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Just say no. From Nancy Reagan’s famous war-on-drugs slogan (I’m old enough to remember the Grange Hill single) to Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to bail out manufacturing industry, saying ‘no’ was all the rage in the 1980s.
By contrast, Boris Johnson has often seemed like the man who likes to say ‘Yes’. His love of being loved (politically and personally) is well documented, and his modus operandi is to give the impression that he hates disappointing anyone. Allies say his reluctance to sack people stems in part from him being uncomfortable with difficult conversations (though that doesn’t seem to be the explanation for Dominic Cummings and Gavin Williamson being retained).
And early in the Covid pandemic, Johnson said ‘yes’ to plenty of demands that came his way. On the TUC’s furlough plan to pay 80% of the wages of workers, Sage’s advice on swift lockdowns, campaigners’ calls to ditch an NHS staff visa charge, parents’ demands to ditch A-level algorithms, the PM was acquiescent. He let borrowing rip to fund the billions needed to keep the country going.
When Marcus Rashford caught the public’s imagination in the summer to demand the extension of free school meals to cover the summer holidays, Johnson again (after some pushing) said ‘Yes’. The financial cost was relatively tiny, the political cost relatively big and the PM made a calculation that taking action was worth it.
On Wednesday, he said ‘No’. Despite all the arguments used by him and ministers about alternative means of support for poor children, the fact is that the decision to extend meals through the summer holidays is not materially different from the decision to extend them through the winter holidays. He felt emergency help for deprived families was needed then, but he clearly thinks it’s not needed now.
Part of this may be what hard-nosed charity staff used to call “compassion fatigue”. But it feels more like it’s spending fatigue, egged on by a Treasury which is rediscovering its own historic reputation of being the one part of government that likes to say ‘No’. The decision to end furlough arbitrarily at the end of this month was the early evidence of that change of heart.
More broadly, No.10 appears of late to be simply trying to reassert its authority to call the shots whenever demands are sent its way. That sense of wanting to draw a line in the sand is part of the reason for Johnson’s patience snapping with Andy Burnham this week. “There comes a point when enough is enough,” said one ally of the PM.
On both free school meals and on Greater Manchester’s business support, the sums involved are tiny compared to the billions already spent in tackling the virus. Yet it seems as if on both issues the PM just wanted to, to coin a phrase, take back control of the narrative.
And most Tory MPs welcome the switch from ad hoc bailouts to what they see as a more sustainable approach. Saying no is seen by many of them as the same thing as their core political belief in personal reliance and responsibility.
The real difficulty is the resurgent spread of the virus. A new emphasis on fiscal efficiency may well be appropriate once the pandemic is past its worst, but as we head into a worrying second wave this winter (Wednesday’s huge jump in Covid cases was dramatic) it seems too soon to shift away from emergency measures.
On Thursday, Rishi Sunak is set to make yet another amendment to his Winter Economic Plan, with some expecting him to finally give more support to firms forced into tier 2 restrictions. At present they are in the limbo of not being ordered to close but not being able to make much money either. With the furlough scheme’s end now looking premature, any new help will be desperately needed.
The problem, as ever with this prime minister, is one of consistency. On Brexit, having sounded a Thatcherite ‘no, no, no’ to Brussels last week, the talks are back on and we could see a ‘yes, yes, yes’ trade deal that smuggles UK concessions under the bravado of brinkmanship.
On spending on the pandemic, the PM may yet prove similarly unpredictable. While the PM says ‘No’ to cash for more free school meals, he simultaneously says ‘Yes’ to cash for continued private sector roles in test-and-trace.
“Winging it” has served Johnson well throughout his political career and he may not yet be ready to give it up. The fact is that he may now be more ready to say ‘No’ than ever before - but he’s still capable of saying ‘Yes’.
The PM joked yesterday to businesses about spinning the roulette wheel and taking bets. Whether you’re a child on free school meals or a pub worker in Manchester or a lorry firm worried about a no-deal Brexit, it’s not clear from day to day whether you’ll end up in the red or the black.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.