This week was supposed to mark the start of Boris Johnson’s comeback. Publishing initial findings of the inquiry into lockdown parties at Downing Street was meant to draw a political line. A white paper would flesh out the flagship policy to level up poorer regions. Instead, the findings proved an indictment of the prime minister’s leadership, and the much-hyped policy paper was overshadowed by a worsening cost of living crisis and chaotic departures from Number 10. The government ends the week in worse shape than it started it — seeming to have lost control of events and its own agenda.
Even as Johnson fights for his political life over “partygate”, it is now clear the biggest policy crisis facing his government is soaring living costs. A £9bn support package from chancellor Rishi Sunak will cover, even for poorer families, only half of the £700 per year rise in April in the cap on energy prices. The timing is especially tricky, coinciding with the government’s planned rise in national insurance contributions and freezing of income tax thresholds.
News on the price cap and the government’s attempt to mitigate it coincided, moreover, with a second consecutive rate rise from the Bank of England that will push up mortgage costs — and a warning that inflation will top 7 per cent by spring. A call from the Bank’s governor, Andrew Bailey, for Britons to hold off from asking for big pay rises will have come across to many voters as tone deaf — even if intended to address a genuine economic problem. It sits distinctly uneasily with the promises at a triumphalist Conservative party conference just four months ago of a “high-wage, high-productivity” economy.
Britain’s government is hardly alone in facing such challenges. Inflation is rising in much of the developed world thanks to spiralling energy prices and post-pandemic dislocations in labour markets and supply chains. These would be difficult for even the most competent premier to deal with.
The particular problem of Johnson’s Conservatives is they seem to lack any coherent strategy to deliver their goals and put the economy back on track. Johnson’s high-spending instincts have long clashed with Sunak’s attachment to a more traditional fiscal conservatism. The levelling up paper is a case in point. Though it contained some useful ideas, it will require long-term stability and much more financial firepower than so far committed. This government may struggle to provide either.
Increasingly, Johnson’s personal political travails are making the Tories inward-looking and dysfunctional when they should be focused on looming challenges and how to confront them. Every political initiative is seen through the prism of a potential leadership challenge, and how it might benefit the minister responsible.
The political nous that helped Johnson survive previous scrapes seems, meanwhile, to be deserting him. A false and misjudged allegation against the leader of the opposition prompted the prime minister’s loyal lieutenant of 14 years, Munira Mirza, to resign. Three supposedly planned departures of top officials were then brought forward to show Johnson was rebooting his Downing Street operation — but only added to the sense of disarray.
Dithering over whether to try to replace Johnson leaves Tory MPs in the worst of all worlds. Waiting until after May’s local elections to decide risks four months of paralysis, while inflation takes further hold. Yet unless this Tory administration can tame prices that are rising faster than wages, it risks being remembered not for levelling up poorer areas, but for levelling the whole country down. That could be a death knell for any government.