THE DEPENDENT PRIME MINISTER.

PLEASE DON’T GO

If Dominic Cummings succeeds in hanging on to his job, it will show how fragile the whole Boris Johnson project is. The Prime Minister came to office on the back of two populist campaigns with clever slogans invented by Cummings. They were “Take Back Control” and “Get Brexit Done.” Simplistic, effective and both thought up by the PM’s advisor.

Cummings can think strategically, concentrate on the facts and be nasty people. Johnson is incapable of mastering detail, wants to be liked by everyone and hopes he can wing it as Prime Minister by generating a sense of bonhomie. These skills are not appropriate for the Covid-19 crisis. Apart from avoiding the NHS being overwhelmed, Johnson has not had a good three months. We were late into lockdown, we exposed care homes to the virus, and we are now struggling to get an effective testing system up and running.

Johnson desperately needs Cummings, otherwise he would have responded to the anger of the public and the deep unease amongst his own ministers and Tory backbenchers and dismissed him. There are no comparable advisors waiting in the wings. The Prime Minister thinks without Cummings the ability of the government to deal with the massive issues of Covid-19, the Brexit talks, the economic slump, and the investment promises in the North.

The question is how deeply scarred will the government be. With an election a whole four years away, it is most likely that the progression of “events” will make the public’s memory fade. For instance, in 1981, the Thatcher government looked as if it would be swept from office because of its ruthless economic policies but two years later, it had a huge majority. It had only been in office for one term and people were prepared to cut the Iron Lady some slack.

But there is another scenario which should worry Conservatives. In 1992 they had been in office over ten years and, like now, had just been re-elected for a fourth time. Within months of victory, John Major’s government was forced to leave the European Monetary System in humiliating circumstances. The government’s reputation never recovered, even though the next election was years away. It is possible the Cummings crisis will have lasting effects.

MEDIA MATTERS.

The BBC began the year under attack from the new government. It recovered really well in the COvid-19 crisis with programmes that brought the nation together. Just when all seemed well, I sat down for Newsnight on Tuesday and heard Emily Maitlis state her opinions on the Cummings crisis. There were none of the “some people will take the view that” cautionary buffers that any objective reporter should insert into their script.

It was even more surprising from a journalist of Maitlis experience who had such a triumph with the Prince Andrew interview. Perhaps that’s the problem, has she become too powerful or arrogant?

It is such a pity as there are so many people waiting to attack the BBC. It was embarrassing for those of us who still maintain that overall, it is an institution of major value to the UK.

The BBC’s local radio stations have provided valuable service in this crisis, proving the value of local services. Bauer Radio don’t agree. They’ve decided to virtually abolish the local element of commercial radio.

Ofcom have been bystanders in the systematic dismantling of the ethos that underpinned the launch of commercial radio in the 1970’s. I was proud to be part of the launch of Piccadilly Radio in Manchester which combined great music with a cracking team of news and current affairs reporters.

Let’s hope BBC local radio can survive.

“NO DARK SARCASM IN THE CLASSROOM”.

JOE LEADS THE WAY.

The spirit of national unity didn’t last long did it? The idea that the searing experience of Covid-19 would lead to a gentler politics in this country appears to be over.

One of the main flashpoints is around the reopening of schools. Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson led the way in defying the Prime Minister’s call to reopen some primary school classes on June 1st. As other councils joined Joe, the Daily Mail wasted no time in characterising the move as a politically motivated Labour plot, with councillors in league with militant teacher unions.

There is no evidence for this. It seems to me that Joe Anderson and other council leaders, mainly in the North, are looking at the fact that the virus is still a very present danger. Are we victims of London think again? Just because the capital seems to be over the worst, doesn’t mean the rest of the country is in the same position.

All that said, children do need to get back to school as soon as possible. The damage being done to disadvantaged pupils is severe. Teachers should have a positive mindset to returning if the right procedures are put in place. They need to bear in mind that medical and supermarket staff along with delivery drivers have been prepared to take risks to get back to work.

JOE’S OTHER WORRIES.

The Liverpool Mayor also shares the widespread frustration that the capacity and expertise of local authorities have not been sufficiently recognised by central government.

Virus testing, the care homes crisis and the deployment of thousands of people who volunteered to help are some examples of the top down approach being pursued.

Joe Anderson is keen to look optimistically to the future as he told the Downtown Den the other week. The city’s development opportunities are still there with 5 miles of waterfront, the garden festival site, Edge Lane, and Everton’s move to Bramley Moor Dock. The School of Tropical Medicine is at the heart of the city’s pharma offer which will assume greater importance post Covid-19.

However, Liverpool, like all big cities, faces a major question. What will be the demand for offices in the recession to come? Will bosses keep more staff working from home? With retail, restaurants, and pubs under huge pressure; our city centres could look very different in the years to come. The loss of revenue from the cancelled Labour Party conference in the city this autumn is another blow.

In the wider Merseyside area, worries grow about the car industry and aviation around John Lennon airport and Airbus at Broughton.

COMING DOWN THE MOUNTAIN.

The Prime Minister is right to say coming out of the shutdown is potentially trickier than slamming on all the brakes was in March.

