Who would have thought it? This time last year, the Conservative Party was just above 20 per cent in the polls, the Liberal Democrats were riding high, and the prospect of a large Conservative majority and ending the Brexit civil war looked more remote than ever.
Since Boris Johnson has taken over as Conservative leader and prime minister, he has crushed the opposition with an 80 seat majority, banished Jeremy Corbyn to his allotment, and got a Brexit deal through the Commons with a united Conservative Party. Any objective observer must accept that Boris Johnson’s political achievements have been extremely significant.
However, the tough bit of the parliament is yet to come. The prime minister, and the Conservative Party as a whole, needs to do three immensely difficult and interrelated things in domestic policy over the next year; the failure of any one of which would be very serious, and over which the government has limited control.
The first relates to Covid-19. Much commentary has been around whether or not there will be a “second spike” in coronavirus cases. There does appear to be evidence from around the world that the virus tends to spread more frequently indoors and in cold weather. Therefore, on the parliamentary benches and in government, there is still understandable caution about the whole situation, and nobody is taking the current low levels of infection for granted.
Although unremarked by much of the media, the government’s efforts to date to tackle Covid-19 have been rather impressive. Britain is now carrying out more tests per day (circa 200,000) than any European country, including Germany. Even with such high testing rates, Britain now has fewer Covid-19 cases than many European countries – we are reporting 9.6 cases per million compared to the EU average of 12.5 cases per million.
However, in the event that the pandemic runs out of control in the autumn or winter, there is a real danger that this good work gets overlooked or ignored by the public, with deleterious economic effects not to mention the lost lives that may result. Controlling and managing the virus is, and has to be, the government’s number one priority.
Yet, as we all appreciate, this is a new virus that we still do not know a great deal about. Unexpected things can happen, and any large increase in cases would present the government with a huge problem.
The second relates to the economy. As a Conservative MP, I have seen close up and at hand how impressive the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is to deal with. He has done pretty much everything right so far on the UK’s economic response, and it has been extraordinary watching the shadow chancellor and leader of the opposition struggle to find any way to criticise his proposals when he has put them forward in the House of Commons.
However, despite all of his efforts, we are now about to enter into an incredibly difficult period. The public finances are in an appalling state. We are likely to see a period of prolonged unemployment, business failures of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and large corporates alike, and a forced restructuring of the economy (especially the future of cities and the high street) which could see more blue collar jobs replaced by automation and white collar jobs offshored overseas as more and more office-based work is done remotely.
All of this will be worsened if Covid-19 strengthens its grip over the coming months. Winter is coming. This would be a formidable challenge to any chancellor at any time in the last 100 years, but I know that Rishi Sunak is up to the task.
The final challenge is how the government puts meat onto the bones of our “levelling up” agenda. Whenever Conservative MPs discuss policies, in private or in public, we are all highly conscious that delivering on this agenda is the way in which we will be judged by the electorate in four years’s time.
The agenda has many facets, ranging from improving education, turbocharging social mobility, strengthening social infrastructure and improving the lot of forgotten communities all across the country. Yet one major aspect to attract a lot of attention is our commitment to delivering new, economically valuable infrastructure. We have allocated huge amounts of new capital spending. Yet the really difficult thing is to ensure that these projects actually get delivered quickly, and in a way that positively transforms lives, communities and economic opportunities. After the fanfare of all the announcements, the public is going to need to see progress being made.
Having painted rather a bleak picture so far, I believe the future on all three aspects is bright. On the Covid-19 virus itself, the news coming out of the vaccine work at Oxford University is genuinely exciting, and there is a reasonable chance that a vaccine is approved at some point in the next six months. That would not only be a game changer for the health and wellbeing of the UK, it would be a huge economic and emotional boost for the UK as a whole – something to help bring the Union together, and would show the world (and any domestic doubters) that the UK still can be a leader in the world. The government’s decision to directly fund our top scientists in their endeavour to help them act quickly is looking better and better by the day.
On the economy I believe there is the opportunity for many bold actions that will not just deal with the current problems but change the UK’s economic long-term growth potential. In recent work that I did on economic proposals to kickstart our economy, entitled “Unlock Britain”, I proposed the establishment of a government-sponsored fund to provide equity to heavily indebted SMEs who will find themselves weighed down by debt after this crisis recedes.
Major figures like Sir Adrian Montague, working with City UK and EY’s head of financial services Omar Ali have proposed similar ideas, as has Lord O’Neill, architect of the Northern Powerhouse and former Treasury minister. If the Treasury were to propose some form of this scheme, I believe it would transform the nature of the UK economy and provide an answer to our long running problem of SMEs not having enough equity and acquiring too much debt.
Another economic opportunity is for the Treasury to continue to grasp the need for us to ensure that we rebuild our economy in a self-consciously green way, to benefit the environment for future generations. Everything should be on the table for consideration, from outlawing old-fashioned boilers, to putting more investment in hydrogen technology. Done correctly by providing the right incentives for innovators and the private sector, we can create thousands of green jobs that can bring opportunities in the midst of a restructured labour market.
On “levelling up” the government needs to be true to its instincts on planning reform and on clearing the obstacles to fast infrastructure delivery, by reforming the Development Consent Order process and by strengthening and simplifying local government and devolving power to mayors and regions. All of this will enable our regions to ensure that they level up in the way appropriate to them, in their areas and for their people.
The prime minister has confounded many doubters over the past year, when many did not believe there was a way through the morass. There was. Covid-19 has been a health, economic and political tsunami. The prime minister will need all his guile and leadership skills to guide the country over the waves until calmer waters return.
Bim Afolami is the Conservative Party MP for Hitchin and Harpenden
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