Governments rise and fall on one thing: voters’ trust in their competence. So far Boris Johnson’s team has proved profoundly incompetent at even the simplest tasks. Now they must roll out mass job creation everywhere at speed, but the boring work of everyday delivery is not what they were hired for.
These are not project managers. These are the Brexit men and women, the Don Quixote tilters at the windmills of “bureaucracy” and “red tape” in Brussels and the civil service at home, clueless about how things actually work. These myth-spinners and go-it-alone little Englanders are not of the calibre or character to cope with administering the Brexit nightmare they created as the sudden realisation of upcoming border impossibilities strikes them. Nor are they fit to carry out the plans laid out in the summer statement on Wednesday. We know nothing yet of Rishi Sunak’s own practical hands-on capability, beyond an elegance and eloquence that only stands out for its absence among the likes of Robert Jenrick, Gavin Williamson, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Liz Truss and Alok Sharma.
Their Covid-19 record warns us. It was not a hard task for the education secretary to buy and deliver laptops promised to schools for children with none during lockdown, nor to issue vouchers for free schools meals: he failed. Upscaling track-and-trace from existing local public health services was done in other countries, but Matt Hancock thought his own Westminster-run, privatised idea would do better. Now everyone can chant the litany of failures: on PPE, magic apps, testing labs, care home neglect and the rest.
So the first question about Wednesday’s plan is not “is it enough?” (it isn’t) but “can they do it at all?” Apprenticeships were already a pre-Covid-19 disaster, starting to collapse with fewer placements than ever, the levy misused for MBAs for managers, not skills for the young. Further education colleges were left to wither in the last decade, stricken of funds, ignored as for “other people’s children” while obsessing over Gradgrind A-levels and Russell group university entry. Any renaissance of skills and retraining of those who fall out of previous occupations will need these colleges and their local knowledge of employers. Yet David Hughes, the head of the Association of Colleges, had no news on Wednesday of their role or any new funding. Will it be another invention of private training providers? Will the unemployed on universal credit still be barred from taking proper training courses, forced by sanctions to waste their lives applying for non-existent jobs instead of getting a serious qualification?
The chancellor’s kickstart scheme brings back Labour’s successful future jobs fund: it worked, but does the government know how much it relied on massive local public sector and not-for-profit organisations to create those jobs? That cost money, when getting private employers to take on many young people proved challenging. Nor, the FE sector notes, is there any word that this 25-hour a week scheme will come with good training for the other 10 hours. Besides, all that build, build, build won’t happen without training up people with construction skills, numbers of whom are badly depleted. Nor will care homes or nurseries thrive without training up new people to higher qualifications and better pay. Yet again, Sunak will have to pay for that training and those jobs, but he said nothing about that.
To create his promised 100,000 green jobs within a year to retro-fit homes with loft insulation and new boilers is a good target: but that needs training, too, and local councils to accredit local fitters. This government’s visceral contempt for local authorities has blocked delivery time and again. Councils are denuded of funds, on their knees, having received no news of new money on Wednesday.
Take just one – say, Tower Hamlets in east London. Ask John Biggs, elected mayor of the deprived borough: his council, like all of them, is contemplating even deeper cuts, leaving barely anything but children’s services and social care. Covid-19 has stretched his services and felled his revenues after a brutal decade of austerity. Tellingly, that’s the council that Jenrick – yes, the communities secretary himself – tried to help Richard Desmond to avoid paying a £50m planning gain due on his development. Biggs says that £50m would have bought him the secondary school, five primary schools or three GP surgeries he needs. So local delivery is plainly not top of the communities secretary’s agenda.
Ultimately the government will be judged on jobs. An end to furloughing 9.4 million people with only a puny £1,000 employers’ incentive will plunge many into instant unemployment. That will weigh far more heavily than work programmes can alleviate – especially when attempted by an incompetent crew who believe native British exceptionalism will somehow see them through.
To govern is to choose: for politicians that’s the fun bit. But to govern is also to deliver – and that’s the hard part, where they earn their red boxes. Nothing from this government suggests it is capable of delivering what’s needed to save a generation from the oncoming tidal wave of unemployment. Incompetence will be its epitaph.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist