Millions of Britons who have lost their jobs or who face the threat of redundancy after the furlough scheme ends will have been left sorely disappointed by prime minister Boris Johnson’s speech today (June 30) outlining his plans for a post-Covid economy.
In his speech delivered at Dudley Technical College, Johnson invoked the former US president Franklin D Roosevelt, suggesting major government spending plans to save the UK from the brink of economic disaster.
“I am conscious as I say all this that it sounds like a prodigious amount of government intervention,” he said. “It sounds positively Rooseveltian. It sounds like a New Deal.
“And all I can say is that if so, then that is how it is meant to sound and to be, because that is what the times demand a government that is powerful and determined and that puts its arms around people at a time of crisis…”
But in his latest announcement there were no new spending plans that were not already previously trialed and no new cash sums to make these plans happen.
The projects outlined in Johnson’s speech amount to only £5bn in spending, roughly 0.2 per cent of UK GDP, which dwarfs Roosevelt’s New Deal spending at more than 40 per cent of the US’s GDP then.
The specific projects highlighted in today’s speech included bridge repairs in Sandwell, digital upgrades to courts, and some high street improvements.
Johnson, who stood at a podium printed with the slogan ‘Build, Build, Build’ also noted plans for improvements to schools and hospitals, and pledged a revolution in planning laws to enable faster housebuilding – but did not explain who these houses will benefit, with no mention of social homes.
Johnson conceded the economic turmoil engulfing the UK, noting, “We must work fast, because we’ve already seen the vertiginous drop in GDP, and we know that people are worried about their jobs and their businesses.
“And we’re waiting as if between the flash of lightning and the thunderclap, with our hearts in our mouths, for the full economic reverberations to appear.”
But the prime minister failed to give any reassurances on jobs, offering only a so-called ‘opportunity guarantee’ for young people so that they have a ‘chance’ at an apprenticeship or work placement.
Johnson said that the infrastructure projects he announced would help create jobs, but failed to outline how many jobs such projects could feasibly create as the UK stares at levels of unemployment not seen in decades.
He alluded to ‘Project Speed’ which he said is now being devised together with chancellor Rishi Sunak to fast-track major building projects but again put forward little detail.
Johnson said he did not want to return to austerity, saying the government wouldn’t “cheese pare our way out of trouble” and that “the world had moved on since 2008”.
But he was careful to signal that there were limits to his government’s apparent embrace of an interventionist strategy, noting that he would not seek a “punitive raid on the wealth creators”.
“I am not a communist,” he said. “I believe it is also the job of government to create the conditions for free market enterprise and yes we clap for our NHS, but under this government we also clap for those who make our NHS possible our innovators, our wealth creators, our capitalists and financiers.”
Commenting on the speech, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey welcomed the prime minister’s promises to ‘build back better’.
“That’s a fine ambition but it has to be matched with the ambition and the investment which accompanied FDR’s new deal,” McCluskey said. “Today, however, we appear to have only been promised FDR’s loose change and some second-hand spending plans. While the US got the Hoover Dam, the pandemic-hit UK gets a re-announcement of repairs to some bridges in Sandwell.
“There is no doubt that this country’s frayed infrastructure needs investment so we hope that there is much more to come from the prime minister,” he added. “But this can only be part of the promise to the people of the country. The bald truth is that our country is staring at a jobs abyss which will open up this summer and swallow millions of working people.”
McCluskey went on to say that averting such a jobs crisis would require “urgent and immediate investment to keep people in work now, with steady wages coming home now, not the promise of an infrastructure project sometime in the future”.
“I urge the prime minister to confirm that very soon we will hear that his government will follow in the footsteps of France and Germany with a proper plan to save and grow jobs in the immediate term and on the scale so desperately needed,” he added.
“He should begin by announcing that the jobs retention scheme will be extended at least until 2021, as it has been in France and Germany, so that there is a bridge between today and the emerging economy he promises.
“Without that bridge, employers will shed jobs in huge numbers this summer and the trauma and havoc of this virus will give way to the trauma and enduring human misery of mass unemployment.”
By Hajera Blagg