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Boris Johnson's plan to rebuild the economy might actually be even more inadequate than he is

The pre-briefed Franklin D Roosevelt comparisons never appeared in the end. You can no longer even believe what the prime minister hasn’t said

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Tuesday 30 June 2020 17:20 BST
Boris Johnson suggests we should also clap for bankers

Actual real-life human beings draw large taxpayer-funded salaries to think hard about what should appear directly behind prime ministers when they give televised speeches.

So we are well within our rights to assume that the piece of plywood showing the backside of a standard mixer tap installation in a technical college in Dudley that formed the backdrop to Boris Johnson’s launch of the post-Covid economic recovery plan was no mistake.

The advantage of concealing the front-facing portion of a tap, leaving only its plumbing on display, is that you can stand there and tell everyone you’ve turned it on when you absolutely haven’t.

Then again, perhaps it was wheeled in at the last minute. Maybe there had been a window there, with views out over the midlands, that had had to be hurriedly concealed.

Otherwise, it would have been even clearer to see that this really was the prime minister standing there, launching his post-Covid plan, slap bang in the middle of the bit of the country that was being locked down again for not being quite post-covidy enough.

There are, of course, no known limits to auto-irony anymore. But think for a moment of the life of a producer on a 24-hour news channel, having to decide at which point to cut from Johnson launching his post-Covid plan, to the mayor of a town 50 miles away, locking down his city because of a dangerous resurgence of a disease that the prime minister is pretending has gone away right there on the other screen.

Still, at least it makes the already stupendously obvious even more basic to understand. That they are just going through the motions, moving through the gears, that reality is a feed you don’t really need to cut to if you don’t feel like it.

Here was Johnson his lockdown hair now so out of control that he may even be considering using himself to fail to clean up the floor of a flooded opticians launching his “new deal”.

He is sometimes described as a lucky politician and the description is surely accurate, because a once in a 100-year public health and economic crisis has come along, and it turns out that the way to get over it was all there in the Tory manifesto six months ago.

In the end, Johnson stopped short of comparing himself to Franklin D Roosevelt. The extracts that had been sent out to the newspapers the night before did not appear. That you can no longer even believe what he hasn’t said is certainly an innovation.

Perhaps it was uncharacteristic modesty. After all, some people still take seriously the comparison between Johnson and Churchill, even though the only person to have made it seriously is Johnson himself, whose narcissism is so severe he could not get to the end of his Churchill biography without making it about himself.

Perhaps he realised that gently tweaking your election stump speech as the way out of the gravest global crisis in decades fell somewhat beneath the FDR comparison.

Perhaps it's because FDR rebuilt America by taking on the might of the Wall Street financiers like Rockefeller and JP Morgan, and in words borrowed by Jeremy Corbyn last year, told the people that he “invited their hatred”. When Johnson had a look at the bit in his speech where he would be telling the country to “clap for bankers”, he probably decided it just wouldn’t work.

Or perhaps he realised that once he’d done Churchill and Roosevelt, there is only one of the Big Three left, and when you’ve turned your country’s back on the world and are busy purging your enemies in the bureaucracy, now’s not the time to invite people to make the obvious comparisons.

In recent years, and for no apparent reason, Johnson has promised a bridge to Ireland and a bridge to France. But his way out of the pandemic is – here goes – £5bn worth of spending on infrastructure and a shake-up of building planning regulations.

£1.5bn of that £5bn, by the way, is to spend on schools, which is itself £5.5bn short of the sum the National Audit Office has said would be needed. But who knows, maybe £1.5bn will cover it, now that no one, least of all the prime minister, has a clue about how to get pupils back into them.

Theresa May attacks Gove and Johnson for appointing Brexiteer as key adviser

If really big, really bold ideas are required, perhaps Johnson might challenge someone to construct a bridge between what his government says and what it actually does. Obviously, the doomsters and the gloomsters will say it cannot be done, that such a feat of engineering lies outside the boundaries of the fundamental forces of physics. And they will, of course, be right.

Fortunately for said TV news producer, Johnson was done in time for them to cut to the House of Commons, where Theresa May pointed out to Michael Gove that on Saturday he had stood up, in public, and in a speech setting the pretext for him to smash up the civil service said the following words: “We must be able to promote those with proven expertise.” And then, 24 hours later, they forced out the national security advisor and replaced him with one of their mates, with no expertise in the area at all.

It is hard to choose which is worse, in the current times. Saying one thing knowing your intention is to do the exact opposite, an activity traditionally abbreviated to “lying”. Or saying something and then doing nothing. It is hard to say that either came as unexpected.

As it happens, while Johnson spoke, the rolling news captions concealed the spot where the exhaust pipe would have been fitted. Either that, or the effluent had been diverted directly into the prime minister, to be flushed out when he opened his mouth.

Still, the voters chose to plumb their hopes and dreams into this, the greatest political wastewater system ever constructed. No one can say they weren’t warned. Whatever you flush down a toilet, it all ends up in the same place.

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