Boris Johnson brings fight to Labour with public spending promises

PM’s pledges pose fresh challenge to Corbyn, already struggling with Brexit position

Boris Johnson has expended no energy on establishing relationships with his European counterparts. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Boris Johnson has expended no energy on establishing relationships with his European counterparts. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

 

As Westminster settles into its summer recess, Whitehall fairly hums with industry as ministers, officials and advisers “turbo-charge” preparations for a no-deal Brexit. A six-person war cabinet will lead the effort to ensure that businesses are prepared for the extra bureaucratic burden and ports are ready to cope with the expected disruption.

Boris Johnson continues to assert that his preference is to leave the EU with a deal but amid all the frenetic activity of the past few days, no prime ministerial energy has been spent on establishing relationships with his European counterparts. Johnson has spoken on the phone to Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Claude Juncker, but he has not yet found a good moment to talk to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

The prime minister has told the EU he will only negotiate on the basis of his demand that the Northern Irish backstop is eliminated from the withdrawal agreement. And his foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, suggested at the weekend that abolishing the backstop was a necessary but insufficient condition for accepting the agreement.

Johnson’s priorities

Johnson has been campaigning every day since he moved into Downing Street last Wednesday, and on a visit to Manchester on Saturday he identified priorities for his government that go far beyond taking the UK out of the EU at the end of October. Promising to revitalise towns and cities outside the great metropolitan areas, he set out what he called the basic ingredients for success.

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“First is basic liveability. The streets need to be safe. There need to be enough affordable homes. There need to be jobs that pay good wages. There need to be great public services supporting families and helping the most vulnerable.

Second thing: connections. That means great broadband everywhere, and it means transport. Inspiration and innovation, cross-fertilisation between people, literally and figuratively, cannot take place unless people can bump into each other, compete, collaborate, invent and innovate,” he said.

“The third thing that places need is culture. People love Manchester because of the fantastic arts and entertainment here, the football and music, the heritage and the creative industries that make it such a lively, wonderful place to live and work. We need to help places everywhere to strengthen their cultural and creative infrastructure, the gathering places that give a community its life. And finally, the fourth thing: places need power and a sense of responsibility, accountability.”

Better services

What is striking about Johnson’s promises, which include better bus services and more funding for public libraries, is that they could just as easily have been made by Jeremy Corbyn. Johnson has signalled that he intends to abandon the fiscal rules of his two predecessors and open the spigot of public funding in an attempt to address the discontent that drove the Brexit vote and cost Theresa May her parliamentary majority.

Corbyn said on Sunday that he does not fear facing Johnson in a general election, but the Conservatives’ shift on domestic policy will require a reorientation of Labour’s strategy at a time when it is already struggling to find a more coherent policy on Brexit.

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