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A downward spiral

A downward spiral

Even if Boris Johnson manages to survive “partygate”, there are a host of challenges facing the UK which mean he’s unlikely to recover his sense of optimism


A fair few years ago, I was invited to dinner at a rather grand country house just outside London; Boris Johnson was a guest too. When the evening came to an end and we headed back to get in our cars, someone spotted a rugby ball on the lawn. It was passed around and Boris – as everyone called him that night, this being long before he was prime minister – wondered aloud whether he could kick the ball over the house. It was a boyish and naughty thought, irresponsible and, as it turned out, much too optimistic: he booted it high, it bounced off the roof and then back to the ground. A few laughs and no harm done.

Johnson has an instinct for doing things that other people wouldn’t – or other people think you shouldn’t. It’s more, I reckon, than a belief that the rules don’t apply to him; it’s an impulse, he’s wired that way. And the Conservative party and the public have long known it. In fact, politically, it was the making of him. People knew he told fibs and played around. But he was real and funny; he was in on the joke; and, more than that, he was proud, positive and promised so much. 

The Downing Street parties asks the question whether his defiance of norms – that thing that was his hallmark will be his undoing. But I’ve been wondering, separately, about the optimism – what’s happened to that? 

I’m James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail I want to point to four long-term indicators that explain why some of that pride, patriotism and sense of possibility has been draining away in Britain. A slow take on a busy week, one that suggests whatever happens to Boris Johnson in the coming days, it’s going to get harder for his government in the months ahead. 

First, growth. If the UK was one of the 50 states of the United States of America, where, I was asked last week, would it come in the ranking of states as measured by GDP per capita? Top five? Top ten? The answer is 49. The 49th state of the United States, just below West Virginia and above Mississippi. As things stand, the worry is that the UK might fall further – i.e. that, even accounting for the economic upswing hoped for in the first half of this year, the UK’s economic long term growth rate is just too low. CEOs and economists complain that Johnson’s government doesn’t get the need for investment and growth. Tory prime ministers, of course, used to be able to bank on support from business – but not this one. 

Second, migration. The UK’s official statisticians – the ONS – surprised themselves this week. They forecast that the UK’s natural population would start to fall from 2025, i.e. the number of annual deaths exceeding the number of births. Previously, they’d thought this historic milestone would be crossed in 2043. Of course, the overall population will grow, albeit more slowly, but that’s thanks to immigration. And those immigrants will be needed to increase the working age population, as the number of old people – in particular, really elderly people – increases. Those over 85, well that number doubles in the next 20 years. Whatever the Conservative position on immigration has been in the past, Britain’s economy and public services currently looks set to be more reliant on immigration in the decade to come.

Third, officialdom. Vice Admiral Nick Hine this week published the letter he sent to all members of the Royal Navy on his retirement as the Second Sea Lord. “Our great navy has lost its ambition”, he wrote. “I have despaired at times that collectively we had become self-censoring, risk-averse and lacking in curiosity, confidence and critical thinking skills. We have these qualities but have allowed a rose-tinted view of tradition and a spurious belief that you can avoid risk by sticking to a failing status quo to avoid driving transformation.” Many others, no doubt, in government would like to put their names to something similar. Dominic Cummings’ promise of a “hard rain” on the Civil Service worried many; since then the shambles and dishonesty in Downing Street enrages even more. Christopher Geidt is said to be fuming after being misled by the prime minister over the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat; Sir Alex Allan, the PM’s independent adviser on ministerial standards, quit after the PM overruled him on allegations of bullying against Priti Patel; Jonathan Van Tam, for reasons unknown, has abruptly stood down; and the worry is that Sue Gray, for all her fearsome reputation, will be the next to be embarrassed, boxed into a narrow definition of legal/criminal wrong-doing in her report into the Downing Street parties. My point is this: the relationship between Mr Johnson and his officialdom is getting more riddled with mutual suspicion and distrust. 

Fourth, inflation. Come April, pensioners will be looking at state pension increases of 3.1 per cent – that’s roughly half the rate of inflation. Energy price rises look set to put £600-plus on the cost of average household bills. And given the combination of higher salary expectations and energy costs, small businesses are feeling the squeeze. Think about that for a moment. Older people. Middle class families. Small business owners. These people – the core of Johnson’s political coalition – have difficult months ahead.

May local elections have been make-or-break for Conservative MPs in the recent past; a decade ago, a poor showing propelled David Cameron into the process of promising a Brexit referendum; in 2019 it was the local elections that pushed Theresa May out of office. As I said in one of these voicemails just before Christmas, Boris Johnson likes to present his government as new, but it’s old. There are 164 Conservative MPs on the backbenches – people who are former ministers or never ministers, people who have no reasonable expectation of high office, people who have little to lose by challenging Mr Johnson. 

When you stand back, and take a look at things over a longer timeframe, you see that whatever Sue Gray’s report next week, confidence in Mr Johnson’s optimism is draining away. Even he must be wondering whether he can hoof the ball over the roof from here.