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Johnson wants to build Britain up again – but all he knows is how to break it

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to the Speller Metcalfe's building site at The Dudley Institute of Technology. Photograph: Jeremy Selwyn/Evening Standard/PA Wire. - Credit: PA

Our government follows a pattern of breaking things apart without knowing how to put them back together, writes JAMES BALL.

There are very few of us who would actively want to hear much about home insulation. But for governments, it’s the kind of boring policy that makes a lot of sense – especially during a recession.

Offering generous subsidies for home insulation helps cut bills for low-income families, keeps homes warmer in winter and cooler in summer, and helps tackle climate change. It’s also easy to start very quickly, creates jobs suitable for people with relatively brief re-training, and so simulates the economy.

No-one is ever going to start a culture war over home insulation – but it is the sort of boring-but-good policy of which decent governments and economic recoveries alike are made.

Unsurprisingly, then, it’s a policy which – despite being in the Conservatives 2019 manifesto to the tune of £9 billion of spending – is now believed by officials to be dead-on-arrival, not least because Dominic Cummings dismisses it as ‘boring old housing insulation’.

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Cummings – along with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – is supposedly trying to rebuild a lot of things all at once – not least the civil service and the UK economy. But the fate of that home-insulation policy tells us a lot about how that’s likely to go: People will come up with relatively popular, sensible, workable ways of doing things that will then get kicked out for not being exciting enough – only for us to find there are no alternatives left in their place.

Other clues about what this government is likely to deliver came in the announcement of its post-coronavirus recovery plan on Tuesday. As Boris Johnson’s barrage of mixed metaphors – ‘the virus is still out there, circling like a shark’ – marched his rhetorical troops to the top of the hill, where all the king’s horses and men couldn’t put them together again, his policies were even more of a mess.

Johnson was attempting to outline a ‘New Deal’ for the UK, a deliberate echo of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s huge spending plan to lift the US out of the Great Depression and to rebuild a nation. The New Deal spent more than a third of the country’s GDP, and included $7 billion on infrastructure projects alone – $138 billion in today’s money.

Johnson’s speech, on the other hand, included £5 billion of spending which had previously been announced, and further billions for house spending which had previously been in the budget. In fact, the speech apparently slowed the period of spending for the house building to eight years rather than five.

So, Johnson’s New Deal announcement included nothing ‘new’ and the ‘deal’ was that it, if anything, slowed spending down rather than sped it up. Spending that could have been ready-to-go wasn’t, and so Johnson’s main achievement was in drawing the nation’s media into noticing he had nothing to say. That pattern of knowing how to break things apart and then being clueless when it comes to piecing them back together comes across even more clearly when looking at the civil service, and the dramatic departures of multiple figures at its top.

Last weekend, Michael Gove gave a speech almost any reforming minister of the last 20 years should have given: the civil service needs more science graduates, ministries should move power and senior jobs out of London, civil servants need to be able to pick up expertise instead of hopping around departments, government needs top-quality independent advice.

The Gove-Johnson-Cummings triumvirate, meanwhile, successfully forced out the shortest-serving cabinet secretary in recent history, after publicly valuing longer service. It appointed David Frost as National Security 
Advisor, making a part-time role out of the UK’s most senior crisis management position during a global pandemic and just a week after a suspected terrorist attack. When it comes to expertise, while Frost is an experienced diplomat, he
 has no formal national security experience.

The politicisation of the role also rips apart the UK’s delicate constitutional compromise on ministers, special advisors, and the civil service. Frost will not be a civil servant but will be in charge of them. He will be a special advisor and so nominally accountable through his minister, but will sit in the House of Lords while not being a minister.

Expertise is walking out of the door wherever you look: Sir Simon McDonald is departing from the Foreign Office just as the department begins a complex and controversial merger with DfID, and Number 10 is rumoured to have retroactively vetoed a previously-agreed extension to the term of Ministry of Justice permanent secretary Richard Heaton. Just months ago, the Home Office permanent secretary left after a series of run-ins with Priti Patel. He 
is now suing for constructive 

That leaves the government with the loss of four of its key official figures at a time of national and economic crisis, with little but grand promises and 
grand plans in their place. Cummings, Gove and Johnson have managed to seize power from the civil service in the most visible way possible. That removes their last excuse for whatever comes next – they have No.10, they have the Commons, and they have the top of the civil 

Government is built on thousands of careful, thoughtful, and often boring plans. We may soon learn the cost of putting it in the hands of those who prefer grandiose, extravagant ones.

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