Fishy figures: Boris Johnson's public service pledges are fantasy economics

Richard Vize
Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

In his campaign for the Conservative leadership, Boris Johnson has pledged more bobbies on the beat, a budget boost for schools and his team hinted at public sector pay rises. But his warm words about public services are underpinned by fantasy economics.

His most eye-catching public service commitment has been to reverse his party’s cuts to policing by finding £1.1bn to hire 20,000 more police officers. Johnson sees his record on cutting crime as London mayor as one of his most impressive achievements, although it is less persuasive when compared with long-term national trends.

But this pitch to restore the Tories’ battered reputation as the party of law and order misses the point that cutting crime requires substantial and sustained investment in technology, as well as addressing weaknesses in the regional structure of police forces. Some of those promised officers should be traded for better kit and stronger organisation.

The cost of his promise on policing is dwarfed by his commitment to boost the budget for English schools by £4.6bn, with the aim of returning school spending per pupil to its 2015 peak.

On public sector pay, health secretary and Johnson outrider Matt Hancock said Johnson was preparing to “show the public sector some love”. But – as so often with Johnson’s commitments – confusion soon followed. Within hours the man himself repeatedly refused to give a straight answer when asked to confirm the pledge.

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Beyond the snippet that NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens helped him get elected president of the Oxford Union as a student, Johnson’s comments on the health service have been of the “it needs reform and better management” variety, with no clue as to what that means.

The risk for the NHS is that it will be exposed to unfettered competition from American healthcare companies under the trade deal with the United States he is desperate to deliver, as a totem both of his relationship with President Trump and of the sunny uplands that await us post-Brexit.

To get a sense of how Johnson might approach such a deal, it is worth looking at his early comments about TTIP (the on-off US/EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) before he started rubbishing it as evidence of EU incompetence. In 2014 he accused “left-wing misery guts anti-globalisation campaigners” of misrepresenting the deal and claimed there was no risk of it leading to privatisation of NHS services.

The danger is not that Johnson would use the deal as a back door route to privatisation, but that in his rush to deliver a big win he would fail to grasp the enormity of the risk, dismissing it with a rhetorical flourish that bears no relation to what is written on the page.

But the biggest problem facing public services under Johnson is the delusional economics his promises are based on. Alongside commitments to splurge money on public services he says he will raise the national living wage (which impacts services such as social care), raise the threshold for paying the higher rate of income tax and cut corporation tax and business rates, all while funding “great infrastructure projects”. And this against the backdrop of Brexit.

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When the sums don’t add up, tax cuts will take priority. Treasury minister, early Johnson backer and would-be chancellor Liz Truss is championing a return to the low-tax, low-investment policies of Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson.

Johnson’s reckless policy to raise the higher rate income tax threshold from £50,000 to £80,000 would benefit four million relatively wealthy people while costing around £9bn. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies it would cut the number of higher rate taxpayers to its lowest level since 1990. This is a seismic change.

The need for a quick feelgood factor in advance of a snap election and the cold realities of the Treasury computers mean public services under a Johnson government face the prospect of paying the price for an obsession with low taxes.

Richard Vize is a public policy commentator and analyst