09 February 2020, The Tablet

Boris Johnson: the 'good enough' PM

Boris Johnson: the 'good enough' PM

Poster of the American Institute on the avenue Veceslav Holjevac with a quote by Irena Andrassy, Croatian ambassador for the EU.
Igor Kralj/PIXSELL/Pixsell/PA Images

The Government led by Boris Johnson is not shaping up as I or anyone else expected. He seems determined to reverse numerous policies of Theresa May's administration; he has willingly contradicted and annoyed Donald Trump when we all thought he would bend the knee; he is in the processing of ditching many of the cherished ideological projects of the Cameron, Thatcher and Major years; and he does not appear to believe in the basic Thatcher mantra "private good, public bad" when referring to the delivery of public services.

Throwing public money at the north of England in huge dollops of infrastructure spending, in order to level up standards of living, sounds a lot like Socialism. Mr Johnson is convinced that he can raise productivity in the north to the same level as in the south-east, thereby generating a whole lot more wealth for the nation and for individuals. But this is not in the traditional Tory playbook. I am not sure it deserves to be called Conservatism at all.

So market forces do not hold the solution to everything. One of the reasons the government has had to acknowledge this is because the Tory's free-market privatisation chickens are now coming home to roost. The railway privatisation programme was put through with scandalous haste in the closing years of John Major's Government, because the Government believed (a) it would lose the coming general election to Tony Blair and (b) Tony Blair would reverse whatever railway privatisation was not then complete. This was an astonishing piece of antidemocratic arrogance.

Yet now, while Labour is proposing the re-nationalisation of the railway system, the Conservatives have actually embarked on it. They have done so because the method chosen by Mr Major, the so-called franchise system, does not work. Franchise holders are walking away, having lost their shirts. To keep the railways running, bits of the network are having to be taken back into public ownership piece by piece. The irony of this is that while substantial sections of the British rail system have remained under State ownership, the States in question have been foreign ones such as France, Italy and Germany – anything but British.

One hears that the Royal Mail is in trouble, and may even have to be rescued by the British taxpayer. This was a privatisation hatched by David Cameron in 2013, which incidentally Margaret Thatcher had always opposed as unworkable, and was a late example of the "private good, public bad" dogma in action. The privatisation of the probation service, a crazy idea at the best of times, is another of those chickens coming home to roost. The probation service, whose main function is the supervision of offenders in the community, was never a suitable subject for marketisation by privatisation as it deals with too many intangibles that cannot be costed. The Tories attempted to commodify criminal justice in a fit of free-market madness.

Another of David Cameron's clever ideas was to introduce the discipline of market forces into the National Health Service. Parts of the hospital and community based health system would "trade" with each other, driving up efficiency. It has had the opposite effect: the NHS is going backwards, and standards are falling. The NHS itself was to be run more like a business, and ministers would escape direct responsibility when things went wrong. This policy too is in reverse, and the Government wants to take back the control it only recently gave up.

And the biggest problem in the whole area of health care is at the interface between hospitals, GPs and social care agencies – providers of residential homes for the elderly, for instance – most of which are privately owned but partly publicly funded. No free market solution to this complex headache is anywhere in sight.

The intriguing question is whether any of the prominent Conservatives now in Government ever really believed in the "private good, public bad" doctrine, or whether they just went with the free market flow when it was in fashion. Margaret Thatcher's emphatic insistence that "there is no alternative", known in Westminster by the acronym TINA, made heretics of anyone who did not buy into this article of faith.

To give him credit, Mr Johnson is not bound by political or economic dogma. He is his own project, that is to say he does not have any grand ideas beyond finding out what the public wants and giving it to them, so they will vote for him and he can stay in power. That will serve him well for a few years, but ultimately the public will no longer know what it wants and will need political leaders who can spell out a vision to inspire it. Keeping Boris Johnson in 10 Downing Street for ever does not quite meet the need. But he clearly believes it is good enough for now, and he is probably right.

What do you think?


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