Fictional PM Francis Urquhart's ambition was also to rule longer than Thatcher
Artillery Row

Who wants to rule forever?

Being in power a long time doesn’t guarantee you’ll get things done

Mine surely can’t have been the only heart which sank to read this week that Boris Johnson has apparently set himself the mission of serving longer than Margaret Thatcher, a task which would involve him serving another decade as Prime Minister.

Certainly, for those of us who are no fans of his, this will be dismaying news. Suggestions that he might bow out after an election in 2023, both to rebuild his personal fortune and to avoid the fiscal reckoning for Covid-19, had been hopefully received.

But even Johnson’s staunchest supporters ought to concede that longevity of tenure is a terrible metric by which to measure a political career. Indeed, it may end up having an actively deleterious effect on his premiership.

Four decades of “catastrophic” economic mismanagement don’t happen by accident

Nothing could illustrate this better than the fact that the news came soon after the Government announced that it was abandoning planning reform. Robert Jenrick, who as Housing Secretary had gone to bat for the proposals, was then sacked in the reshuffle and vanished to the back benches.

This single move exposes the total hollowness of the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about reversing four decades of “catastrophic” economic policy. Because as Sam Bowman, John Myers and Ben Southwood have spelled out in a new essay, the single biggest policy mistake since the War has been allowing the Town & Country Planning Act to choke the UK’s housing supply.

In their argument, high house prices bleed over into almost every other major policy problem, including “slow growth, climate change, poor health, financial instability, economic inequality, and falling fertility”. 

Meanwhile Ant Breach, of the Centre for Cities, persuasively argues that one of the best ways to boost the economies of “left-behind” areas would be reduce the amount southerners need to spend on accommodation. Higher disposable income means more cash that can be spent buying goods and services from companies in the North.

Johnson likes to talk about how levelling up benefits everyone. But he does this in the context of arguing that big retail-politics spending in the Red Wall will have trickle-down benefits to the Conservatives’ southern base. The idea that taking the brakes off Britain’s existing economic powerhouses might be the best way to start “levelling up” doesn’t seem to feature.

The alternative, of trying to command economic activity into existence in the right bits of the country by Whitehall fiat, holds out only the prospect of another folly in the vein of the “plot against Mercia” — although it would suit those Conservative MPs trying to pretend that the solution to the housing crisis is building all the homes in the North, where demand isn’t, and pushing young people to move there.

Tackling the biggest challenges facing the country would involve taking on powerful vested interests

What the Prime Minister affects not to realise is that four decades of “catastrophic” economic mismanagement don’t happen by accident, especially not in a democracy. They happen either because there is enormous political pressure to perpetrate them, or because they’re not really mistakes at all.

In the case of regional inequality, it’s both. Generations of politicians have catered to the powerful Boomer electoral cohort, flattering them that they were “paying in” for old-age entitlements and allowing them to use the planning system to strangle development (and inflate the value of their own homes). Meanwhile, ministers have realised that Britain’s economic geography can’t simply be wished away, even by the most determined government. 

All of which is to say that there is no easy, popular, win-win way to correct course. If Johnson really thinks that the crucial difference is that his predecessors were “stupid”, and he is not, then he is deluding himself.

This doesn’t mean nothing can be done. But truly tackling the biggest challenges facing the country would involve taking on powerful vested interests: outraging comfy shire homeowners by unleashing mass housebuilding, and making well-to-do older citizens contribute towards their own social care.

It might feel strange to think one could accomplish more in four years than ten

Which raises the question: why aspire to be Thatcher rather than Attlee? Labour’s most celebrated Prime Minister only got a single full term in office, but that was sufficient to transform the nation in myriad ways we’re still struggling with today.

It might feel strange to think one could accomplish more in four years than ten. But remember that the Thatcher years were atypical, the product of a happy coincidence of an ideologically driven Prime Minister, a historically weak opposition, and a series of well-timed crises.

 There is nothing about simply being in power a long time that guarantees things get done, and Johnson could well find his decade in office more closely resembles the “cheems-mindset” Tory hegemony of 1951 to 1964 than the all-conquering Eighties.

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