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LONDON — It tends to be smart to under-promise and over-deliver. Apparently no one told Boris Johnson.
The U.K. prime minister’s big speech on Tuesday was billed as the blueprint for a “New Deal” for Britain after coronavirus. Johnson, clearly not content with invoking Churchill, wants to go one better: Now he’d like you to think he’s Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In the event, the speech was largely a public relations exercise. Yes, the Johnson government has big spending plans, particularly on infrastructure, but these pre-date the crisis. Tuesday’s actual announcements amounted to £5 billion of accelerated spending on renovations for hospitals, schools, roads and town centers. All very welcome no doubt, but it’s not quite the Hoover Dam.
So what was the point of the speech, delivered in the West Midlands town of Dudley in front of a socially distanced audience of half a dozen businesspeople and journalists?
Put simply, Johnson needs to turn a page on the U.K.’s coronavirus story. One of the worst-hit countries in the world, his government has been beset with criticism, and the sooner he can shift attention to the recovery the better. It was therefore unhelpful for No. 10 that the government was, on the eve of the speech, forced to impose the U.K.’s first local lockdown on the city of Leicester, after a flare-up of cases there.
Here’s what Johnson’s speech revealed — and didn’t — about the U.K.’s path ahead:
Jobs black hole
Johnson himself conceded the speech “may seem a bit premature” given the crisis is not over.
The full extent of the economic damage done to the U.K. is equally not yet known, he said. “We are waiting as if between the flash of lightning and the thunderclap with our hearts in our mouths for the full economic reverberations to appear,” he said.
The greatest fear is mass unemployment, with economic experts predicting the jobless rate in the U.K. could hit levels not seen since the 1980s.
Johnson reiterated plans for a “guarantee” to young people of an apprenticeship or “in-work placement” — but the Confederation of British Industry called this just “a start.”
“Government intervention so far has saved countless jobs, yet anxious months for many still lie ahead,” said CBI Director General Carolyn Fairbairn. “The focus on rescuing viable firms cannot slip while the U.K. looks to recovery, or earlier efforts could be wasted.”
‘Wait to hear from Rishi’
More significant than Tuesday’s outing for the prime minister will be more information next week from Chancellor Rishi Sunak on government support for the economy in the weeks and months ahead, as the highly successful furlough scheme — which has temporarily paid the wages of more than nine million jobs — begins to wind down.
It’s not clear whether Sunak will also lay out the government’s tax and borrowing plan to support the economic recovery but Johnson hinted that more information on this is coming in next few weeks and months. Following through on a big increase in government borrowing while rates are low is already part of the plan. But with Johnson ruling out cuts to public services, there is speculation Sunak may have to go against Tory orthodoxy and raise taxes to balance the books.
Taking questions after the speech, Johnson said his instincts were “to cut taxes wherever you possibly can,” but added, “The difficulty we have is that we have a generational challenge now and we have to take our country forward.” Watch this space.
The speech failed to deliver substance to back up the U.K. government’s warm rhetoric about the fabled “green recovery.”
Johnson talked about planting 30,000 hectares of trees every year and dusted off pledges about green buses and greener house-building, but campaigners — who want to see the U.K. setting an example ahead of next year’s COP26 U.N. climate summit — were disappointed.
“We were promised a New Deal, what we got were old announcements, tiny crumbs of investment and too many wrong solutions,” said John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace U.K. “It’s hard not to see this as a missed opportunity but now all eyes have to be on the chancellor to make sure he takes the chance next week.”
The U.K.’s biggest conservation charity, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said the government’s plans “fall well short of the global leadership that was promised over recent months.”
Build, build, build
At the center of the speech was a familiar Conservative appeal to “scythe red tape” around the U.K.’s planning laws to make it easier for developers to build and build quickly. A new “infrastructure delivery task force” with the dreadful name “Project Speed” will be set up with the aim of cutting down the time it takes to get infrastructure projects moving.
This includes the 40 new hospitals the Tories pledged at the last election — details of which Johnson said would be revealed by Health Secretary Matt Hancock “in the next few days.”
Precisely how a bonfire of planning regulations fits into the government’s green agenda wasn’t clear, and conservationists were also dismayed to hear Johnson dismiss environmental protections as “newt-counting delays” — a clichéd reference to newspaper stories about the presence of endangered great-crested newts sometimes holds up building projects.
Once again, the real meat of U.K. plans in this area will come later, with the publication of a National Infrastructure Strategy expected in the fall.