Boris Johnson is making a habit of scoring political points against weaker opponents only to lose the war for public opinion. The prime minister this week came off worse in a clash with Greater Manchester’s Labour mayor, Andy Burnham, over stingy levels of state support for businesses forced to shut because of lockdown restrictions. Mr Johnson forced Mr Burnham to accept a smaller bailout package than he would have liked. But it was the mayor who sensed and profited from the mood of England’s northern regions, which are fed up of having to suck up whatever Whitehall decides. Paradoxically, Mr Johnson harnessed such sentiments to win power last year.
The prime minister’s mistake is to resent the (limited) powers that the devolved governments hold, and the way those powers are exercised. He is wrong to believe that central government ought to take back control. His planning reforms have run into opposition because local authorities will lose discretion in a key policy area. Whitehall has neither the capability, nor engenders the level of trust needed, to run local services. Nowhere is this more obvious than in London. Mr Johnson has threatened to seize control of Transport for London if the Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, fails to hike fares and extend the congestion charge to cover losses from a drop in passenger numbers. Cheap political shots do not amount to a strategy. Mr Johnson overestimates his salesmanship if he thinks the public will buy his argument that London’s mayor bankrupted TfL before coronavirus struck. He underestimates how Mr Khan’s weak hand is his strength.
No doubt the prime minister does not want to give Mr Khan billions to keep the capital moving. He is aware how this might look to his “red wall” voters, who might question why Londoners would receive about 15 times as much as the average Mancunian in lockdown compensation. But Tony Travers, professor of local government at the London School of Economics, says that without a bailout, transport services in London would have to be cut to the bone. The government would risk being blamed for letting the tube grind to halt and for thousands of workers being sacked. Alternatively, the prime minister could nationalise the tube network, as he did with private train companies. Then the government will have to fill the hole in TfL’s budget, probably with the unpopular policies he attempted to foist onto Mr Khan.
Even within government, there is concern about Mr Johnson’s project. In a remarkable intervention last week, the former permanent secretary Philip Rycroft claimed that the government was “challenging the democratic basis of our system”. The subtext is that Mr Johnson views prime ministerial power as being unshackled in the pursuit of Brexit. It explains, in part, why the government has ended up with egg on its face after Jersey rejected an ill-judged attempt by ministers on Wednesday to seize control of its territorial waters.
Mr Rycroft noted that the best responses to Covid were from nations such as Germany, Australia and South Korea, which have seen “more devolution of power and responsibility and obligations to the local level”. The UK government’s poor Covid performance can be traced to its distrust of devolved governance. Whitehall tried to manage from the centre rather than localising decisions, a testament to Mr Johnson’s dubious “the end justifies the means” mentality. The UK should be moving towards a federal political structure where central, local and devolved governments work together. Instead, we are heading in the other direction.