: policy to accelerate the adoption of technology to resolve the productivity crisis; the policy response to climate change; and Britain’s ongoing relationship with Europe.

Bravo Sir Tony.  But is the problem truly a lack of planning (albeit planning lacking the firm hand of Blair)?

Taking each in turn.

  1. Productivity growth is most certainly needed to meet rising social expectations.  But experience is that it will come from market signals driving resources into the right areas.  The best thing a government strategic plan can do is give the contenders enough security to get cracking and bind up the wounds of the losers.
  1. Nor can one say that there is a shortage of strategic plans in climate policy.  The current problem is more that they are working. Decarbonising fast is hugely expensive and needs to be paid for in higher taxes or higher prices.  The worst way to tackle it is by strategic state tinkering in advance of technological progress.  Slowly humping up carbon prices; letting markets and people adapt; and waiting for Elon Musk to perform a miracle is probably the best.
  1. Europe: important but sort of irrelevant.  The UK is free to wallow in Europe’s regulatory drift (per the last 30 years) and converge on its miserable productivity growth rate.  No change there.  Or it can try regulatory settings which let innovators move fast and make mistakes (fracking anyone?).   Europe’s choices are less relevant to the UK’s long-run performance, than are America’s for China (think carefully for a moment what this means).

Blair’s pre-eminent political skill is that he can articulate a political policy with the appearance of addressing issues through co-ordinated government action, while allowing enough room (at least in his view) for business to drive through the changes needed for prosperity.  It is not to be underrated by any means, but it is stretching things to call it new thinking.

One senses in his remarks a certain wistful tribute to Margaret Thatcher (of which few on the nominal left would be capable):

But not a single thing we need to do, to turn our fortunes around, will come without political pain. Our politics show few signs of preparedness to tolerate that pain. Just remember the Thatcher economic reforms caused huge public discontent: at times the Tories were third in the polls; the country was bitterly divided.”

Blair’s speech better captures Johnson’s dilemma than ephemeral headlines.  Boris is in political trouble, not because of an untimely glass of Tignanello, but because he’s run out of money to keep enough people happy and his compromises don’t look like getting things back on track.

His saving grace is that everyone around him looks a worse bet.

His Conservative party enemies are still furious that he outbid them in Brexit opportunism and are bereft of policy.  His new backbenchers are stupendously inexperienced and prone to panic.  And his Labour party opponents believe that the problem with his stupider polices was that he didn’t take them far enough.

It’s hard to see any personnel change sending a positive signal at this point.

The alternative to drift is a policy of protecting business to innovate and change, with strict and calibrated austerity for the rest of us.  Every handout to come with a price and details of who is paying.

It will be interesting to see if the great British public is ready to take that from anyone – let alone from Boris.

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