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Sajid Javid’s inability to decide on policy shows a government without purpose | Tom Kibasi | Opinion

Sajid Javid’s recent demand that government departments find a further 5% of cuts to their budgets reveals the confusion at the heart of Boris Johnson’s new administration. Before the election, Javid promised that austerity would end across all aspects of the state. Now he asks for more than £30bn of cuts – equivalent to around a quarter of the annual NHS budget. Those who warned that Javid’s promises could not be taken at face value feel vindicated.

But it also speaks to a wider problem for the new government. Johnson himself possesses no intellectual framework for how he wishes to govern. Throughout his career, he has only ever shown fidelity to one principle: gaining and retaining power for himself – an endeavour to which he has remained entirely faithful. He has proven adept at adapting himself to every political moment.

Such chameleon politics is both a strength and a weakness. It has enabled him to ruthlessly pursue political advantage, from championing Brexit – for which he showed little enthusiasm before 2016 – to destroying Theresa May, only to substantially adopt her Brexit deal. But now he has power, there is little sense of what he intends to do with it.

Many have asserted that we will now see the “real” Johnson: there just lacks a consensus as to who that really is. Some say he is the supposed social liberal of his days as London mayor, others imagine he will deliver the Britain of Brexiters’ dreams – Thatcherism on steroids, buccaneering “global Britain”. But it seems more likely that Johnson will simply govern to win: making whatever decisions he believes are necessary to hold on to power for as long as possible. It is politics without purpose.

Absent an anchoring sense of purpose or political vision, the tensions are fully on display. Those such as Javid who hail from the hard right of the Conservative party appear torn between their ideological hearts and their political heads. All their instincts are to continue to slash back the state in order to lower taxes on the better off (a state that does less doesn’t need to tax as much). They are animated by a bonfire of regulations to let the free market rip. Witness Javid promising a decade of divergence from the EU only to row back in response to the howls of business for the costs that such a change would impose.

But the 2019 election was won by assembling a new coalition of voters, many of whom are far more economically interventionist than traditional Tory supporters. In sharp contrast to consistently Tory-supporting affluent areas, Johnson was able to win support in the “red wall”, places with high levels of deprivation and wages that are substantially lower than the national average. Free-market economics is the cause of their malaise; more of it cannot be the solution. With their heads, the Tories know the public is tired of austerity and in the mood for something different.

In many respects, the groundwork for a more economically interventionist Conservative party was laid by May and her policy guru Nick Timothy. But it was striking how fierce and highly organised was the resistance to even modest proposals made in the early part of her premiership, a time when May, too, was riding high in the polls, even if her majority was slim. A sensible plan to put workers on boards was junked after lobbying from big business and horrified Tory backbenchers. For many Tories, having won a large majority and secured Brexit, the idea of using their ascendancy to implement the ideas more associated with their opponents is anathema, no matter the political logic of maintaining the new Conservative coalition.

One of Javid’s predecessor in No 11, Nigel Lawson, famously observed: “To govern is to choose. To appear to be unable to choose is to appear to be unable to govern.” Javid will not remain as chancellor for long if he cannot choose whether he is for austerity or against it, in favour of deregulation or not, or willing to intervene in the economy rather than leave it to the free market. The problem for Johnson and the Conservatives is that Javid is the symptom of a political project without a purpose, not the cause. Having declared Brexit “done” – no matter how false that claim may be – the looming presence of absence will be exposed for all to see.

Tom Kibasi is a writer and researcher on politics and economics

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