Why Boris Johnson is running out of time to deliver on Tory spending pledges

Christopher Hope
·4-min read
A meeting on Tuesday night between Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak agreed that the spending review would be pared down to just 12 months - Andy Rain/Shutterstock
A meeting on Tuesday night between Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak agreed that the spending review would be pared down to just 12 months - Andy Rain/Shutterstock

A Government's Whitehall spending review is normally one of the political highlights of the year – and the publication of Boris Johnson's three-year spending plans next month was to be no different.

The Prime Minister's allies had hoped it would offer a tangible way for him to put into writing his manifesto plans to "level up" the country, spending billions of pounds on road, rail and other big ticket infrastructure items.

Instead, a meeting on Tuesday night between Mr Johnson and Rishi Sunak, his Chancellor, agreed that the review would be pared down to just 12 months, not three years as planned.

To make matters worse, within 20 minutes of the meeting breaking up, the decision had been leaked to City bible the Financial Times, which promptly splashed it all over the following day's newspaper. Treasury officials were aghast that thousands of civil servants had found out about the delay by reading about it in the paper, throwing weeks of preparation in departments into chaos.

The decision also risked torpedoing plans for an extensive defence "integrated review", which would have set the UK's long-term military spending priorities, next month. 

In a rushed press release, Mr Sunak said the need for a one-year spending round was "essential" given the uncertainty caused by coronavirus. Public bodies legally must be given their 2021-22 budgets by the end of this year.

But the decision to have a pared-back 12-month spending round next month also served to highlight perceived tensions between Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak over the direction of the Government's spending plans.

Westminster insiders close to the Prime Minister smelt a rat. One claimed he had been given very little notice of Mr Sunak's decision to scrap the three-year spending round, saying: "The Prime Minister wanted Rishi to do a three or four-year spending review, and Rishi only agreed to do a one year.

"The PM wanted a comprehensive spending review that would chart the agenda and bake in the infrastructure stuff, the levelling up spending, and Rishi basically said: ' No, I am doing a year.'"

Mr Johnson's friends were said to be "very surprised by the pushback that Rishi now gives to Number 10. He is asserting the dominance of the Treasury over the Government. That is seen by some close to the Prime Minister as thwarting his agenda for the whole Parliament... [he is] first Lord of the Treasury. The clue is on the door".

But there were also reports that Mr Sunak wanted to scale down plans to spend the bulk of £100 billion in capital projects promised by Mr Johnson in the Conservative manifesto over the next three years.

The delay is a worry for the Prime Minister, as it means that the next long-term spending round can only start in April 2022 – as little as two years before the next general election.

Mr Johnson's friends were said to be 'very surprised by the pushback that Rishi now gives to Number 10' - Matt Dunham/AP
Mr Johnson's friends were said to be 'very surprised by the pushback that Rishi now gives to Number 10' - Matt Dunham/AP

A Treasury source insisted the decision to shorten the spending round was "a collective decision between Number 10 and Number 11, and that it was agreed at a meeting on Tuesday with the PM and Chancellor".

The source added that Mr Sunak is now hoping to publish details of long-term spending projects, such as the money committed to the HS2 rail link between London, Birmingham and northern England, in "the near future".

The Chancellor was "committed to our signature manifesto commitments" on capital projects like HS2, the source said, adding that he will publish details of how much cash has been set aside for them. In terms of the Integrated Defence Review, the source could not say whether it will be published next month, adding: "Work is still ongoing to see what can be delivered and timings of that."

A Downing Street source refused to be drawn on claims of friction between Number 10 and Number 11, saying: "It was a joint announcement on the steps we are taking."

But Mr Johnson and his team will know the time to deliver on their Tory manifesto spending promises – and cement the Prime Minister's legacy before the next election – is already running out.