People are fed up, straining at the leash. The government has had successes but has made mistakes as well. Our politicians are tired but at least they are not deranged, telling us to use dangerous drugs or take disinfectant.

Let us hope Corvid-19 sweeps the odious Donald Trump into retirement this fall.

DOES DEBT MATTER?

DIRE WARNINGS.

A leaked Treasury document about the cost of the lockdown to the British taxpayer has provoked a lively debate about what should be done.

One estimate puts the cost of the pandemic this year at £300bn. As a consequence, a base case scenario says that will leave us with a deficit of £337bn with a need for £30bn in tax rises and spending cuts. A worst-case scenario shows a deficit of £516bn with a need for up to £90bn of tax rises and cuts.

The document then discusses the options of increases in income tax, VAT, national insurance contributions and corporation tax. Explosive stuff for a Tory government that pledged to increase none of these in last December’s general Election.

Another unpalatable option for the government is to end the triple lock on pensions, the protection against inflation for the elderly. £8bn could be saved this way. Despite being 71, I believe this should be done. Younger people have been hammered for too long. Before the virus it was university fees, unaffordable housing, and pressures from social media. Now many have had their final year at school mucked up and have been prisoners in their own home. If they get to university in September, it will only be to get lectures by Zoom.

The document also suggests the return of our old friend, the public sector pay freeze. That will go down well with the people we clap every Thursday night.

WHY WORRY?

There are those who think that the huge debt figures we are mounting up will sort themselves out with the passage of time because borrowing will improve the Gross Domestic Product and lower the debt ratio. They argue that tax rises and spending cuts could worsen the recession and weaken market confidence. They point to the fact that in the USA and here there is no lack of confidence from the buyers of bonds.

WHAT WILL THE GOVERNMENT DO?

It is unlikely that the new Chancellor will want to pursue George Osborne’s austerity route. However, such is the power of Treasury orthodox thinking, that debt and deficit cannot just be ignored, that we must expect some tax rises eventually. The election is far away and the excuse is writ large…. Covid-19.

It is clear that although the furlough scheme has been extended till October, the 80% subsidy is not long for this world. Before the summer is out expect the squeeze to start on employers to pay more. That is when redundancies could really take off, particularly in the hospitality industry.

I continue to fear for the northern investment projects we have been promised, but I must acknowledge that the Chancellor hinted this week that the “levelling up” project was still on.

THE GAMBLE.

Meanwhile our awful death toll continues to mount. The government’s defence of its policy of sending untested elderly people from hospitals to care homes is unconvincing.

The loosening up of the shutdown is a welcome recognition that recession can kill as well as Covid-19.

How the government handle the next few weeks could define the Johnson premiership.

FORENSIC KEIR V BLUSTERER BORIS.

THE EMPTY CHAMBER

They came face to face in the Commons this week for the first time at Prime Minister’s Questions. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the new Leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer.

“How has it come to this?” asked the former Director of Public Prosecutions. He was referring to our position as the worst in Europe for virus deaths. At that moment Johnson desperately needed the support of rows of Tory backbenchers ready with roars of “hear hears” as he rose to reply. But they aren’t there due to the virus. The essential extra component to make the Boris Bluster technique work was missing.

In the eerie calm the Prime Minister had to try and answer the question. Rarely the master of detail he claimed it was pointless to make international comparisons, ignoring the fact that for weeks we have been shown charts, doing precisely that.

So how about the 100,000 test target which was met by sleight of hand last Friday for just one day? The Prime Minister assured us he was working on it and then used the distraction technique to set a new target of 200,000 by the end of the month.

On Sunday, the Prime Minister will address the country on the future of the lockdown. The Speaker is rightly angry he is not doing this in the Commons on Monday. After last Wednesday’s performance we can all see why. It better be good and clear. There is, rightly, a lot of personal sympathy for what Johnson has gone through. Most people, but not me, seem to find his blustering jokey style of leadership attractive. But with the economy on its knees and the virus still ripping through our care homes, this love affair could end.

BUILD BACK BETTER.

The mayors of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region were in the Downtown Den this week. They were both trying to look at the post virus future with their Build Back Better campaign. It demands that the government remain committed to the levelling up agenda. Let’s hope so. I fear the colossal debts we are building up could see many Northern Powerhouse projects kicked into the long grass.

They also want to see the 9-5 working day reconfigured. Both Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram are wrestling with transport problems. Rotheram warned that there were now many unnecessary journeys through the Mersey Tunnels and the tolls would have to be restored. Burnham has much bigger issues. Metrolink has suffered huge passenger losses. Manchester Airport is asking the 10 district councils, who have enjoyed generous dividends over the last 45 years, for financial help.

Burnham said the devolution of health spending to Greater Manchester had helped fight the virus with a new alert scheme for care homes. I understand great tensions remain between the NHS and the care sector in GM.

Both mayors are frustrated that there isn’t regional representation on national emergency bodies like Cobra. They are right, although the government would likely pick the West Midlands Tory mayor Andy Street. The government need to hear Rotheram and Burnham’s clear messages that a sudden end to furlough payments would spell disaster for jobs in the north and that all regions come out of lockdown under the same conditions.