Complicated challenges and difficult choices await a prime minister who has set out an agenda which is striking in its ambition, writes Bronwen Maddox.
The sense of clarity that descended on UK politics with the general election result may be illusory. The government’s agenda is far more radical and ambitious than its deliberately minimal manifesto set out. On top of the stated policies ('Get Brexit Done' is just one) and the investment now pledged across the north and Midlands, there is the declaration of revolution in Whitehall from Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s special adviser.
We welcome the ambition, the sense of urgency, the recognition of the country’s worst and most enduring problems, and the aim of reforming the ways in which government itself badly needs to change.
But as is all but inevitable with a new government, the analysis of problems is more sure-footed than the prescription of solutions. The central question about the Cummings agenda is whether he is prescribing ways of speeding up what government can achieve in a short time – or has added bureaucratic upheaval to the burden.
The prime minister’s settled choice of Cabinet members will not be clear until after the UK leaves the European Union on 31 January. His choice will go a long way to show the character of the government he intends to run, as will any merging of Whitehall departments. This could be a helpful step, particularly in the case of Brexit departments, but we have warned of the energy and money that can be eaten up by Whitehall restructuring.
Cummings’s aims for a revolution in central government have emerged only since the election, mainly through his own writing. His call for “misfits and weirdos” to apply to work with the new government attracted the attention no doubt intended. That has distracted, though, from the accuracy of his analysis, particularly about the often poor policy advice given to ministers by the civil service. These are not new problems, and we have written extensively about the reasons why Whitehall often does not develop enduring expertise. The complaint about the rate of turnover of staff within the civil service – many staying in post for little more than a year – is right on target.
It is also right to point to the lack of clear responsibility and accountability of ministers and officials, and to a culture which does not always support rapid change.
There is a possible contradiction, too, between Cummings’s call for more civil servants to be held accountable and to be fired when they have performed badly, and for civil servants to be less risk averse. The danger is to caricature civil servants and ignore the features of the system that incentivise them to behave as they do. It is unclear whether Cummings envisages many more political appointments throughout the civil service, a step that could threaten its impartiality.
We should presume now that his ideas have Boris Johnson’s support, not least as they seem to open the route to rapid change. But it would be easy for these plans to cost, rather than save, time. It will matter which minister Johnson appoints to oversee these changes, and whether he really makes reforming the system a priority.
Johnson’s election triumph means UK will leave the European Union on 31 January. What follows then will be the first big test of his skills. The short time frame he has allowed – to secure a deal by the end of the year – allows only for a bare bones trade deal, if that. He will want to avoid another cliff edge, given the uncertainty that injects into national life, yet may also be tempted to play that card in negotiations with the EU.
Johnson’s willingness to walk away from those talks may be tempered by the risk to the north and Midlands, given the manufacturing located there. His concern should also be about the strain that failure to strike a trade deal would have on the Union of the UK. It would exacerbate the tensions that Brexit has caused in Remain-voting Northern Ireland and Scotland. And 31 December, if there is no agreed extension to talks, will be the point when relations with the EU change for many businesses and individuals, testing the government’s preparations.
Inevitably, Brexit will be how Johnson is first judged. He will either become free to focus on the rest of his agenda or it will dominate his premiership.
On winning seats that had not voted Conservative since the 1930s, Johnson acknowledged that those votes were “on loan”. He now aims to reduce the gulf between a glittering metropolitan Britain and a “left behind” provincial one.
The declaration that the new government would rip up the rules of the Treasury’s Green Book won widespread – though not universal – acclaim. The aim is right – and so is the caution. The rules tended to recommend continuing investment in the southeast as delivering more value for money for the country overall. However, as we have written, despite the Green Book, actual investment decisions have often been shaped by political considerations.
There should be concerns about jettisoning the principle that investment should be for the national good, even if the method of calculation is revised. Inevitably, there is a temptation to spend money in places that might produce votes. And while the notion of a white elephant is absent from party manifestos, there are plenty of examples littered around the country. How to invest public money involves genuinely complicated questions – how to value better road links over, say, more pupils getting higher grades at GCSE. We would like to see a thoughtful re-examination of the rules including on how devolved governments spend money – but one that still recognises the importance of having rules.
Johnson’s pledges to spend more on the NHS and to sort out social care will attract much scrutiny. For years now, health costs have been rising at about twice the rate of economic growth. The consequence is obvious: other public services are pared back, taxes go up, or debt rises.
But other areas also require investment. The justice system in particular has become frayed under these pressures, and that warrants more attention than the manifesto showed.
If there is one test of whether this government can act quickly, it may be how it treats Universal Credit. The scheme is arguably too advanced to be unravelled as Labour vowed to do in its manifesto, but the rollout and the time people spend without access to any benefits need urgently to be reviewed. This government’s first budget will give the first insight into Johnson and his chancellor’s planned approach.
The manifesto on which Johnson won the election, and the pledges since then, underline how far he and his party have travelled since David Cameron – and not just over Brexit. Johnson’s pledges to pour money into public services and investment show the extent to which he has departed from the fiscal conservatism of the Cameron era, while his policies on crime and immigration will reveal whether he has also continued Theresa May’s shift away from Cameron’s social liberalism.
He and his advisers are emphatically right to focus on the entire UK and the places that have felt justifiably left behind since the financial crisis. They are right, too, about the failings of policy and culture that have led to some of these problems.
Brexit will be the achievement on which Johnson will first be judged, but his party’s careful manifesto gave few clues about an agenda which is striking in its ambition. The question above all is how much of this they can do, whether they can set priorities as the pressure on time grows, or whether the scale of the task they have set themselves, together with the uncertainties of Brexit, leads them to fall short.