Boris Johnson must face facts over public finances – Bernard Ingham
That is the bleak, biblical background to Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s report today to the Commons on the desperate state of the nation’s finances.
He will have much sympathy. The Government did not wish Covid-19 on the UK. It needed the pestilence like a hole in the head, especially with Brexit looming. It is responsible for the vast bulk of possibly a £500bn budget deficit facing us this financial year.
That is well over treble the £153bn deficit left by Gordon Brown in 2010. Ten years later, we were still trying to balance the nation’s books when the virus struck. And it took us 50 years to pay off World War Two debt.
Many will, of course, argue that Government incompetence has inflated the coronavirus bill. Certainly there have been costly errors or failings such as the supply of personal protection equipment and the disaster in old folks’ homes.
But any government would be damned if they did and damned if they didn’t when combating an unknown virus without a vaccine.
Let’s leave recrimination until the eventual official inquiry has reported. Today we must face the harsh consequences of trying to defeat the virus and keep the economy and jobs afloat with subsidies.
The least that can be said of the Government, whatever its errors, failings or cack-handedness, is that, lockdowns and all, it has sought to do its best for the common good.
With a vaccine apparently just around the corner, we must now face the cost of a lost year.
In doing so I shall try to contain my frustration with Boris Johnson adding almost daily to the pile of debt by throwing billions at problems such as defence and climate change.
It is easy to defend his £24bn largesse (over several years) towards defence. It is vital Britain is able to defend itself.
Successive governments have left us vulnerable in an increasingly dangerous world. Continuing freedom in the face of Chinese and Russian ambitions and the violence of Islamic extremists does not come cheap.
For the same reason, this is not the time to slash our foreign aid budget with China bent on economically colonising its way to world domination.
But we must be sure it benefits the poor and not dictators’ Swiss bank accounts and minimises conflict, disease and famine.
There is, however, little to be said for Boris’s ridiculous £16bn splurge on the environment. It is little more than virtue signalling at financially the wrong moment, even if we are to chair the next UN climate change summit.
Worse still, it is riddled with nonsense with more cycle lanes to slow down fossil fuel traffic, thereby adding to their pollution, and banning petrol and diesel cars from 2030 without knowing where the power to drive them is coming from.
If our Prime Minister thinks 50,000 unreliable offshore wind turbines, plus the development of as yet untried small modular nuclear reactors and other sources of energy such as hydrogen add up to a viable energy policy, he needs to be taken away by the men in white coats.
In no way does it meet the basic need for an energy policy that provides clean, secure supply at lowest cost. The consumer faces paying through the nose for his electricity from a transmission system that the National Grid says is already under pressure because of unreliable renewable sources.
When the UK emits less than two per cent of the world’s CO2, it is dicing with political death to saddle the people with extra costs when they face high unemployment, wage freezes and higher taxes,
Boris would be in deeper trouble if Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer’s mettle were not being tested by the divisive legacy of Jeremy Corbyn and his Momentum and McCluskey mob.
This brings me finally to Rishi Sunak’s dilemma over reducing debt while, among other things, trying to reinvigorate the North.
The public sector cannot grumble about a pay standstill which exempts hard-pressed, front-line NHS staff. But it would help if the bloated plutocrats of big business and cosseted executives of local authorities and universities also practised restraint.
Shareholders, ratepayers and students and their parents should demand it.
Meanwhile, any rewards via tax should go to those who create jobs in new or rejuvenated businesses. The Chancellor must level with us today: we all have an obligation to minimise Britain’s debt and maximise its income.
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