“We will double down on levelling up … We will invest … to fuel the animal spirits … We will not just bounce back, we will bounce forward.” Thus gibbered Boris Johnson this morning, sounding exactly like Franklin D Roosevelt shortly after the latter’s massive intracerebral haemorrhage. Or, as the prime minister put it of his “new deal” spending plans to restart the UK economy after coronavirus, announced today in Dudley: “it sounds positively Rooseveltian.”
I’m not sure that’s for you to say, old chap. Then again, Johnson is one of those falsely modest people who tells you what they’re like, rather than waiting for you to alight on the judgment yourself. You know the type. “I’m such a giver”; “I guess you’d call me Rooseveltian”; “I am so random, I can’t believe I just did that!”; “I work as a Chris Hemsworth lookalike. Covering the Uxbridge area, but I will travel to Hayes for the right job.”
Johnson went on to pledge that his would be a government that “puts its arms around people at a time of crisis”. But which people? For much of the past week the papers have featured pictures of him with his arm around Richard Desmond. This is the business of Johnson’s housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, rushing through a decision on a £1bn property deal by Desmond to avoid the tycoon having to make a £40m payment under the community infrastructure levy (then having to quash the decision after he admitted it was unlawful).
Quite where that fits into Michael Gove’s distaste for the benefits of growth being “increasingly concentrated in the hands of the already fortunate” is unclear. Although, according to the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, who Johnson’s Downing Street cabal has just knifed, the prime minister “considers that this matter is closed”. And according to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, who Johnson’s Downing Street cabal will sooner or later knife, “the prime minister regards this matter as closed”. How closed? Look, stop asking questions. As closed as Leicester.
Even so, many people may be unsure if they want an arm put round them by Johnson, who increasingly looks like the photo snapped through a departing prison van window at the end of a particularly disturbing criminal trial. He is possibly the only person in the country who has relished the closure of hairdressers, providing him with the perfect cover for not having his affectation trimmed.
As currently announced, Johnson’s “new deal” is just over 0.6% of the spend of Roosevelt’s New Deal, which is perhaps why he’s focused on upgrading the A15 in the Humber area rather than building the equivalent of the Lincoln Tunnel. He can’t build you a Hoover Dam, but he can probably run to a Hoover. Of course, one doesn’t expect accurate historical references from the prime minister, who is 0.6% as clever as he thinks he is. As you will know, the last leader lucky enough to be selected for association with Johnson was Winston Churchill, about whom he wrote a whole book. There was a quite majestic review of the work at the time by Sir Richard Evans, who was regius professor of history at Cambridge. Among many highlights was the line: “The Germans did not capture Stalingrad, though this book claims they did.”
Anyway … “BUILD BUILD BUILD”, as Johnson’s podium this morning had it. Once again we find ourselves within the great cowboy builders cycle of Conservative rule, where the guys who basically caused the problem will now explain that only they can fix it. Having spent a decade starving your school of cash to the point of structural collapse, they now stand there tutting and going: “Yeah, you’re going to need to rebuild that … Whole lot wants pulling out. But yeah, I can do it for you.” Pause. “A thank you would be nice. Gratitude doesn’t cost you anything, does it, luv?”
Or, if you prefer – and who wouldn’t? – the experience is akin to being held in a remote location and nursed by someone with a very specific variant of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. They make you sick, so that they can make you better. Our medicine is lots of projects described as “shovel-ready” by Johnson, to whom it’s tempting to apply the same phrase. If these projects are anything like the “oven-ready” Brexit deal, we can expect a ribbon-cutting date on a £5bn outside toilet some time in 2040. (At least it can’t be any worse than the government’s “clear pathway” for the arts. To fall back on its favourite phrase, the three things in which the UK is genuinely “world-beating” are financial services, arms manufacture and the creative industries. I bet you’ll never guess which one the government is going to let burn. Then again, we are talking about the type of people for whom the answer to the inquiry “What would you most like to see at the theatre?” is “Richard Desmond building some luxury flats in it.”)
Either way, Johnson’s effort this morning should be your favourite construction-related speech since George Osborne – fresh from the moral, intellectual and strategic triumph of a £12bn cut to in-work tax credits – stood up in 2015 and told the Conservative party: “We are the builders.”
A reminder of the new things he built after that: .
Things Johnson hasn’t built include an airport on an island in the Thames, a garden bridge, another bridge across the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the UK mainland, and a functional relationship with the truth. Still, we all have to believe this time will be different.
The one good thing about the mood music coming from Downing Street is the obvious conclusion: that the matter of coronavirus is now closed. Come on – it has to be. Otherwise why would the government open pubs for the first time in three months ON A SATURDAY? Talk about a midsummer night’s scream. You would have to have literally zero understanding about what people are like to do this, unless it was totally safe both in terms of disease transmission and public order.
It must be said that anyone with eyes, particularly in urban areas, has over the past few weeks been increasingly able to see people regarding the matter of coronavirus as closed. Rules have been flouted, huge gatherings gathered, and a potentially deadly sense of licence is in the air. Who can blame people? After all, ever since Dominic Cummings broke lockdown to drive to Durham like an elitist who can’t handle his own childcare, polls have indicated that the scandal had unprecedented cut-through, with one polling firm describing it as being unmatched in its “extraordinary level of penetration”. We have yet to see the full ripple effects of this defining moment, but for so many, something broke with that story. And whatever he achieves with the A15, that may yet turn out to be the organ grinder’s legacy – no matter what his monkey is gibbering today.
• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist