How our next prime minister has already promised the earth and more

PUBLISHED: 11:00 04 July 2019 | UPDATED: 16:05 04 July 2019

Favourite to become the Conservative party leader Boris Johnson. Picture: Dylan Martinez/PA Wire/PA Images

Favourite to become the Conservative party leader Boris Johnson. Picture: Dylan Martinez/PA Wire/PA Images

PA Wire/PA Images

MICHAEL WHITE discusses some of the many policies promised by the main candidates to become the next prime minister.

That experiment which brings dogs on to university campuses to calm over-anxious students may soon have to be the extended to the rest of us if the two candidates left in the contest for the Conservative party leadership ("Winner gets free premiership") go on bidding up their rhetoric on a "do or die" Halloween Brexit and a "shop until you drop" approach to the public finances.

With just four weeks of campaigning left it ought to be good news that Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are finally buckling down to the nuts and bolts of policy-making and - so friendly newspapers report - setting up transition teams to prepare for the harsh realities of life in No.10.

Candidate Johnson's rackety private life may be great clickbait, but surely policy matters even more than a juicy scandal which does no more than further highlight flaws in the frontrunner's volatile personality.

But no, not when their policy plans turn out to be even more rackety than a noisy bust-up in Camberwell. Not when Candidate Hunt, the designated grown-up in the contest, decides to enter a bidding war to see who can spend most money we won't have to spend - whoops, I mean borrow. Not if their Brexit brinkmanship is put to the no-deal test by an EU27, which may still be in leadership turmoil of its own on October 31. The self-styled World King says that's a "million to one" risk. But everyone knows by now that the WK says whatever he thinks will please a passing audience unless they're a wife or girlfriend. That's no substitute for "hard graft and attention to detail," says Head Boy Hunt.

It's like watching a slow-motion CCTV replay of a car crash, as we did recently when a Polish builder in a hurry hit our car. He was apologetic, my wife wasn't hurt, the accident was picked up on camera so the insurance company wrote the car off and paid up. The car was old and (on Gordon Brown's advice) had a diesel engine. So it was a good outcome. Try as I may - and I do try - to imagine a net-positive outcome from the Brexit stand-off, short-term or long, I can't see more than a car crash, hopefully at low speed, not over a pharmaceutical cliff. It will be one in which innocent bystanders are the chief casualties: car workers in Sunderland, those sheep farmers in Mid Wales, benefit claimants in Devon, where the foreign secretary takes cream tea.

This week's unfolding tragedy in Hong Kong shows how powerless people can feel when faced with events beyond their ability to influence, let alone control. We did not need the veteran democracy campaigner Martin Lee on the BBC - over breakfast in the city he once compared Hong Kong and mainland China to the toast crumb and my side plate - warning the world that Beijing has been letting more reckless protesters (Hong Kong Momentum, anyone?) run amok in order to justify the inevitable crackdown.

Lee also reminded British listeners that we also have a duty to uphold the 'one country, two systems' agreement we reached before the 1997 handover. But the Chinese foreign ministry had already told London to look away. Not that it will need much encouragement to do more than go through the motions. Post-Brexit 'sovereignty' will require a great deal more kowtowing to potential trade partners than we're accustomed to. In pursuit of a conflated trade 'win' Donald Trump turned out not to mean those blood-curdling threats posed by Huawei 5G components. But, hey, he may change his mind again. "Jump, Boris." "How high, Mr President, sir?"

Not for the first time Nigel Farage, unelected leader of the no-rules Brexit Party, seems to be setting the pace in the profligacy stakes, as in much else. After Boris and Jeremy halfheartedly spent Phil Hammond's Brexit war chest several times over last week, Farage used his party rally in Birmingham on Sunday to start talking telephone numbers: £200 billion to be conjured up from behind Phil and Jean-Claude Juncker's sofas to be spent on projects outside London and the south east.

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Did you miss it? The Farage package got surprisingly little attention in the mainstream media. It promised faster and free broadband connections for every home - a real grievance in many parts of the country - as well as on buses and trains. It promised to rebuild the public transport infrastructure everywhere except you-know-where and to remove business rates from new high street businesses except in you-know-where. Interest on student loans would be cancelled, coastal communities revived and fishing policy taken back under control.

Where will the money come from? By scrapping HS2 which Brexit accountants now cost at £100 billion; by not paying that £39 billion divorce bill to the EU; and by scrapping - or is it only halving? - the £14 billion foreign aid budget. So it's funny money really, for reasons TNE readers don't need explaining. But Farage's back-of-envelope wish list is quite shrewdly expressed and appealing to a well-founded belief that the UK economy is tilted too far towards London and the south east, not all of it on BBC presenters' salaries. The imbalance is real, but it is an inevitable consequence of this fact that London ran a £34.3 billion tax surplus in 2017-18 and the south east £20.4 billion. Interestingly eastern England - a Brexit stronghold - was the only other UK region to do so (£5.9 billion). The rest were in deficit.

So spreading prosperity and productivity much wider - the goal of every government since 1945 - is both a necessary and delicate challenge if the process of plucking London's golden goose were to stop it laying so many eggs. So fresh thinking is always good. Myself, I've come round to the view that infrastructure improvements across the Northern Powerhouse counties from Liverpool to Hull (HS3) are a better priority than HS2, from London to Brum. OK, so has World King Boris too, that doesn't mean it's wrong. But infrastructure alone isn't enough. With economic vision and political drive, Greater Manchester's myriad partnerships have been showing what can be done for years - as Brummies know to their cost. In a tech-driven world smart cities can thrive almost anywhere. Their cut-off hinterlands are the problem.

So it's good to feel a little more focussed energy coming from the candidates. On Monday, Hunt's bullet point plan for a no-deal emergency Brexit - just in case, you understand - is something Team May should have published long ago, probably before triggering Article 50. But it requires several leaps of faith, including a belief that his multi-party negotiating squad can assemble a viable deal for parliament and Brussels by late September or give up. Getting Whitehall to cancel its August holidays is one thing, getting Brussels to do the same, quite another. I think they'll sweat us.

The way forward we don't need, Boris, is Trump's chaotic White House, long on promises, short on achievement, "all hat and no cattle", as they say in Texas. The US jobs market is still perky. But when the president boasts that fashion labels created by First Daughter Ivanka (the one butting in on G20 leaders' private chats) have created "millions of jobs" he really means a few hundred, mostly in China. His promises to restore America's neglected heartland infrastructure - shockingly bad in many places - haven't got anywhere either. Of course, it's "Congress's fault" - populist Trump's blame-shifting version of the "Remainers' fault" cry, when Brexit hardliners voted down Theresa May's deal. Brace yourself for "it's Brussels' fault" if brinkmanship takes us over those White Cliffs on Halloween.

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Johnson and Hunt have already voiced some of Farage's ideas, Hunt on broadband and student debt, Johnson on HS2. Their pledges sound more precise and calculated, but aren't really. The sober Institute For Fiscal Studies generously costs Hunt's promises at £29 billion, Johnson's at £25 billion if we don't include the pro-Remain apostate Matt Hancock's cheery pledge to love-bomb public sector workers with "a pay rise, not a tax rise". Didn't that bloke used to work for George 'Public Sector Austerity' Osborne? He did. A 1% rise on their pay bill costs around £1.8 billion. Freezing it for much of the decade since the economy emerged gingerly from the bankers' recession - exactly 10 years ago - has helped get down the debt and deficit. But brutally so. We weren't "all in it together".

Entrepreneur Hunt explains that Britain spent £1 trillion bailing out the banks (Oh, no we didn't), so why not spend £6 billion protecting vulnerable farming and fishing from the impact of a no-deal Brexit? Because they're only 1% of the economy, foreign secretary, and there will be more pressing claimants on the cash, I mean borrowing.

It's now common ground that there would have to be a short-term stimulus to the economy, a No-Deal Budget to spend more and cut interest rates, to soften the impact of a no-deal car crash. That's why soon-to-be-sacked chancellor, Philip Hammond, is holding £25 billion worth of "fiscal firepower" in reserve.

No wonder Hammond is jumping up and down, he has nothing to lose but his headroom. The two finalists for May's hollow crown are already scaling back some of their wilder, costlier pledges to mere "aims", but not much. And ex-investment banker, Sajid Javid, who wants to cut top tax rates for meritocrats like himself and his clever brothers, has been promised Hammond's job. Cheer up, Bozzie Bear may have promised No.11 to lots of MPs - and to Ivanka Trump.

No surprise then that sterling was edging down against the euro and US dollar again this week. GDP growth has been negative for two months and will be lucky to be 0% for the three months of Q2. Growth has averaged a modest 1.9% pa since the crash, compared with 2.8% from 1992-2008. Consumer spending has tailed off, business is fearful of what even the cheerleading Sunday Telegraph calls "the Boris Blast". Jaguar Land Rover is investing in UK electric car making in Birmingham - excellent - but car output is down 21% year on year overall. As their hero's tryst with reality draws closer, the growing claque of Boris boosters and jobseekers are clutching at plastic straws.

The damage done by loose talk to fiscal credibility is not purely economic or market-facing. Politically it becomes much harder to denounce Labour plans to tax the rich (who don't have to put up with it) and the middle classes (who do) or John McDonnell's declared intention to spend and borrow on a grand scale. As with the above, some of the ideas emerging from shadow ministers are worth considering. But 'naïve Keynesianism', the belief that extra spending pays for itself, is as disingenuous as Thatcherite Laffer Curve boosters' claim that tax cuts for the rich do the same. Nicky Morgan MP, who doesn't have much to lose either, says the Tory pair are making Labour look like "fiscal moderates".

Ah, Labour. Wouldn't it be grand if it was doing the job that official oppositions are paid to do (doesn't the leader of the opposition get a government bike and driver?) and holding ministers to account by exposing the GATT XXIV hard Brexit option as a delusion on every news bulletin? Instead it is rudderless, divided over Brexit strategy - "we're 100% tactics," an insider confessed this week. At least Brexit is a genuine north-south dilemma. But Labour is also divided over anti-Semitism and much unresolved dithering elsewhere.

Even Corbyn loyalists are restless. So they fell with gratitude on an easy means of postponing hard choices for another week. When the Times reported on Saturday that senior civil servants - now routinely briefing Jeremy Corbyn on policy - are concerned that he is "too frail and losing his memory" to cope with the premiership there was predictable outrage. It conveniently ignored that awkward fact that shadow ministers shared those concerns with the Times. They also complain about the culture of "bullying and intimidation" by the leader's inner circle, the 'Four Ms' - Seumas Milne, Karie Murphy, Andrew Murray and Len McCluskey. It's hardly a secret. Even I have had first-hand accounts. Not so much past Peak Glastonbury as never was.

To be fair, the rival 'Three Ms' - Merkel, Macron and May - were looking pretty shaky in their different ways at the G20 summit in Japan, where the US president offended everyone except the tyrants. But Labour is too self-absorbed to notice much of that. Its internal scandal is that people like McCluskey must know better than most that Corbyn hasn't been up to the job, temperamentally or intellectually, since day one and isn't getting any sharper. Instead Len says he's "fit as a fiddle". With due respect to the Unite leader's musical expertise, being fit to ride a bike through London traffic at 70 doesn't make you fit to be PM. Take my word for it, I cycle too.

But it suits the leader's "familial clique" (copyright ex-MP Bridget Prentice) to keep Islington's El Cid propped up on his bike until they can find a plausible alternative whom they can also control. One touted option, Laura Pidcock MP, sounds as incredible defending Jezza's brain as the Telegraph's Allison Pearson does defending Boris's courtship style or Matt Hancock his fiscal promiscuity. But as with so many tragedies, events have a habit of overwhelming the protagonists and sweeping them away.

In that detailed plan for a 'call your bluff' hard Brexit which Candidate Hunt - performing with new confidence and growing public approval, polls note - set out on Monday, he warned Team Johnson not to shelter behind GATT XXIV fantasies or a no-deal transition period which won't exist. But he also warned Dominic Grieve and allies - he won't need many - against voting with all the other parties except the DUP to block a no-deal in parliament. He does so as he decries Johnson's half-threat to prorogue and sidestep parliament amid flabby waffle about Charles I's tactics in 1629. Cake and eat it stuff.

Boris Refusnik, David Gauke, has survived a deselection coup by Faragiste entryists. Grieve and Phillip Lee were not so lucky. If their view of the national interest tells them to vote against a no-deal, for a second referendum or even for a general election, who or what is to stop them? When party purists demand unity of belief among their MPs (or cabinet ministers), as Labour purists do too, they harm themselves and their party. That takes us back to Farage, who "doesn't care about anything except himself" as a veteran pro-Brexit Tory MP assured me this week.

Refusing to be "put back in his box" by blustering Boris, self-styled Brexit Botham Farage is instead demanding that the Tories give his party a clear run at 30 or so vulnerable Brexit-voting Labour seats in the Midlands and north, even in Boris-phobic Scotland. Unlike much phoney commentary, there is plenty of precedent for pacts.

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Churchill gave one to the ailing Liberals as recently as 1951. Johnson says no now. But forced into a highly-uncertain autumn election, or even tempted unforced, that would be a Faustian bargain the cowardly WK might relish: his very own backstop.

That could be lethal to Labour's hopes, all that fence-sitting for nothing, a mercy killing for Jezza instead. Meanwhile - irony alert - in Strasbourg we have suffered the shame of 27 Brexit MEPs, campaigning on a 'save democracy' platform and elected to the European parliament, turning their backs on Schiller and Beethoven's great poem of freedom, the Ode to Joy, on the specious grounds that it is the anthem of the "undemocratic" EU. Remind us again, what is the constitution of the Brexit Party apart from 'Nigel says'? And who democratically elected him?

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