At the Guardian we try to be quite precise and consistent about the language and style we use and this afternoon a colleague had a good question for the political staff: this initiative that Boris Johnson announced, is it a capped-up New Deal, as in a fully worked out, thought-through policy initiative (like the Gordon Brown New Deal), or is it a looser, less formal, lower case new deal?
Put more bluntly, is it a plan, or just a slogan? It is a good question, particularly of this administration, because sometimes they don’t always seem able to tell the difference. Johnson’s two biggest political achievements – ‘take back control’ (the 2016 referendum) and ‘get Brexit done’ (the 2019 general election victory) – could be categorised as either.
On the plus side, there were were a lot of measures in the speech today. No 10 has a good summary here. And there are some specific plans for planning reform (although, as has been pointed out, there are strong grounds for thinking they won’t achieve what Johnson says they will – see 1.26pm and 2.14pm.)
But Johnson did not announce any new money, just an allocation of some of the £600bn-plus capital investment spending sketched out in the budget for the next five years. As my colleague Larry Elliott argues, the sums involved are small. And the overall strategy was more or less exactly the same as the one Johnson set out in the 2019 general election: levelling up through infrastructure spending, particularly in the north.
On the basis of this speech, the coronavirus crisis has not made Johnson rethink his goals at all – other than that he now wants to go faster, to “double down on levelling up”, as he put it.
As a result, this was a speech that could have been delivered six months ago, which meant it did fit particularly neatly with the demands of economy today. If you are a theatre designer whose work has vanished, being told that there will be plenty of jobs going laying track for HS2 isn’t much help. That is just one example of what was missing from the speech. My colleagues Richard Partington and Fiona Harvey have a full list here.
And there was one other omission too. Johnson and the Vote Leave cabal now running No 10 spent the last four years arguing that Britain would be better off outside the EU. Today was the last day when the UK and the EU could have agreed an extension to the post-Brexit transition. Johnson ruled that out, and so from January the UK will be fully out of the EU.
But Johnson did not say a word about Brexit in the speech. In fact, the only reference to Europe was when he said European countries are better than the UK at building houses. It was a long speech, Brexit is a divisive topic, and perhaps he was just saving it for another day. But critics may wonder if his failure to include leaving the EU from a catalogue of measures that might revive the economy is evidence that he’s starting to have his doubts.