On Monday evening, Boris Johnson survived the confidence vote brought to him by members of the Conservative Party. Despite Johnson remaining in his position of leadership, the vote has highlighted the need for change. The government must confront 5 major challenges if they are to survive the year.
Restoring trust in the Government’s competence and character
Stories of sleaze dripping through the news cycle day by day is toxifying a party which has historically been known to stand for British values such as integrity, decency, honesty. The first task for Johnson will be to mark a shift from his previous approach to leadership, by demonstrating that his trustworthiness as an individual can be relied on in the future. These qualities must be the priority in any cabinet reshuffle. Has the time come for a ‘Cabinet of the Talents?’
Rejuvenating the economy. Levelling up the Country
The Government must also get serious about policy. In the words of our Research Fellow, Matt Goodwin: “The only way for Johnson to survive now is to launch a Policy Blitzkrieg. Slash tax. Launch All Out War on cost of living. Reform institutions. Give voters & MPs what they thought they were getting 3 years ago.”
This must start with the rebooting of Britain’s economy. Notwithstanding the serious crises in recent years, the dearth of ideas around productivity is striking. The UK has no long-term growth plan. There are urgent questions to be asked about what the nation’s strengths and what we should be optimising for. Research and development investment must then be tailored accordingly, alongside pursuing trade and business policy which aligns with the strategy.
The challenge with Levelling Up is the question of what are we levelling up and for whom? The Legatum Institute UK Prosperity Index shows the breadth and complexity of the question. Breaking down the country into 17 archetypes or regional types, we show that the Levelling Up agenda will require creative thinking which extends beyond government-oriented solutions but working with local communities, business leaders and civil society. The challenge of levelling up rural Wales is very different to the challenge in the industrial heartlands of Northern England. The solutions for health disparities are profoundly different to those needed for broadband connectivity. We must the problem and seek bespoke solutions by empowering local people, whether they live in Bradford or Merthyr Tydfill.
The Cost-of-Living Crisis
Yet the government will not be in power long-enough to address these long-term issues if they do not also adequately address the cost-of-living crisis.
The Chancellor’s recent package of measures was targeted in a way which will support the most vulnerable. We calculated that around 650,000 people will be shielded from poverty as a result. However, the £400 handout to every household will be inflationary and seems to serve little productive purpose. In future, the Treasury should limit benefits payments to those in poverty and otherwise focus on reducing the tax burden.
It is worth noting that there will also be people at the bottom of society who are missed by the measures. Notably, the small allowance given to asylum seekers, which is only about half of what is paid to benefits claimants anyway, is not set to rise in line with inflation – leaving refugees waiting for a year and struggling to feed their children. The time has come to offer them the right to work. Similarly, migrants on no recourse to public funds (NRPF) who are in insecure work will be vulnerable to any further downturn in the economy and therefore more vulnerable to falling into destitution. The taxpayer ultimately ends up paying if people on NRPF become destitute, and so the Home Office must consider how to avoid this.
The causes of the cost-of-living crisis deserves scrutiny too. Inflation demands an assessment of the prudence of the Bank of England’s policies in recent years. However, the root cause of the problems lies predominantly on the supply side and so we should examine and reduce dependencies on a small number of markets, many of whom are autocratic regimes whose interests do not align with the UK’s. We must also look at the long-term energy vulnerabilities which have been exposed. With European dependency on Russian gas so alarmingly exposed, the government must look to diversify the UK’s energy sources so that vulnerable families are not forced to choose between heating their homes or putting food on their plates.
Standing up for freedoms at home and abroad
A fourth priority area must be standing up for fundamental freedoms at home and abroad. The emerging dominance of ‘political correctness’, much of which has been driven by the long march through the institutions of critical theory, was a driver of the turn of the red wall to Boris Johnson. Our data shows that academics, journalists and others in the UK are increasingly finding themselves forced to self-censor. The government has a mandate to address these trends and should look for pathways which do promote pluralism not polarisation.
Internationally, the challenge to the liberal democratic model is more pronounced than ever. Vladimir Putin has demonstrated the fragility of the international rules-based system, but the Ukraine crisis is not the only salient challenge with the growing strength of a Beijing which has spent two years isolated from the world. The current crisis may only be a foretaste of what is coming. Promoting resilience of supply chains and alliances among liberal democratic nations must be a priority.
Control of immigration. Compassion for Refugees.
Finally, the government must find solutions to ensure the state has control of immigration while also being compassionate towards refugees. 2021 saw more concern than ever about the small boats crossing in the public mind, but also outpourings of sympathy towards refugees from Ukraine, Afghanistan and elsewhere. British Future polling shows that Britons are not opposed to refugees but do care about control. The lack of control is the root driving cause of the polarisation of opinion on the issue.
Sadly, the Rwanda plan is little more than a publicity stunt. It is extortionate, illegal and inhumane. The steep costs of removing enough people mean that it will in practice never act as an effective deterrent. Even if it did, the latest data shows that a quarter of those who crossed the Channel were Afghan refugees in 2021. Given our direct responsibilities and recent history, flying them to the other side of the world cannot be justified.
The only workable way of taking back control will involve finding a returns agreement with the French. A processing centre should be set up in Calais. Britain should agree to a certain number of people every year from France, and everyone who comes via small boats across the Channel should be returned to be processed in Calais. This would instantly address the incentives which encourage the hiring of people smugglers. A diplomatic resolution is the only hope of an answer.
Root and branch reform of the asylum system is also desperately needed to reduce waiting times from over 12 months to six months and ensure people with questionable claims can be returned. Inefficiencies in Home Office bureaucratic processes lie at the heart of the problem of control.
Times of crisis are moments for change. The Government will only survive if it seizes the moment with both hands. A big policy push is a prerequisite for survival. Trust is more intangible. It is hard to earn and easy to lose. Time will tell if we have already passed the point of no return.