A friend who has always shared my distrust of Boris Johnson said to me recently that he had at least hoped our prime minister would “grow into the job”.
Alas, as even former supporters – not least those who made the historic mistake of electing him leader – acknowledge, Johnson has not grown into the job. Day by day, he has grown out of it.
Life for the prime minister has until recently been a series of japes. As PG Wodehouse wrote in Hot Water (which I recommend as splendid light relief from the daily horrors of Covid and Brexit): “If it is true that the Hour produces the Man, it is also true that it remorselessly reveals the wash-out.”
Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak hosts a remote press conference to update the nation on his economic measures announced today during the covid-19 pandemic, inside 10 Downing Street in central London on September 24, 2020. – Britain on Thursday launched a coronavirus winter battle plan to protect jobs and boost the fragile economy, after surging infections sparked fresh nationwide measures to slow the spread. (Photo by JOHN SIBLEY / POOL / AFP) (Photo by JOHN SIBLEY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Governing a country is no jape. Johnson has already been found out, and his two most prominent cabinet colleagues, Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove, are what is known in the trade as “on manoeuvres”.
Gove, to my mind, is so steeped in the blood of Brexit – it was going to be painless, a doddle – that he has lost all credibility as a leadership rival. He now spends his time saying it is not going to be painless, least of all for those Brexit burghers of Kent who, remarkably, did not seem to realise that they would be in the frontline of the disruption to transport that will inevitably follow our leaving the single market, deal or nor deal.
Sunak, by contrast, is flavour of the month with both the Tory party and a large section of the media. He is in a fascinating position: widely thought of as a rightwing chancellor who finds himself popular for what he is in theory opposed to: doling out public money – although even then he can’t please everybody, and there are some rumblings of discontent. But then, as students of his career know, Sunak is what is known as a trader. (For younger readers I should emphasise that, in the old days, “trading” referred to dealing in real goods and commodities, goods that mattered, not just in money.)
Gallery: Brexit timeline (Photo Services)
April 14, 2015: Manifesto launch
Feb. 22, 2016: Referendum date announced
June 23, 2016: UK holds referendum
July 13, 2016: A new prime minister
Nov. 3, 2016: High Court passes judgement in Gina Miller case
March 29, 2017: May triggers Article 50
April 29, 2017: EU-27 leaders meet
June 8, 2017: General Election
June 19, 2017: First round of negotiations
Nov. 20, 2017: New headquarters for EU agencies
Feb. 28, 2018: Draft for withdrawal agreement published
March 29, 2018: May visits each UK nation
July 6, 2018: Cabinet meets at Chequers
July 9, 2018: David Davis and Boris Johnson resign
Aug. 23, 2018: No-deal notices
Sept. 19-20, 2018: Summit in Salzburg
Oct. 20, 2018: People’s Vote March takes place
Nov. 14, 2018: Terms of Withdrawal Agreement are negotiated
Nov. 15, 2018: Raab resigns
Nov. 22, 2018: May says deal within grasp
Dec. 10, 2018: May pulls final vote
Dec. 29, 2018: Ferry contract sparks concerns
Jan. 15, 2019: Meaningful Vote takes place
March 12, 2019: Second Meaningful Vote takes place
March 13-14, 2019: MPs rule out no-deal Brexit
March 16, 2019: Pro-Brexit march takes place
March 21, 2019: Extension dates offered
March 23, 2019: Put it to the People March takes place
March 27, 2019: May offers to resign
March 29, 2019: ‘Brexit Day’
April 2, 2019: Alternatives dismissed in indicative voting
April 5, 2019: May requests further delay
April 11, 2019: ‘Flexible’ extension approved until Halloween
May 24, 2019: May announces resignation
July 23, 2019: Boris Johnson announced as Britain’s next prime minister
Aug. 25, 2019: Johnson discusses trade deal with Donald Trump
Oct. 2, 2019: Johnson proposes final Brexit offer
Oct. 17, 2019: New Brexit deal agreed with the EU
Oct. 19, 2019: Debate and vote on new Brexit deal
Oct. 19, 2019: Government requests Brexit extension
Oct. 19, 2019: Calls for fresh voting
Oct. 21, 2019: ‘Meaningful vote’ ruled out
Oct. 28, 2019: European leaders agree to extend date
Dec. 13, 2019: Johnson’s Conservative Party wins parliamentary majority
Dec. 20, 2019: MPs back Johnson’s EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill
Jan. 23, 2020: Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement becomes law
Jan. 31, 2020: The UK leaves the European Union
The City of London, where Sunak earned his spurs, is good at trading in money, and a healthy financial sector is vital for the workings of the “real” economy; unfortunately one of the many casualties of this pointless exercise in Brexit looks like being the pre-eminence of the City in European markets.
Sunak is also a Brexiter. He has, we are told, been a Brexiter since the age of 18 – ie, since before the word Brexit was coined. I hope that at some stage, under the influence of his Treasury officials, he will come to his senses. Meanwhile, however, he has most of the economics profession on his side in taking the St Augustine approach to the public finances: budget balance, but not yet – and perhaps not for 30 years.
If there is one thing that matters in the economy now it is employment. But it is no good warning the nation, as Sunak does, that unemployment is going to rise dramatically. The government must do even more about it than it is doing now. There are huge unused resources that need to be employed.
Inflation is not the problem. Why, my old friend Gordon Brown, the chancellor who granted the Bank of England independence in setting interest rates, recently revised his original approach. He now favours the brief of the US Federal Reserve, in stipulating that “maximum employment” should be given equal weight to control of inflation in the Bank’s remit.
And, after a recent chance meeting, I have the permission of yet another old friend, Mervyn (Lord) King, to quote him as saying we need fiscal expansion to get out of this depression, not talk of tax increases. This is the very same former governor of the Bank who, to my mind, made a serious error in advising the coalition government of 2010 onwards to embark on a policy of austerity when the economy was only just emerging from the horrors of the 2008 banking crisis.
One item on the agenda that is not calculated to assist the British economy’s emergence from the epidemic-enforced depression is – guess what – going ahead with Brexit.
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