Prime minister riddled with certainty (country riddled with doubt)

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Most reasonable people are occasionally riddled with doubt. Questioning what you believe, changing your mind, and never being over certain or over confident are actually very positive behaviours. Particularly if you are trying to make objective decisions about how best to run a country.

Boris Johnson seems riddled with certainty. He knows what the ‘good guys’ think and surrounds himself with those who share his views or lack the courage to challenge them. He only listens to advisers who tell him what he wants to hear. The consequences for the country are becoming clearer by the day.

The UK has the second highest death rate from coronavirus in the entire world. We have so far experienced 560 deaths per million of people diagnosed with the new virus. By contrast, Germany has 107 deaths, whilst South Korea has just five. That’s because those countries have better local test and trace systems and took action earlier.

Our prime minister took too little action too late He let the Cheltenham races go ahead and left it to the Premier League to call off their own football matches because he lacked the courage to act. His government boasted that it had enabled 1,500,000 Brits to return from abroad during lockdown, but not a single one of them was required to take any test or place themselves in quarantine.

We were told with absolute certainty that face masks were pointless – then later asked to wear them. We were told we’d shortly have the best test and trace system in the world operating – we still don’t have anything actually working effectively. We were informed that it was safe for the elderly to return untested to care homes – but they took the infection with them and it killed thousands.

Now the government is confidently ploughing ahead with too much re-opening too soon, in the hope that it will rescue the economy. Internationally, the virus is infecting more people than ever before. Yet Johnson’s government is encouraging us to take foreign holidays and visit the local pub. It wants us to get our unruly hair professionally cut. It is telling us that businesses must be allowed to get back to normal.

We are not in a normal situation. It doesn’t help businesses one bit to encourage them to open before the pandemic is under control. Opening costs money. If any of the businesses that open up are later forced to close again it will do much more economic damage than waiting an extra couple of weeks until infection rates are near zero. Like they did in Scotland. There were 165 deaths in a single day in the UK on Friday 26 June, which is way higher than the number when we entered lockdown. Yet the pubs are being told to open for the first time in weeks on a Saturday night. In the US, an early easing of controls has led to serious fresh outbreaks in places like Texas. There is no reason to expect that the same will not happen here.

The government’s economic recovery ‘strategy’ is itself a curious one. Johnson has announced major interventions into the economy that will be funded by extra government debt. This is in direct contravention of the policies of his party for the past forty years. Margaret Thatcher told the country at every opportunity that was is dangerous for the state to try to prop up failing industries or to think that it is better than the private sector at picking winners. Yet Johnson has given money to airline companies that have no prospect of returning to their previous size. He is confident he can return fossilised industries to economic health.

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George Osborne and Philip Hammond repeatedly told us that there is no such thing as a free or magic money tree. Yet Johnson’s government is about to borrow billions and spend big. Some of that money will be spent on new schools and colleges, better hospitals and small heavily publicised green infrastructure projects. All very welcome. Much of it will be wasted on new roads and on keeping fuel duty low. Johnson is confident that he can fund a full recovery and is calling it a ‘new deal’. Those of us who still retain the capacity for doubt, fear the consequences of letting him build up massive amounts of new debt months before the country crashes out of the EU for real. What we have is the same ‘old deal’ rehashed; fossilised thinking from a blinkered prime minister.

We must, of course, expect Johnson to spend a lot of time talking about his determination to invest in a greener future and more advanced agricultural practices. But when Johnson talks it is always wise to check what the money is actually spent on, not what the words say. The real money will go to the people who help fund his political party like large building firms, and on set-piece nationally visible vanity projects. Little will go on local green initiatives that might actually work.

Johnson arranged well in advance for it to be leaked that his key note speech on economic revival carries the title ‘build, build, build’ and that pesky planning laws will be swept out of the way. Which means that he intends to progressively dump effective local democratic controls over planning decisions and making it easier for builders to put up what they want where they choose.

The inner cities of Britain are crying out for investment to revive their housing stock and transform their collapsing high streets. That takes targeted state and local government intervention with serious new money going to local governments to let them build council houses, retrofit homes with heat exchange units and solar panels to cut energy bills, and properly invest in changing disused shops and offices into attractive town centre flats. You don’t let local people control the transformation of their neglected communities by scrapping local planning controls.

We need stronger local government intervention driving forward local regeneration projects that are understood and welcomed by people who live in the local community they have the knowledge and incentive to transform. What we are about to get instead is Dominic Cummings overriding local wishes and rewarding the housing developers, who donated a lot of money to the Conservative Party campaign funds, with policy changes that suit their pockets but risk harming local communities.

If you are prepared to place your hopes for economic recovery on the tender mercies of cynical property developers then feel free to place your full confidence in the policies of Boris Johnson’s government. It you retain any sort of capacity for independent critical thought then prepare for a long hard fight against arrogance. Johnson is quite certain that he has the right plan for the future. The rest of us are entitled to be riddled with doubt.

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