What was the single most important aim of Boris Johnson’s self-described “Rooseveltian” speech?
Given the extraordinary shopping list of promises today, from sorting social care, to protecting the environment, to better scientific research, to levelling up, to better public services – delivery of which require exceptional focus from the government – there may be a danger that four different goals in one speech could end up muddying the waters.
The first aim is the most urgent. Cabinet ministers worry that there could be up to three million unemployed within weeks after the “vertiginous” economic collapse from COVID-19.
So today needed to be about a massive job creation scheme, without following Labour’s prescription of a more “flexible furlough” scheme to throw a protective ring around employment in areas like hospitality, decimated for many more months to come.
But does the speech do enough to encourage the creation of new private sector jobs, which would ultimately be the biggest employers in any recovery, rather than relying on schemes in the public sector and those reliant on government guarantees?
“Wait and see what Rishi [Sunak, the chancellor] has to say”, was the closest Mr Johnson came to answering accusations that he was more Gordon Brown than Margaret Thatcher.
The second aim of today’s speech is to link the prospect of growing unemployment to his plans to fund and facilitate a large number of infrastructure projects sprinkled like confetti around the country – new school, roads, hospital, the building of which will in theory provide jobs for some of the newly unemployed.
The prime minister’s podium was emblazoned with “build build build” – but will the new jobs these building projects create match the skill sets of the newly unemployed?
According to the Resolution Foundation, women are more likely than men to be working in sectors that have had to shut down during the pandemic.
The need for ongoing social distancing has done particularly harm to the hospitality, leisure and retail sectors, where many women work in customer-facing positions.
So is there a package to rejuvenate the services sector, or are they too heading to the building site?
The sight of a Tory prime minister endorsing a massive programme that will see millions of people switching industries if they want work is quite striking.
The third, unspoken, priority is to construct a package that helps win the next election: being seen to fulfil the election manifesto with a plan to “double down on levelling up” and offer payback to those constituencies that voted Tory for the first time in December.
Rarely do political goals and economic goals overlap perfectly. Notably in this speech, he refused to repeat today the manifesto promises that his government would not increase income tax, national insurance and VAT, saying instead that he wanted the tax burden to be reasonable, pushing them off as decisions for the chancellor.
In other areas, he appeared to stick to pre-coronavirus plans.
Back in February, most of the package outlined today was already on the government to do list for roll out if coronavirus had never existed: is it all still the right set of priorities?
Mr Johnson said today’s spending package was only possible because of prudent Tory management of the economy.
Yet in April and May 2019, the government borrowed £16.7bn while in the same two months this year, the government borrowed £103.7bn, with government debt now worth more than the entire British economy.
Is this still a valid assessment?
Has the world changed, or hasn’t it?
The fourth aim of the speech is to provide new dividing lines with Keir Starmer’s rejuvenated Labour party.
The money may not match the proportions by of the 32nd US president, but Number 10 will be more keen on a different comparison: pushing Labour on the question of “which part of this spending do you oppose?”.
The Tories are still well ahead of Labour in polling when it comes to the management of the economy. The point of today’s plan is to keep it that way.
However, the package will need to work in practice rather than just in theory and as dispatch box rhetoric to ensure this.