A closer look at Johnson’s economic plan for post-Brexit Britain
When Rishi Sunak delivered a short personal homily towards the end of his Budget speech – itself an unusual act for any chancellor of the exchequer – he asked a pointed question: “But now, we have a choice. Do we want to live in a country where the response to every question is: ‘what is the government going to do about it?’ Or do we choose to recognise that government has limits, that government should have limits?”
Formally, the question was directed to the MPs sitting around him, but it might as well have been aimed directly at the man sitting immediately behind him, Boris Johnson. For it is Mr Johnson’s instinct for intervention and a thoroughly pragmatic approach to the public finances that framed most of the measures in the Budget and its accompanying spending review. It marks another step in the transformation of the Conservative Party and its quiet repudiation of free market economics. This was confirmed, in a rare moment of candour, by the chief secretary to the Treasury, Simon Clarke. Clarke, a rising star who has something of the quality of a previous chief secretary, John Major, about him (in a good way) admits it all: “The chancellor was very open about the fact that this is something of a philosophical shift. What we want to see is to get the economy turbocharged, unlock productivity, and deliver growth more evenly across the UK. That does require some upfront spending.”
A dash for growth, in other words, of a kind long since abandoned by Tory governments led by Margaret Thatcher, Major, David Cameron and Theresa May who, to a greater or lesser degree, put fiscal prudence and tax cuts ahead of the current trendy causes of “world-class public services”, investment and productivity. In the Thatcher era and after, these were regarded as largely a matter for the private sector and public-private partnerships.