The Johnson plan is now taking shape, with three components. The first is better infrastructure. Johnson has already indicated that he intends to rip up Treasury rules about funding capital projects to ensure that more building takes place outside of London and the south-east. I understand that Javid has already instructed the Treasury to start work on this. We can expect a slew of big projects to get the go-ahead, alongside dozens of smaller local ones.
Johnson’s time as London Mayor convinced him that much of the capital’s success is down to its transport network: mayors who come knocking on doors in Whitehall asking for money to improve connectivity can expect a positive response. One area that will do particularly well is the West Midlands, where the Tories made big gains on election night and face a mayoral contest in 2020.
Next comes better internet and mobile phone signal. The Tory promise to deliver full-fibre broadband to every home within five years is, arguably, their most ambitious infrastructure commitment. Without that, 20 per cent of the country would still be without full-fibre broadband by 2025, and any part of the world that is in the slow lane of the information superhighway is going to get left behind, never mind the talents of its population.
The second part of the Johnson plan is for active state support for research. The Tory manifesto was a deliberately cautious document, but page 40 reveals a bold agenda for how state spending on R&D can attract and support new private sector companies. It is their version of an industrial strategy.
It is hard to overstate the importance that those closest to Johnson attach to this agenda. The party’s election slogan was ‘Get Brexit done and unleash Britain’s potential’. But as one Tory points out, Dominic Cummings’s personal slogan was ‘Get Brexit done then ARPA’. This is a reference to the Advanced Research Projects Agency, a $3 billion-a-year research centre run by the US government intended to develop military technology — but often with civilian offshoots. Cummings is fascinated by the potential for the UK government to do something similar, using government contracts to nurture new private sector companies.
The UK has four of the ten leading universities in the world (Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and Imperial) under the QS rankings, and 18 of the top 100 (including Durham, Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield). There is a ready-made northern powerhouse of academic excellence — it just needs someone to put together the pieces. The challenge for the government is to replicate the golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge. One way to do this is by the decisions that government itself takes. For example, it has plans to have 20 institutes of technology. These can be strategically placed, as can the new advanced research projects agency. As one secretary of state argues, the cluster effect is created not only by independent investors, but by where government bases new institutions. By choosing wisely, the government might foster clusters that turn out to be as significant as Docklands has been. Newcastle, for example, would be ideally suited to becoming the centre of a life sciences cluster.
The third component of Johnson’s plan is another example of post-Brexit industrial policy — free ports. The idea is simple: zones where goods can move back and forth without paying customs duties. The Tories are committed to creating ten of them. The traditional Treasury opposition to them is that they just move economic activity around the country. But that is precisely what this government, with its focus on regional inequality, is trying to achieve.