Diversionary tactics

All the media attention is on the Conservative Leadership election and, de facto, the selection of the next Prime Minister by some 150,000 Conservative Party members.

Jeremy Hunt is calling on Boris Johnson to stop hiding from public sight, arguing, correctly, that he ought to answer questions about his policies.

Put to one side the questions about his character, although they are ones to which he should respond.  Conspiracy theorists might be tempted to believe that all the brouhaha, about what actually happened last week at his girlfriend’s flat, and which led to the police being called, is being stirred up by his supporters as a diversion from the serious policy challenges he should be facing.

But it’s Boris Johnson’s policies – or lack of them – on which we ought to concentrate.

For example, Boris Johnson asserted, yet again last week, that tariffs would not necessarily have to be paid if the UK left the EU without a deal because the UK could rely on the general agreement on tariffs and trade (GATT). Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England – a Canadian with no political axe to grind – had to go public, not for the first time, to confirm that the UK would be hit automatically by tariffs on exports to the EU in a no-deal Brexit, and that Johnson was simply wrong.

The more that Boris Johnson’s assertions are exposed to the white heat of scrutiny, the more that we shall see that his analysis and policies simply do not add up.

But the problem goes much deeper than that.

We know that Theresa May’s government is a front-runner in the ‘worst government in history’ race. We also know that, like David Cameron, Mrs May has used the UK employment figures, claiming ‘record highs’, to suggest that all is well with the UK economy.

Well, stop and think again.

Let me share some facts about our economy and the implications for households. And then just put this information in the context where, whatever the Brexit outcome now, we know that we are in for really rocky times in the next few years.

Household debt has been rising since 2016 and is forecast to reach 150 per cent of disposable income by early 2024. The Office for National Statistics UK household debt is the worst on record and amongst the worst of any Western economy.

For an unprecedented nine consecutive quarters, UK households have spent, on average, more than they’ve earned, pushing them into deficit for the first time since the 1980s. In other words, most households are maintaining their standard of living only by borrowing more. Is it any surprise that more than 8 million people in Britain are classified as experiencing problem debt?

And the problem is going to get worse.

The Conservative government has frozen in-work benefits at a time when food prices are rising and wages have not been keeping up. The Trades Union Congress economists – of which I was one, many years ago – are warning that the growth of consumer credit is a sign of fundamental problems in the economy, such as weak pay growth and low public investment. I agree.

After nine years of austerity, people are, on average, paid less than they were a generation ago. In relation to those on the lowest earnings, six million people are earning less than the living wage.

The continuing increases in household debt tell us that families are struggling to get by on their pay alone and that many are over-optimistic about their future earnings. At the same time, public and private investment growth are well behind the level of similar countries.

We need an economy that is fundamentally more prosperous and where prosperity is shared by all.

Boris Johnson simply doesn’t have policies which address these challenges. It is little wonder that he is ducking and diving to avoid being challenged about his policy agenda.

We should be afraid. Very afraid.

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