Boris Johnson's 'revolutionary new deal' is a hollow distraction

Rafael Behr
Photograph: Paul Ellis/PA

Governments between elections are like ships on open water. They cannot be relaunched. The captain can only promise that storms will pass, while the passengers’ patience depends on how long they have been at sea. That is tricky to measure on board HMS Boris Johnson. The Tory leader has not yet completed a year in Downing Street but his party has done a decade in power.

Johnson does not see himself on a continuous line of succession after Theresa May and David Cameron, and last year’s election result supported that view. The blurring of party lines and straining of public patience during the Brexit endgame last autumn opened a unique electoral window for an incumbent to campaign as an insurgent. Then the pandemic swept in, making 2019 feel like a distant epoch.

Johnson wants to reinforce mental barriers between the present and the recent past. On Tuesday he tried to reset political clocks with a faux inaugural address, pledging “not just to defeat coronavirus but to use this crisis finally to tackle this country’s great unresolved challenges of the last three decades”.

There will be a “new deal” of investment programmes. Planning law will be relaxed to stimulate reconstruction of a shattered country. It had been briefed that the prime minister was casting himself as the heir to Franklin Roosevelt but explicit mention of the former US president was excised overnight.

Related: Boris Johnson's 'new deal' speech: what is missing?

The rhetorical pivot away from austerity began last year and the sums involved are not, in any case, tide-turning. The improbable reach for historical majesty in the speech wasn’t new either. Johnson issues promises like counterfeit money, with himself pasted over the portraits of greater men.

The more revealing exposition of governing intent came in a weekend lecture by Michael Gove, who has more Whitehall experience than the prime minister and more polished ideas about how it should work. Gove’s argument was that the civil service machine is dilettante, risk averse, prone to inertia and immune to innovation. It needs more scientists, specialists, data-crunchers, outsiders and disrupters.

It is a substantial critique but not an original one. Tony Blair created a special delivery unit at the start of his second term to pump prime ministerial writ more aggressively through clogged Whitehall pipes. Since then a digital revolution has exposed more problems with an analogue state, but that obstacle can be exaggerated. The Treasury isn’t full of quills and abacuses.

The real frustration for this government is not that some external system is thwarting their agenda, but that they are the system and complaining about being thwarted is the only agenda they know.

The Johnson project was assembled from Eurosceptic complaints about bureaucrats in Brussels sapping national vigour. It was propelled to power by the refinement and ignition of public anger over delays in implementing the referendum mandate, some of which was blamed on remainer cells in government. Now it turns out that “remain” was not an opinion on EU membership after all, but an incurable corruption of the soul. Those who have it cannot be trusted to deliver Johnsonism, which has no more precise definition than the commitment to government purged of heretics, regardless of what they actually think about Europe.

Mark Sedwill, the country’s most senior civil servant and a legacy office-holder from the May era, is being shunted out of his post. David Frost, Johnson’s Brexit negotiator, is being elevated to the role of national security adviser, a post for which his qualifications are obedience and an authentically fanatical Eurosceptic glint in the eye.

That doesn’t correspond with Gove’s paean to technical mastery and independent thinking, but the contradiction is generic to revolutionary regimes. The declared purpose is always liberation, pitched as a restoration of power to ordinary citizens. But then the politburo locates a problem in the transmission mechanism bringing paradise to the people. It is steeped in wicked old thinking. An ideological vanguard has to occupy key posts to lubricate the flow of righteous ideas.

The fact that Brexit is a project born on the right does not exempt it from the rule that revolutions need commissars to keep unenlightened functionaries in line. Decentralisation is the plan, but only once enough people have been appointed who will take dictation from the centre.

What makes the Johnson junta more unusual is that it reached its declared utopia too soon. Legally and in the minds of most voters Brexit is done. The ideological bolt has been shot. There is nothing else in the prime minister’s declared agenda that can’t be delivered by the British state as traditionally configured. Planning reform is the most controversial part, but there will be more resistance on that front from grassroots Tories than civil servants. Old-fashioned money and competence will decide whether the mission is accomplished, not hunting remainers under Whitehall desks.

Related: How does Boris Johnson's new deal compare with Franklin D Roosevelt's?

It is hard to see what actual policy purpose the revolutionary ethos serves. It is sustained by the macho thrill of combat for its own sake, and as displacement activity because emancipation from Brussels doesn’t achieve any of its advertised benefits for more efficient government. The bogus war-footing is a way to deny the decade of Tory incumbency; to buy time before too many voters join the dots between this government and its predecessors.

There is radicalism in this approach but it is strangely hollow. It has a make-believe quality, as when a child gets more play out of the packaging than the gift. Johnson said he wanted Brexit so badly, he stamped his feet and got it for Christmas. But he cast the thing itself aside and sits in the empty box, brrm-brrming, beep-beeping excitedly, going nowhere.

• Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist