Boris Johnson is to ‘take personal charge’ of a new crackdown on crime and gangs. So reports Steve Swinford of the Times, one of the Lobby’s best reporters.
While this is a good and new story, for a jaded and ageing ex-hack like me it crystallises a vague feeling that’s been nagging at me for a few weeks and prompts this realisation: Boris Johnson is turning into Tony Blair.
These days Blair is often remembered as the quintessential metropolitan liberal politician, a champion of globalisation, economic openness and, above all, the EU.
I became a Lobby reporter in 2001 and my memory of the Blair government that I covered is was rather different. On the economy, he oversaw an expansion of state spending and state provision. Corbynite Labour might now regard him as an austere ‘neoliberal’ (whatever that means) but that’s hard to square with his spending on the NHS, programmes like Sure Start and the national minimum wage.
On a left-right spectrum of economic policy, Blair as PM would be closer to the centre than his contemporary image as Davos Man would suggest.
On the other spectrum by which politicians should be assessed, the authoritarian-liberal scale, where to place Blair? Again, his arch-Remainer social liberal image today is not what he was in office. He may be rolling in cash, but he was never for shrinking the state.
The reason that Times story reminds me of Blair is that he was quite consciously ‘tough’ on crime and keen to be seen as such. ASBOs, the ‘Respect Agenda’ and the idea of police officers frogmarching drunks and yobs to cashpoints – Blair’s premiership was built on the promise of a strong state protecting the law-abiding majority from people who break the rules. He had some serious issues with the judiciary and wider legal system too, born of frustration that despite a big majority in the Commons, he couldn’t always get his own way.
The combination of a well-funded state and mild authoritarianism made Blairism’s domestic aspect very popular. Arguably if it hadn’t been for the international aspects (Iraq, Europe) he could have stayed in office and quite likely won a fourth election in 2010.
And of course, Blair regularly ‘took personal charge’ of such things, an approach that also led to the frequent appearance of the ‘Downing Street summit’ with officials and others. I’ll bet you five euros that Boris Johnson ‘convenes a ‘Downing Street summit’ on some aspect of law and order this year. Another five says there’ll be a new ‘task force’ too.
A more generous state and a personal crackdown on the bad guys? You can see why I feel a bit of déjà vu today.
Of course, Johnson would be unlikely to welcome this comparison – remember the last Tory ‘heir to Blair’? – but it would make good electoral sense. After all, what other agenda will hold together the current Tory-voting coalition? Would it really be such a bad thing if Boris Johson turns out to be Tony Blair without Iraq and the EU? There’s a reason the man won three elections, you know.