It is not unusual for a man in his fifties to get a new look: a trendy haircut, a modern wardrobe, even a new partner. Very few truly become a new man. All of which brings us to Boris Johnson’s “reset”.
With the dismissal of two of his closest and most abrasive advisers — notably his chief aide Dominic Cummings — the UK prime minister’s supporters are looking forward to a different Downing Street. A more collaborative style and a change of tone which also plays to Mr Johnson’s more inclusive instincts is certain. This is all to the good.
Downing Street will acquire some more mature and effective senior aides. He is likely to upgrade his weak cabinet. The return of Sajid Javid, forced out as chancellor by Mr Cummings, is widely anticipated. The search for a new and full-time president of next year’s COP26 climate change talks may prove easier now. Insiders say one of the senior party figures — David Cameron and William Hague were among those approached — who turned down the role because they could not work with Mr Cummings may now be more amenable.
For all that, there are good reasons not to over-egg this reset. There are two faultlines under this government and the change can address only one. The first is that, even allowing for the pandemic, its practical politics have been abysmal, characterised by policy lurches and needless making of enemies. A reset may go some way towards resolving this. But the greater challenges are existential and here a reset towards competence is merely a precondition for success.
The most pressing repair job will be to rebuild Mr Johnson’s relations with his own MPs. There is a limit to what can be achieved with a socially distanced chat and a glass of warm white wine. Tory MPs have got used to asserting themselves on policy, and attacks on advisers are normally code for attacks on the leader. But Mr Cummings’s dismissive style increased the friendly fire.
But a softer tone should not be mistaken for major policy shifts. As one cabinet member puts it: “A reset means you go back to the manifesto and do the things you said you were going to do.”
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Tory MPs are not looking for a return to Mr Cameron’s liberal conservatism. Few complained on Tuesday when it emerged that the Treasury was planning to cut its overseas aid budget. While Mr Johnson is wise to work harder to reclaim some southern voters once the Brexit wounds are a little less raw, his core focus on economic inequalities in his newly won northern seats is tactically correct.
But so far “levelling up” has been little more than a slogan, a ribbon to help package diverse schemes. A sharper focus is needed. One senior Tory suggests something akin to the former Japanese premier Shinzo Abe’s “three arrows”, a set of definable and measurable prongs, such as infrastructure improvements, visible physical regeneration, tax incentives to bring jobs. Grafting green plans on to the levelling-up agenda is not enough, though they can and should run in tandem.
But delivery of the strategy is where the reset meets the greatest existential challenge: the desperate state of the public finances. The huge deficit run-up by the pandemic leaves little space for extra spending. Rebels and problems cannot simply be bought off. Unpalatable choices on spending and taxation loom before the next election.
Even with a coronavirus vaccine, the economic fallout from the pandemic will be a defining feature of this administration. Next week’s spending review will show that once the levelling-up agenda and the plans for a “green industrial revolution” are factored in, there is little space for extra initiatives. Even the long-promised shake-up of social care remains mired in a continued debate over funding.
And there are other factors beyond Mr Johnson’s control, some the result of his policies. A Brexit trade deal now looks likely. But the rupture will still be painful — not least in those key northern seats — and ministers are unsure how much disruption the final breach will cause. Next year may also see a new crisis in the Union, with the Scottish National party able to claim a new mandate for an independence referendum. He needs an attractive alternative. Moving a few civil servants north and setting up another task force is a start but not a plan.
Still, Tories can see a more hopeful landscape in 2021. The new electoral coalition Mr Johnson (and his departed aides) assembled could keep them in power for a decade. But, against a more electable opposition, only if promises are turned into visible improvements.
This points to the last issue with the reset. The key figure in this government has not changed. Mr Johnson may be under new management but he sets the tone of his administration.
If his government has been divisive and weak, it is because he has permitted it to be. Allowances can be made for the unprecedented crisis of the pandemic. But the PM is now out of alibis. There is a place for soaring rhetoric, radical dreams and long-term horizons. Voters respond to his good cheer. But he is too drawn to moonshots and undisciplined rhetoric over the hard grind of dogged, incremental delivery. Tories have now seen too clearly that strategy (as opposed to direction) and delivery cannot entirely be delegated to others.
This reset was overdue. But if his government is to flourish, Mr Johnson must also reset himself.
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