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This is the winning entry in 2021 FT School Program blog competition with the Political Studies Association: ‘How has coronavirus changed British politics?’ It was written by Nikolas Boyd-Carpenter, St Paul’s School
Throughout its history, the reduction of public debt has been an important principle of British conservatism. From Pitt the Younger’s declining fund in the 1780s to the persistent surpluses during Harold MacMillan’s tenure in the 1950s and 1960s, conservative governments were striving for a balanced budget.
This policy goal was central to the Cameron-Osborne agenda between 2010 and 2016, when a budget surplus was pursued to the point that Osborne proposed a law that would force governments to achieve a surplus in ‘normal times’.
Then the cat came between the pigeons. The vote for Brexit and the polarization it brought changed British politics forever. In a nation that is perhaps more divided than ever between young and old, between those who are ‘open’ and those who are ‘closed’, the Conservatives have received a sudden and unexpected blessing: the fall of the Red Wall.
Constituencies that have returned from Labor MPs since World War II have swung to the Tories. This historic restructuring of the British political landscape gave the government of Boris Johnson a rare opportunity, but one in which he was not well equipped. It was one thing to win the Red Wall; it was quite another to hold it.
Increasing the change that northern voters wanted to see (increased jobs and major improvements to infrastructure) would require high investment. While the government already has a budget deficit of £ 38 billion and the economy is stagnant, how can a Conservative government justify such spending?
The answer lies in the second political gift the Conservatives received, in the form of the unprecedented economic conditions created by the pandemic. Changing centuries of political thinking will require a completely unexpected situation, offering exactly the deepest recession in more than 300 years.
The advent of another economic crisis so soon after the 2007-8 recession, as well as the almost universal unpopularity of the austerity of the 2010s, gave the Conservative Party a unique opportunity to reformulate its story of deficit spending.
These extraordinary economic circumstances enabled the government to adopt Keynesian-style fiscal measures and to borrow almost £ 400 billion by 2020-’21 to fund the further scheme and the subsequent fiscal incentive programs. The indisputable acceptance by Tory politicians of the decision to run large deficits seemingly indefinitely – which fits directly against Thatcherite principles – is very important.
Much of the recent government spending has been directed to the north. The symbolism of his decision not to use and resolve the Hammersmith Bridge debacle in affluent West London while supporting the construction of a new coal mine in Cumbria, in addition to the establishment of the UK Infrastructure Bank in Leeds and the partial relocation of the Treasury to Darlington, points to a real pivot in political focus on areas that felt under-represented.
The earlier evidence – the Conservatives’ pervasive work in the Hartlepool by-election and their strong performance in the local council election – suggests that it may work.
It is still too early to say whether an “increase” and investment in the north will lead to sustained conservative victories in the region. During the recent election, administrations across the UK have enjoyed the benefits of having a successful vaccination program and the easing of restrictions on the closure period, while the corruption scandals surrounding the Johnson administration could potentially cause serious damage.
What is certain, however, is that closing the pandemic will allow the Conservatives to accept large budget deficits, without which their current levels of spending would be impossible. Brexit may have delivered the Red Wall to the Tories, but it is the pandemic that will help them maintain it.