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Johnson passes the buck to UK institutional investors

Bannered up as a ‘call to action’, it has all the hallmarks of an excuse-in-the-making


Pete Carvill

About two years ago, I spent a morning climbing and jumping down into the gorge beneath the town of Ronda, Spain. Afterwards, I had to climb back out and while it is not a long trek if you go at it in a straight line, the circuitous route down and the midday 40-degree heat nearly killed me.

Back at the top, I stumbled into the Plaza de María Auxiliadora and collapsed into a chair at the nearest restaurant.

Sat at the table behind me were two American tourists. Their husbands had gone off to see the local bullring, which is the oldest permanent one in Spain. They asked me where I was from and we chatted. It soon became obvious that my new friends, who came from Colorado, were huge Trump supporters. At one point, and this is not a joke, one of them seemed to be checking the news on her phone, and said, “They’re starting on the wall soon. Good.” And she said it loud enough so that it was a challenge to all those sitting around her to push back on it.

She then picked up on my accent and asked me about Boris Johnson. “They say he’s the British Trump!” she said, a gleam in her eyes.

Trying to be polite, I said, “Well, there are certain parallels.”

In my view of a sane world, the Conservatives would have a leader like Rory Stewart. And the Labour Party would have… a leader. But as my dear, departed grandmother would say on the few occasions when I entered a room and she was sober, “There is no circus without a clown.”

With a grimace

That is why it was so galling when Johnson issued a ‘challenge letter’ calling for an ‘Investment Big Bang’ that will ‘unlock the hundreds of billions of pounds sitting in UK institutional investors and use it to drive the UK’s recovery’. I am not sure how that much money could be sitting in an institutional investor, only that it must be painful however it is done.

The whole thing has been co-signed by chancellor Rishi Sunak, who I imagine probably had to hold down his own writing arm as he put his signature to it. If a letter could have a thin and forced smile, this would be it.

Given that Johnson has so far failed to build a garden bridge, could not crowdfund to have Big Ben ring to celebrate Brexit, and essentially split Northern Ireland off from the rest of the UK after saying he would not – I’m not entirely sure his appeal to the sober, conservative minds of institutional investors is a sound one. The only thing with a lower probability of success would be declaring war on the entire US Army while armed only with a penknife.

It is certainly something when the prime minister of the United Kingdom cannot sit down and get an audience with investors and, instead, pens a pleading letter outlining the benefits of investing money in the UK. It is as if he does not know that these investors are usually pretty good in knowing what a good investment is, and do not need his advice or encouragement. This is performative politics from a man who claims not to do gestures.

On deaf ears

It is also galling to see Johnson pushing and championing British industry when the Brexit campaign that he led has done so much to decimate it. After promising in 2016 with all the intent and seriousness that he gives his previous marriage vows that the UK would not leave the single market if it voted for Brexit, that went and happened anyway.

There might be a case for institutional investors to put their money into the UK, but it is not in this letter. If it reeks of anything, it is desperation, a pre-emptive passing of the buck, a ‘Please hold this because I don’t know what to do with it’ request.

The responsibility for boosting the British economy falls on the shoulders of which of the two parties is in charge. If Johnson wants to promote and provoke the financial landscape of the UK, he should be doing it through fiscal policies, laws, and regulations that clear and form a path to that very goal. To pass it along with a passive-aggressive open letter asking others to do his job for him is yet another abdication of responsibility.