Even before the reshuffle, this felt like a week when we learnt a lot more about the character and identity of this government. Through decisions on a variety of issues from HS2, to investment to buses, to tough policies on terror offenders and deportation of foreign offenders, this government is now beginning to reveal itself.
The reality is that it is a mixed picture, and Johnson’s administration doesn’t easily lend itself to left/right characterisation. Certainly Labour’s efforts to paint this government as “hard right” is doomed to fail. Hard right governments don’t spend billions on buses, and the right typically hate HS2. On the other hand, the law and order policies paint a different picture, and suggest the reality that this is simply a populist government. Not right-populist, nor left-populist, but a government that perhaps more than any other will swim with the tide of public opinion. As they joked in CCHQ before the election, the manifesto could be boiled down to just ten words – fund the NHS, hang the paedos, and get Brexit done.
Another learning is about the much-discussed Mr Dominic Cummings. Notwithstanding his victory over Sajid Javid, discussed in our opening piece this week, we have learnt that Cummings is not quite the omnipotent force some have sought to portray him. On many big policy battles of recent months – over HS2, over Huawei and over the wider restructure of government, he has been defeated. So if you want to influence this government, don’t over-obsess about one man, but do focus hard on how your policy sell appeals to the ordinary voters.
In the case of HS2, for a long time popular media opinion was that it would almost certainly go ahead, perhaps with some additional conditions. But the reality was this was a very tight decision. There seemed a time when the potential for Conservative infighting, and the vocal opposition of close advisers Cummings and Andrew Gilligan, looked like it might sway the Prime Minister. But Johnson has calculated that he can see off these divisions. He paired the HS2 announcement with a major boost for bus services and cycle routes, appeasing those who thought HS2’s budget could be better spent on local transport services. Meanwhile, ideological Thatcherites who would have preferred to have seen the money spent elsewhere look to continually low interest rates, and think a little bit of Keynesianism won’t hurt. This is combined with the numerous reasons HS2 cheerleaders have always pointed to when making the case for the scheme: increased capacity, reduced journey times, regional investment, the facilitation of Northern Powerhouse Rail, as well as skills and jobs creation are all enabled through the construction of HS2.
But perhaps Johnson’s biggest win from the HS2 decision is a personal one. He has shown that he can be his own man and swim against the tide of his advisers. Similarly, Johnson’s decision to announce his choice to Parliament himself, as opposed to leaving this to the Transport Secretary, also represents a desire to make clear the final decision on HS2 has come from the very top.
So it has been a big policy week for Boris Johnson. A mixture of increased infrastructure spending and populist law and order sentiment looks to be the aim of the game. And for Johnson, it is clear that despite the big egos around him, he is keen to show that he is still his own man, and not a puppet.