Why won’t Johnson and Cummings learn from the last crisis?

This is the worst economic crisis for perhaps three centuries. But it was not that long ago we were in the throes of an economic disaster we thought was the worst any of us would experience: the banking crisis.

The response of the government led by Gordon Brown was not perfect. But there is no credible narrative that describes it as a disaster, in some contrast to the narratives of even Tory MPs for this government’s stewardship of the Covid-19 challenge.

Arguably there could and should have been a more imaginative reform of the banking system in the aftermath of the 2007/8 shock. But the magnitude of the loss of national income was significantly dampened.

Also unemployment increased far less than most economists expected.

That said, there was a painful trade off, in that living standards subsequently stagnated for many more years than was anticipated by those same economists.

But the important point is that the wheels did not come off. We survived and gradually began to thrive again (and many would argue the “too gradually” was the painful legacy of Cameron’s and Osborne’s ensuing austerity).

By the way, the stats released on Tuesday showing unemployment has not risen yet are neither comforting or surprising.

The point is that as of 14 June a staggering 11.7m people would in normal circumstances have been classified as unemployed (at least many of them would have been) if it were not for the near £30bn spent so far by the Treasury on subsidising companies to keep staff on their books and the self employed to continue being self employed (in a technical if not economically real sense).

The 9% drop in hours actually worked, also revealed on Tuesday, is a better clue to the unemployment horrors that await, absent an ambitious and creative Treasury plan to redirect redundant workers to new opportunities and relevant training.

So here is what is profoundly puzzling: there is expertise available about how to cope with the mother of all economic shocks (the last one) but this government led by Boris Johnson seems to be totally ignoring it - just as the prime minister seemingly ignored health lessons learned by other countries that were ahead of us in the coronavirus crisis (while Tory refusenik Rory Stewart was almost branded an enemy of the people by his erstwhile cabinet colleagues for begging that the government learn from South Korea, Singapore and China).

This is not to argue that Boris Johnson should invite Gordon Brown himself into government at this moment of economic life or death. Their characters are so different - one obsessive about what actually works, the other obsessive about how it looks (you decide which is which) - that it is hard to imagine what a constructive conversation between the two of them would be.

But there is an enormous store of knowledge in former officials and advisers who were in the thick of the banking crisis, or were simply top class civil servants, and now operate at very senior levels in the private sector.

Those who spring to mind include Sharon White, chair of John Lewis, Shriti Vadera, recently chosen to chair the Prudential, and John Kingman, chair of Legal and General. There are plenty of others too.

Apart from having been battle-hardened in a previous economic crisis, they have another big thing in common, which seems sorely lacking in this administration - they actually know how to get things done in government, they know how to operate the Whitehall and public-sector machines.

The help of none has been sought. And it is hard to resist the suspicion that they have been ignored because we are still in an era where they will be viewed through the prism of Brexit, as Remainers, who are part of the problem and are therefore not to be trusted.

That is not a suspicion lacking in evidence. The prime minister’s most powerful adviser Dominic Cummings has peopled Downing Street and the Treasury with Vote Leave allies and sympathisers. The cabinet us still largely a Brexiter cabinet - even though Brexit was yesterday’s battle.

And another thing. The two most eye-catching and important recent appointments, the individuals to run vaccines and NHS Test and Trace, were Kate Bingham and Dido Harding, who have one thing in common along with impressive commercial records: their spouses are Tory MPs, Jesse Norman and John Penrose, respectively, and are therefore part of the family, as it were.

Here is the thing. Bingham and Harding may well have been the most outstanding candidates. But we are in the grips of a crisis of such magnitude and complexity that if Johnson and Cummings lack the confidence to go outside the family for advice and support, we are probably in big trouble - because keeping it in the family has not been an unmitigated triumph, yet.

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