The Politics Behind Britain’s COVID-19 response

Why the UK’s COVID stimulus is driven by electors and the elected in equal measure. 

Boris Johnson’s rise

The 2019 general election was a decisive blow meted out by the British Conservative Party against its primary political opponent, The Labour Party. The Conservative’s ultimately successful triple threat had begun with George Osbourne’s Northern Powerhouse, progressed to Theresa May’s assurance that Brexit means Brexit, and found its zenith in Boris Johnson’s assurance that he would Get Brexit Done.

Boris won his ‘stonking’ majority through the seizing of Labour territory, much of which had heretofore been held for over a century. Tory strategists had become increasingly aware of the vulnerability of these seats, and planned accordingly. Working-class voters across the Midlands, Wales, and the North of England had increasingly avoided the ballot box during the Blair years, and from 2001 deep-rooted apathy became entrenched. Yet in spite of widespread voting abstinence, these same voters remained a potent force, which is why even under the much-maligned ‘Austerity’ programme, a regime of cuts overseen by the then chancellor George Osbourne, much of the major slashing was levied against middle-class interests; the tripling of tuition fees serving as the most prominent example of this targeting.

 The EU referendum and beyond

But in 2016, with the Brexit referendum, working-class voters re-engaged with politics en masse. Brexit became about more than leaving the European Union, and eventually came to encapsulate a whole swathe of concerns; political, social and economic that had for some time been relegated from pubic discourse but never drifted from the public consciousness. Subsequently, Nick Timothy, a proponent of the ‘Erdington Tory’ or Blue-Collar Conservative philosophy smelt blood. He co-wrote the 2017 Conservative Manifesto, and Theresa May became the vessel to embody it. Despite historic swings toward the Conservative party in Red Wall seats like Bolsover, they failed to win decisively, as university towns and urban centres swung decisively for Labour. But a firm foothold had been won, and despite losses in London, net gains were made in the North East.

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The 2019 general election

After two more years of political wrangling, Boris Johnson, guided by his Chief of staff Dominic Cummings, took a ‘one more heave’ approach, won a landslide, and the rest is history. The Tories had used a twin-pronged approach, of first waging an anti-liberal culture war with Brexit as a proxy, and second, moving to the left economically, and in doing so it had become the party of the British worker.

It’s this brief history that allows us to fully understand the British Government’s economic response to COVID-19. While the public health measures are, and under any government would be, driven by expert scientists, there is no blueprint for the economic response. The country looked to Boris, a man who had boasted of his opposition to ‘banker bashing’ and whose record demonstrates an affection for a small state, and libertarian principles, and Boris looked back, seeing how precarious the situation was, not least for the working poor, and small business people who elected him. It falls to Boris to protect potters in Stoke, service workers in Bolsover and manufactures in Teeside.

COVID-19 response

As the Prime Minister and his new Chancellor Rishi Sunak are keen to point out, the bailout package now being rolled out, is unprecedented, not just nationally, but globally. It’s become something of a trend for those on the left, from the US to the UK to point to Nordic countries as the finest examples of social democracies, which their own countries ought to emulate. I would posit it is for this exact reason that Boris announced he would pay British workers 80% of their furloughed salaries, shortly after Denmark announced state aid at the level of 75% of its worker’s salaries. Moreover, the British offer has been extended to incorporate the self-employed, in addition to PAYE workers.

The trend of helping the everyman is apparent in every measure. Small businesses are being given grants. Big businesses are offered loans. Business rate relief is being targeted for small and medium-sized businesses, while large airlines are hitherto being sent packing. Some £200 billion in liquidity is being made available to the banks, but for the express purposes of providing low-interest loans to the public. This is a bailout that comprehensively addresses the needs and concerns of the British worker while leaving much of big business to go to the wall.

It is also a teachable moment. From an electoral standpoint, it demonstrates the British Conservative party’s ability to morph and shift in line with public wants. It was once said that ‘Conservatism, is whatever a Conservative Prime Minister does’, and it’s this philosophy that lies at the heart of Downing Street. This willingness to unshackle from rigid ideology is the ultimate strength of the Conservative party, and why it is generally considered the natural governing party. Until opposition parties embrace this chameleon mentality, they will continue to be opposition parties.

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