Having written here at least once before that Boris Johnson is the heir to Blair, my first thought on the Prime Minister’s tax-to-spend announcement on the NHS and social care is a petty one: I told you so.
The striking thing about making the Boris-Blair comparison is how resistant some people are to it. Among Bozza fans on the Leave-voting right, there is often fury at the suggestion that their man, the hero of Brexit, is anything like the Europhile they used to call ‘Bliar’. On the left, there is an almost pathological determination to believe that a Tory PM must, by definition, be a small-state free-marketeer intent on starving and privatising public services.
That latter point is why Labour people sometimes struggle to respond to Johnson. After Blair had left office, David Cameron admitted he used to dread waking up to find out what Tory-ish thing ‘that bloody man’ had done to appeal to Conservative-leaning voters. Yet if Cameron responded by moving to the right, he risked repelling the soft-Labour people he wanted to attract.
Politics is sometimes simple: if you can keep your own voters with you while you do things that appeal to the other side’s people, you’ll probably win. And you’ll be a very difficult opponent to face.
My bet is that, for all the rage in places like the Telegraph today, Johnson will keep enough ‘traditional’ Tory voters on side as his NHS splurge passes, and help shield what is usually the Conservatives’ weak spot: health. If the next election’s debate comes down to Labour accusing Johnson of not having raised taxes enough to fund health and care, then you can put your money on Johnson getting a comfortable second term.
A bit to the right on cultural issues (crime especially); a bit to the left on economics (public spending especially) – it was a winning formula for Blair, and may well be for Johnson.
But it’s not the only lesson Boris should take from Blair. Blair didn’t just spend more on public services: he changed them, or at least tried to. These days, the words ‘public service reform’ don’t get used much in politics, which shows how much things can change.
My Westminster career began in the heyday of New Labour. I remember the days when Foundation Hospitals were a big deal, when a PM spoke of the ‘scars on my back’ from battling unions to reform public services, and when ministers worried about getting more bang for the public bucks they spend on schools, hospitals and the rest.
The coalition continued in the same vein – sort of. Free schools and the Lansley reforms haven’t exactly been transformative, but they did at least demonstrate an commitment to improving public services.
We can pass quickly over Theresa May (as posterity will) and consider the Johnson government. Even allowing for the small matter of a pandemic, its lack of interest in public service reform is striking.
Start with schools. Perhaps we’ll see mandatory academisation and the end of Local Education Authorities – animus towards local government being a curious motif of a government committed to local communities. But even if so, that’s hardly transformation fit for the century of China, AI and tech-driven learning.
Health presents an even less inspiring vista. The aftermath of a pandemic is perhaps not an opportune moment to reform the beloved NHS. But does anyone think that service will be made ready for the decades ahead by chucking another few billion into its annual budget on an ad hoc basis?
Here at least the Johnson government sometimes talks the talk, showing some interest in health inequality and public health challenges such as obesity. But where are the new models of delivery, the new ideas for slaying the modern giants of social policy?
And shouldn’t an all-conquering PM with a majority of 80 and eyes on a decade in power at least be thinking about remaking the state to serve the 21st century? We all ‘❤️ the NHS’ but can its creaky IT systems and user experience meet the expectations of the Amazon generation? This is an institution that still often sends people letters informing them of when they may attend surgeries and hospitals for treatment. I haven’t always been kind about GPs and their working practices, but there’s no doubt they need better support, especially IT.
Johnson might not have much to fear from Starmer’s Labour or from his own grumbling colleagues. But he should be worried that one day, the voters who will, just about, be content to fund his plans will start to wonder if their increased contributions are leading to better healthcare and better schooling.
Boris Johnson is using Tony Blair’s approach to the politics of public spending and public services. Now he needs to take Blair’s approach to policy.
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