The most depressing election

It is hard to feel anything but dread about the outcome of the British election. I have written before that Boris Johnson is unfit to be prime minister. He has built a career out of lies, betrayal, obfuscation and bluster, and has been rewarded for it. His own party, knowing all his faults, made him its leader. The public currently gives the Conservatives a double-digit percentage point lead in the polls. It is a matter of national shame that he is prime minster and the shame will only increase if he wins a Parliamentary majority.

Johnson agreed a deal with the EU that abandoned his Northern Ireland allies in the DUP. The only plausible reason that his Eurosceptic allies went along with it is that they expect a very hard Brexit to emerge from the process. That will be extremely bad news for the British economy.

The best that can be said for Jeremy Corbyn is that his opinions are honestly held. But he is an odd figure around whom to build a cult; a stilted speaker with the manner of a crotchety old teacher. John McDonnell, his close colleague, comes across as much more warm, intelligent and thoughtful. Corbyn has lived on the political fringes for much of his career and only seems comfortable with like minded people. His natural tendency is to associate with anyone who opposes the west, and this has led him to appear on Iranian state TV (despite that government’s suppression of dissent and homophobia) and Russia Today, Putin’s propaganda station. He has associated himself with people with anti-semitic views.

If Labour’s 1983 manifesto was dubbed “the longest suicide note in history”, the 2019 version looks like the longest Christmas wish list on record. Another £58bn of spending was added to the bill over the weekend when Labour promised to compensate women for the change in the state pension age. There is a case for a Keynesian stimulus to the British economy (cutting taxes or boosting spending) since growth has been sluggish and there is potentially a lot of underemployment. There is a case for investing in infrastructure while borrowing costs are so low. There is a case of changing the tax system to help the poorest and for increasing marginal tax rates on the wealthiest.

But for business, this looks like a very hostile manifesto. The tax on corporate profits will go up; there will be windfall taxes on oil and tech companies; nationalisation of utilities at less than market prices; and a plan that will transfer 10% of corporate equity to effective state control (officially to workers, but workers won’t have ownership rights). All this at a moment when foreign direct investment has already fallen to the lowest level in six years because of Brexit. McDonnell made clear that Labour will seek to prevent companies from passing higher taxes on to consumers and workers. That implies a long-term hit to profits for companies operating in Britain. So why would any foreign company choose to move to the UK, and why wouldn’t some foreign companies that are currently here seek to leave?

In short, I think that the policies of both parties will be bad for the British economy. Under either party, I fear the image of Britain in the eyes of the world will be tainted.

That only leaves the Liberal Democrats who are anti-Brexit and whose views in general are more centrist. But their leader, Jo Swinson, is not impressing the public and the party is going backwards in the polls. It will be lucky to hold on to its existing number of seats.

Might election night have any comforts? Some Brexiteers could lose their seats. The Brexit party may do extremely poorly, consigning Nigel Farage to the role of shockjock. And it is possible that Corbyn’s defeat will push the Labour party in a more moderate direction, although it may take more than one humiliation for that to happen.

But I fear we will be gazing at the smug grin of Boris Johnson on December 13, and the appointment of a lot of hard-faced ideologues who will feel they have the people behind them.

Economist columnist, opinions generally my own, typos always my fault. Author of Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine

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