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Rules is rules?
For Boris Johnson, rules are often made to be broken. Tell him that no Tory has ever become Mayor in a ‘Labour city’ like London and he’ll take it as a challenge. Tell him that you can’t act like a clown and become a statesman, and he’ll laugh. Tell him you can’t repeatedly mislead others in your public and private life and he’ll scoff. Tell him the Conservatives will never win working class seats like Blyth and Leigh and he’ll read you a list of election results.
But in a select few areas, Johnson still obeys the laws of political gravity. Chief of those is the simplest yet most difficult: that politicians ought to keep their promises. The main reason for his impressive 2019 victory was a laser-like focus on delivering for 17 million Leave voters on the promise that Brexit would be finally be ‘done’.
That election also carried a carefully calibrated message about another political law: voters vote for those whom they most trust with their money. Few people outside Westminster will have any clue about the detail of Sajid Javid’s ‘fiscal rules’ in the Tory manifesto. Yet they will be aware that the Tories promised more spending on things that mattered to them, while also promising to not go on a borrowing or taxing spree. An end to May and Cameron’s austerity, but no Corbyn-style free-for-all.
That’s why when Javid rose in the Commons today, several Tory MPs looked nervous. When the former chancellor said “I’m a proud, low-tax Conservative and I always will be”, there was a shuffling of bums on the frontbench. And when he said that “not everyone at the centre of government always feels the pressure to balance the books”, it felt like a jibe not just at Dominic Cummings but at the PM himself.
Javid was in many ways pitch-perfect in his warning to Johnson. Making the independence of the Treasury, (and notably the OBR), an issue of protecting ‘institutions’ was a smart move. Saying that “Conservatives especially believe that no particular person, or even a Government, has a monopoly on the best ideas” was equally shrewd. And his lines about speaking ‘truth to power’ and putting ‘the national interest’ first marked him out as the new heavyweight on the backbenches.
Javid was also canny enough to deliver his warning in the form of a shit sandwich. Opening with some self-deprecating remarks about ‘the circle of life’ and closing with praise for the PM’s ‘one-nation’ politics allowed him to get across the difficult middle section - where he acidly observed the dangers of abandoning public trust in the public finances. His spinners were also clever in managing down expectations beforehand to suggest he would be nothing but loyal and supportive.
Not everyone was impressed of course. With Geoffrey Howe’s own resignation statement looming in the minds of older hands, Lib Dem Tim Farron said Javid’s words were like “being cuddled by a dead sheep”. And it’s worth remembering that the raw power of office will reassert itself in a fortnight when Rishi Sunak is cheered to the rafters by Tory MPs for his very first Budget (something Javid never delivered).
Yet the Budget’s success may depend on whether it rewrites or maintains the fiscal rules promised in the Tory manifesto. When asked directly today if they would be kept, the PM’s spokesman said: “As set out in the manifesto, we will continue to have a clear fiscal framework.” That didn’t sound very certain, notwithstanding the usual convention of not talking about Budgets before they are delivered.
Even if Cummings, sorry Johnson, fails to change the fiscal rules, it’s possible the Budget could use this early stage of the parliament to whack up taxes by ending the fuel duty freeze and targeting higher rate taxpayers’ pensions. Neither would be popular on the Tory benches. Add in the very real prospect of a cyclical recession (boom and bust hasn’t been abolished folks) and Brexit impacts between now and the next election, and the economic waters could get very choppy indeed.
Don’t forget too that this will be Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s last Budget too. If Keir Starmer becomes Labour leader, Rachel Reeves (ex-Bank of England economist) is a hot favourite to become shadow chancellor and it’s perfectly possible that she will move quickly to restore Labour’s fiscal credibility. It was Gordon Brown who capitalised so effectively in Opposition on Black Wednesday and ‘22 Tory tax rises’ under John Major, while also promising much-needed investment in the public realm and convincing voters he could be trusted with their money. Rules is rules, but a lot depends on who follows them as much as who breaks them.
Quote Of The Day
“I do not intend to dwell further on all the details and personalities...the Cummings and goings, if you will.”
Sajid Javid jibes about the power of the PM’s chief adviser
Wednesday Cheat Sheet
A new YouGov/SkyNews poll of Labour members and affiliates suggested that Keir Starmer is set to win with 53% of first-preference votes. Rebecca Long-Bailey is on 31% and Lisa Nandy on 16%. Angela Rayner was way ahead in the deputy race too.
Emergency legislation to block the automatic early release of people convicted of terror offences became law after receiving royal assent. Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans told MPs that the Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Bill had become an act.
EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the UK should be willing to agree common “ground rules” with Brussels. But he stressed, again, “the UK is not Canada”. All eyes are on the UK’s own negotiating parameters tomorrow.
Jeremy Corbyn called Boris Johnson “a part-time prime minister” for his failure to visit any flood-hit communities.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that the Budget would have to choose between raising taxes, furthering austerity or ditching Tory manifesto promises on government borrowing.
What I’m Reading
Why I’m Voting For Keir Starmer - Zoe Williams
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.