Boris Johnson has always considered himself a purveyor of political optimism. He is neither a master of detail nor someone who relishes the role of governing, per se. But he is an enthusiast and he does have some justification in believing that his enthusiasm rubs off on people – that voters respond to, and respect, his gift for seeing the next big chance, the next eye-catching wheeze.
That persona has struggled to cut through over the last few months. As the Prime Minister recovered from his own health crisis and sought to sketch out a plan for our national recovery he seemed to have lost some of his characteristic bounce. Today’s speech – albeit framed with cautious notes and against the backdrop of a British city re-entering lockdown – was about Boris Johnson becoming Tigger once more; after a few months of playing, unhappily, at Eeyore.
The policy announcements themselves were mostly either accelerations of existing plans or modest builds upon manifesto promises. £5 billion is not an inconsiderable amount of money to invest in infrastructure. Almost no-one, though, would claim that it was sufficient to meet the challenges this country’s railways, roads etc face. Reform to the planning system will be welcomed by many an infrastructure investor and housing developer – but the plans laid out are less radical than those which were being privately considered before the election. Taken all together, the announcements here marked the start – or, the restart – of an answer to the question of what beyond Brexit Boris intends to be his legacy. But really, this was a speech about mood more than meaningful policy. And seen through that lens, the speech looks a moderate success. In his comfort zone – cheekily claiming the mantle of a leftish political giant whilst declaring, unnecessarily, that he was ‘not a communist’, playing with language and urging optimism – he looked more like the Boris of old and less hesitant than he has in months.
Of course, the thing that almost 12 million people on one form of furlough or another want to know is – will the schemes continue? Will they benefit from the new, but vague, ‘Opportunity Guarantee’? What help will be available if, after all, their old job is no longer there once lockdown has passed? Pressed on this, and on other questions of broader economic policy, the Prime Minister asked us to wait and see what his Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, would say next week. To some observers, that appeared rather telling about the division of labour inside this Government. Boris the Chairman gave the company a pep talk after a grindingly difficult few months. Rishi the FD will be tasked with translating the sentiment into action