I have found over the years that the general public shows little interest in the chancellor of the exchequer except on budget day. Often people have no idea who he is (so far there has never been a she). In the past week or so, however, I have been struck by the number of casual acquaintances who have commented on the farce of the recent sacking of chancellor Sajid Javid before he even had the chance to present a budget.
What this bizarre episode has achieved is to focus people’s attention on no fewer than three revealing aspects of the character and behaviour of the man we have for the time being to call our prime minister. The first is his rampantly duplicitous nature: Javid had been assured repeatedly that his position was safe.
The second is a patently vindictive streak in Johnson: this had been manifested in the sacking before Christmas of almost any cabinet minister or Tory backbencher who had refused to subscribe to Johnson’s mafioso-style demands for total obeisance to a Brexit that he himself once did not believe in.
This time, the man he had assured of the safety of his position was humiliated because he had “gone native” and adopted a classically cautious Treasury approach to economic policy, rather than the – shall we say? – more cavalier approach demanded by Johnson himself and his sidekick Dominic Cummings. (Or perhaps one should say Cummings and his sidekick Johnson.)
Formally, Javid resigned; the truth is he was vindictively put in an impossible position – just as, a few years ago, Sir Ivan Rogers found he was on a losing wicket telling Theresa May’s government truths about Brexit that they did not wish to hear.
Which brings us to the third manifestation of Johnson’s character. Like Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, Johnson is one of those people who go through life being careless of the damage they do to others.
It does not help when such people acquire a partner in crime who magnifies their faults. Johnson has found this in his chief adviser, Cummings. The latter was a genius in the way that he managed to sell a false prospectus about Brexit to 37% of the population – enough, under the absurd way in which British democracy works, to change the nation, and Europe, for the worse.
It is common knowledge in Whitehall and Westminster that Cummings, who ostensibly wishes to improve the way government works, has introduced an atmosphere of paranoia in which he or his minions spy on those they suspect of not being converted to their cause, with the result that they seriously disrupt the business of government.
Which brings us back to chancellors and the Treasury. In wanting to outsmart the Treasury and make the economy grow faster, Johnson and Cummings follow a familiar path, which usually ends in tears. When finally alighting on a chancellor – Reginald Maudling – who was prepared to take risks with “going for growth”, the Macmillan government (latterly led by Alec Douglas Home after Macmillan resigned on health grounds) stoked up a balance of payments crisis in the early 1960s that took years to resolve.
Then, in 1970-74, prime minister Edward Heath basically took over economic policy from the Treasury and overdid expansion in reaction to recession, with disastrous results. Along came the sado-monetarist recession of the early 1980s, and chancellor Lawson overdid the resulting expansionary reaction – again, with unfortunate consequences.
Now, after the financial crisis of 2008-09, the wrong lesson was learned: so far from “going for growth”, chancellor Osborne introduced the austerity policy which has got the economy into so many of the problems that this government purports to address – in this case by sacking a cautious chancellor and installing one who, it is assumed, will do what he is told. Once again we have a prime minister who wishes to override Treasury caution and “go for growth”.
Despite my extreme reservations about Johnson and Cummings, and the historical record of governments overdoing expansionary policies, an end to the policy of austerity must be welcomed – if that is what it really is. But – sorry, this may be boring, but it cannot be swept aside – the impact of Brexit continues to be a huge problem. One only has to consider the justified reaction of so much of business and industry to the latest clampdown on the immigration on which the economy depends. The government may want growth, but investment and business confidence remain low.
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