Jonathan McHugh illustration of Camilla Cavendish story ‘ The Boris Johnson plan is far from conservative’
© Jonathan McHugh 2020

The writer is a senior fellow at Harvard University and advises the UK Department of Health and Social Care

Are we seeing the emergence of something which might be called Johnsonism? Over the next few weeks, we will see the prime minister’s post-Covid-19 administration take shape.

Boris Johnson’s “New Deal” launch last week underlined his old fondness for grands projets. So statist was it that he felt the need to assert, startlingly: “Friends, I am not a communist”. But his decision to invoke Franklin D Roosevelt points to an agenda which is more than simply infrastructure-plus-Brexit.

FDR is not the most obvious Tory pin-up. Many Conservative MPs remain nervous about their leader so gleefully leading an interventionist, high-spending — and whatever he says, potentially high-taxing — state. They know the pandemic has enlarged western states, but would rather he didn’t look so enthused about it. His plans to build new hosp

itals, schools and railways, and guarantee work for young people are nowhere near the scale of 1930s America. But they are a significant departure from the Thatcherite legacy.

You cannot understand the current UK government unless you appreciate that its animating force is to tackle the nation’s unequal productivity. If you stand in Teesside, or Wrexham, or other newly blue constituencies that swept Mr Johnson to his election victory, the UK can look “like London with Portugal attached” as one Johnson ally put it to me. The educated southern elites emerged with barely a scratch after the 2008 financial crisis. Less-skilled workers in other parts of the country are still treading water. Mr Johnson’s new electoral coalition means that his pledge to “level up” is more than a mantra: it is a mandate.

Bridging this divide will require productivity increases on a scale which has eluded successive governments. It will need radical experimentation of the kind that FDR pursued, though not all of his experiments worked.

On housing, Mr Johnson’s announcement of a planning shake-up suggests that he may be prepared to break with the consensus that has held since the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which has spawned ever more complexity. Attempts to balance competing interests in a densely populated country have left local authorities micromanaging land use, causing crippling delays. Mr Johnson’s housing adviser has advocated a drastically simplified process, which would see all land zoned as either protected, or available for development. This is very un-English. But, if combined with firm stipulations on design and protections for nature, it need not be a recipe for ugliness.

When processes are simplified, there is less room for middle men and rentier capitalists. The truth is that in 21st-century Britain, regulation and red tape have become mini-industries. Who benefits from this? The people President Roosevelt described with powerful distaste as the “economic royalists”, in his “rendezvous with destiny” speech: whose “despotisms” squeeze the small businesses, the little guy.

The irony is that big-spending governments tend to create gravy trains for producer interests. This is even more likely when the imperative is to spend fast. Big contractors notoriously run rings around Whitehall. “Of the 108 major programmes for which government is responsible”, Michael Gove noted in a lecture last weekend, “only 8 per cent are actually assessed to judge if they have been delivered effectively”.

Mr Gove’s lecture was, it turned out, the intellectual aperitif before the prime ministerial policy smorgasbord. “Roosevelt recognised that, faced with a crisis that had shaken faith in government, it was not simply a change of personnel and rhetoric that was required, but a change in structure, ambition and organisation,” Mr Gove said. And here was a clue. Roosevelt extended the power of the federal government, creating a string of new agencies like the Civilian Conservation Corps. He also sought to boost the power of the executive. His was an activist presidency, supported by a group of politicised advisers. Mr Johnson has already moved to strengthen Downing Street: that will continue.

The prime minister has often confounded predictions. As Mayor of London he was a metropolitan liberal, reflecting the capital’s character. But his decision to head the Leave campaign, and the electoral arithmetic of his support, have changed him. His majority at the last election included voters previously loyal to Labour. That night in December, the Conservatives became the party of the working class, and once again the party of the aspiring lower middle class — the small business owners who were Thatcher’s ground troops.

A Rooseveltian strategy will be popular with those voters; less so with the Brexiters Mr Johnson surrounds himself with. Those who have spent their lives fulminating against Brussels red tape are aghast at the morphing of the Conservatives into something which looks like a European Social Democratic party. Moving leftwards on the economy also means that Labour will fight Mr Johnson on competence: Mr Gove must get his reforms in quick.

Conservatives are generally wary of “isms”. The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton once said that if Tories had a slogan it would be “hesitate!” But many mutter that Mr Johnson is not really a conservative. Johnsonism, if it exists, leans leftwards on the economy and rightwards on culture. It is an attempt to unleash animal spirits and productivity, within a big state. It certainly matches Roosevelt for audacity.

Letters in response to this article:

No one can accuse local authorities of nimbyism / From Richard Batley, Birmingham, UK

Finding the right words to sum up Johnsonism / From Matthew Stephenson, Wakefield, West Yorkshire, UK

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