In conversation with Ruth Davidson. How does the UK emerge safely from the current lockdown?

In conversation with Ruth Davidson. How does the UK emerge safely from the current lockdown?

01.05.20

Tulchan Frameworks, hosted by James Harding, Co-founder and Editor, Tortoise Media, in conversation with Ruth Davidson MSP for Edinburgh Central and former Leader of the Scottish Conservative Party.

On the day that the Prime Minister gave his first Downing Street press briefing since returning to work, the conversation focused on the lessons of the pandemic to date and the path forward as the nation looked forward to a route map out of lockdown.

The Johnson style

The transition from Theresa May’s government to Boris Johnson’s has involved a radical shift in style and focus - not least because so many of the PM’s closest allies are veterans of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign. The pandemic has been a crash course in the complexities of government and has necessitated certain changes in internal culture.

Messaging

Mistakes have been made - but the Government was right to wait as long as it did to impose the lockdown. The PM had to be seen to be responding to a rising level of public concern in order to ensure national compliance with his instruction on March 23. The contrast with the sharp and dangerous divides in US opinion over the restrictions that have been imposed is, at least in part, a reflection of Johnson’s success in taking the nation with him.

A staggered economic recovery

This will be the hardest task. The Job Retention Scheme now covers 4 million furloughed employees at a cost of £4.5bn. If he is to avoid a sudden spike in unemployment, Rishi Sunak will be obliged to wean businesses off their dependency upon the state. The Chancellor will have a strong preference for keeping people in the labour market if possible, knowing how hard it is to get them off the dole once they leave employment. But the scale of this task is unprecedented in modern times, and accordingly complex.

The structure of Government

Many intelligent suggestions have been made about Whitehall, the work of Cabinet and the use of outside expertise. The recruitment of experts such as Paul Deighton (now at work on PPE production) is certainly to be welcomed. But this is not the moment to reorganise departments or the basic ‘org chart’ of government. There will be opportunity aplenty in the months ahead to consider such issues.

State intervention

By temperament, Johnson is inclined to let loose the purse strings, borrow big, and spend on grand projects. That said, he will still face huge financial and economic challenges in the years ahead. As bad as the Crash of 2008 undoubtedly was, the basic rules of the game were not subverted: airline continued to operate, economies were not frozen, oil did not tumble to a negative price. This economic experience will be more akin to escaping a depression than the recession that followed the banking crisis.

Fairness

Issues such as executive pay levels, bankers’ bonuses and regional inequality were already rising up the political agenda before the pandemic. Its aftermath will be marked by profound anxiety about job insecurity, zero hour contracts and the gig economy. The political class will be expected to have answers to the fundamental questions involved.

Resilience

The fragilities of ‘just-in-time’ supply lines have been painfully exposed. We can also expect more economic protectionism and nationalism as other countries adapt to post-crisis imperatives. This will compel the UK government to conduct an honest audit of manufacturing capacity - and to confront very difficult questions about investment to make up potential shortfalls.