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The writer, a former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, is a Harvard senior fellow
Are we nearing the point in the Brexit revolution when it will start to devour its own children? Robespierre and Trotsky didn’t survive the revolutions they ignited. While Boris Johnson’s deft speech was cheered to the rafters at his party conference, his shrugging off of problems that are a failure of “delivery” — his new slogan — may come back to haunt him.
This week I joined a dismal queue at a petrol station where tempers were fraying. Two van drivers, desperate to get to work, screamed at a woman who sauntered into the shop, leaving her Range Rover blocking the pump. In our Disunited Kingdom, builders and care workers get up at 4am to find diesel, farmers kill pigs for lack of butchers and broccoli and raspberries rot in the fields. But the man who in his childhood reportedly dreamt of being “world king” brushes aside worker shortages as a sign of “a robust economy” that will raise wages.
I never underestimate Johnson’s ability to turn a crisis to his advantage, but Number 10 is more rattled than it appears. Having failed to heed industry warnings of supply chain turmoil, it panicked and issued temporary visas for truck drivers. Now it is turning on its own foot soldiers, the revolutionaries who apparently haven’t been revolutionary enough. Farmers, a majority of whom voted to leave the EU, are told that the slaughter of up to 120,000 pigs is just a necessary “adjustment”, part of the post-Brexit transition. Simon Wolfson, the Brexiter CEO of Next plc and a Tory donor, is rubbished by the prime minister as wanting “uncontrolled immigration”, after he proposed a perfectly sensible system of limited visas.
The mild-mannered Lord Wolfson seems an odd target. For pointing out that rotting veg and culled pigs make us poorer not richer, and that inflation could wipe out wage rises, he was treated as a heretic. The Brexit dogma must be maintained, it seems, even if it becomes self-defeating. “The risk,” Lord Wolfson told me, “is they revert to the fixed-price, hunter-gatherer politics of the 1970s.” There is no fixed number of jobs in the country, he points out. More can be created if you have the people and ideas. But if you fix the number of people, to the extent that you end up producing fewer things and importing more, we all get poorer.
For Johnson to set his face against managed migration seems peculiar. His is not the first government frustrated at having to top up wages with tax credits while shareholders gain. Nor is his the first to want a high skill, high wage economy. But simply raising wages does not make the economy more productive. And upskilling people takes time, far longer than the 10 weeks to Christmas, when suppliers warn that some toys won’t be available and turkeys will come from Poland and France. But perhaps these economic realities are less important than the desire to draw a political dividing line by portraying Labour as the party of mass migration.
One of the Johnson government’s most perplexing aspects is its unpredictability. Even close observers on the inside find it hard to anticipate what he will do next. Much of the time it feels more like a hard-bitten campaign group than a government: turning on a dime, lashing out at critics, seeking headlines. When the chancellor makes thoughtful comments about the need to limit borrowing or curb inflation, he collides with agitprop boosterism. While the rest of us try to move on from Brexit and work together, the revolutionaries seek to keep the flame alive. But in doing so they are drawing the circle tighter and tighter, when they should be building a big tent. The Conservative government loathes big business, because the corporates backed Remain.
Far from listening, Johnson and his Jacobins double down on slogans and attack their critics when they feel besieged. This was how they won the 2016 referendum and the 2019 general election — and every new battle is seen through the prism of those victories. It’s why he kept the lamentable Gavin Williamson in his Cabinet for so long — he wouldn’t cave in to media pressure. In July, when he should have been heeding the warnings of the Road Haulage Association and business groups about the threat to the supply chain, he was drafting his “glad morning” conference speech. Now he is demanding higher wages and better living standards, without a convincing strategy. If this government really wants to raise wages and living standards, why is it raising National Insurance on workers and employers, while protecting rich pensioners?
The kindest explanation for the government’s lack of economic strategy is that neither Johnson nor Michael Gove, the chief architects of Brexit, expected to win the referendum. Gove thought that he was jeopardising his career, but stuck to his principles anyway. Johnson believed his stance, popular with the party faithful, would position him later to beat his rival George Osborne into Downing Street. But five years since the country voted to Leave, it is time to get to work on deregulating. It is time to put down the cudgels and start listening to the businesses that actually create jobs — like Richard Walker of Iceland, who was pro-Brexit but is happy to say that the driver shortages are “a self-inflicted consequence of leaving the EU”.
All revolutions create instability. Some Tories speak of Schumpeterian creative destruction, but if we are not careful it will just be destruction. Johnson’s use of the phrase “delivery” means it has tested well in focus groups. But if the public want evidence of competence, he would be wise to stop using business as a political football. If the turkeys and toys are sold out at Christmas, and the supermarket shelves have gaping holes, the word “delivery” could pursue him like a curse.
This article was first published at https://www.ft.com/content/282bebf6-6b2f-40f9-9fe5-390d9354e508