Boris Johnson will seek to wrap himself in the mantle of one of the most-revered American presidents in modern times on Tuesday, as he attempts to refocus his premiership by promising a “New Deal” for Britain in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
According to pre-released extracts, Johnson’s speech will highlight projects worth £5bn, which he will “accelerate”, including improvements to schools and hospitals, and “shovel ready” schemes such as parks improvements.
Speaking in the West Midlands, he will claim his ambitions to rebuild Britain echo the achievements of Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR), who carried out a wholesale reconstruction of the US economy in the wake of the Great Depression and is remembered for large-scale projects such as the Hoover Dam.
But critics of the prime minister will likely highlight there is no new money in the announcement.
Some observers derided Johnson’s suggestion that his plan bore any resemblance to the 1930s White House.
“The notion that he’s going to turn himself into FDR seems absolutely fanciful,” said professor Anand Menon, of thinktank UK in a Changing Europe.
“FDR surrounded himself with experts, and drew on what they had to say, in a way that Boris Johnson so far has not.”
Tuesday’s speech comes after a bruising few weeks for Johnson personally and his government, with poll ratings for both dipping dramatically as headlines were dominated by Dominic Cummings’ cross-country drive during lockdown, Johnson’s U-turn over free school meals, and allegations of cash-for-favours against Robert Jenrick.
While Downing Street insisted Johnson’s speech is not part of a relaunch, No 10 is keen to restore its grip on the news agenda with upbeat messaging about the future.
Johnson will say: “It sounds positively Rooseveltian. It sounds like a New Deal. All I can say is that if so, then that is how it is meant to sound and to be, because that is what the times demand. A government that is powerful and determined and that puts its arms around people at a time of crisis.”
He will add; “This is a government that is wholly committed not just to defeating coronavirus but to using this crisis finally to tackle this country’s great unresolved challenges of the last three decades.”
Despite International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts suggesting the UK is on track for one of the worst economic downturns in the G7, Johnson will insist, “we will not just bounce back, we will bounce forward”.
Among the projects the prime minister is expected to highlight are bridge repairs in Sandwell, digital upgrades to courts, and improvements to local high streets. He will also promise £1.5bn for hospital maintenance.
To underscore his green credentials, Johnson will recommit to planting over 75,000 acres of trees every year by 2025 – and pledge £40m to boost local conservation projects and create 3000 jobs, including new Conservation Rangers.
However, Green MP Caroline Lucas said: “The point about Roosevelt’s New Deal was that it was visionary – for the 1930s. Ninety years on, we need a different vision, so not a new deal, but a green new deal and that has to go far beyond tree-planting, welcome though that is.”
Johnson’s spending announcements are intended to show that the government is sticking to its levelling up agenda despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Too many parts of this country have felt left behind, neglected, unloved, as though someone had taken a strategic decision that their fate did not matter as much as the metropolis,” he would assert.
His language echoes that used by Jeremy Corbyn, who blamed the Brexit vote in 2016 on “people and places that have been left behind” – who went on to vote Tory in December.
Whitehall sources said the prime minister’s speech would focus on the medium and longer term needs of the economy and that the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, would be providing short-term support for growth in his summer update next month. “This is part of the same overall economic plan and the financing of it,” one said.
The treasury has been working closely with Number 10 on Johnson’s package, which does not involve new spending but will allocate some of the £600bn-plus that Sunak earmarked in his March budget for capital projects over the next five years.
The chancellor believes the government should show that it can spend the sums already pledged – the highest net investment since 1955 adjusted for inflation – before increasing the infrastructure budget further. The individual pledges have met the treasury’s value for money tests.
The chancellor has been encouraged by the signs that the decision to open non-essential shops in England from 15 June has led to a bigger increase in spending than he expected.
Despite pressure on him to announce a blanket cut in VAT, Sunak is keener on measures that boost employment and is looking at ways of providing targeted support for sectors such as hospitality, which have been badly affected by the three-month lockdown of the economy and where millions of jobs are at risk.
Shadow chancellor Annaliese Dodds urged the prime minister to show “a laser-like focus on preventing further job losses and supporting future employment”. Labour has been calling for a “budget for jobs”, to try and stem layoffs in the coming months.
The chancellor is billing his summer statement as the second phase of a three-part response to Covid-19, following the emergency support provided in the spring and ahead of the budget and a spending review in the autumn.
Last week, Johnson announced a radical reopening package that will see pubs, restaurants and hotels reopen on Saturday, in a move government scientific advisers conceded was “not risk-free”.
Ministers have also been stung by the backlash from parents against the government’s failure to ensure more children could go back to school.
Later this week, the education secretary Gavin Williamson is expected to announce more details of the government’s plans for getting all children back to school in September.
Johnson’s promise of more money for infrastructure projects comes alongside a shakeup of Whitehall machinery, which has already seen the departure announced of cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill, with more changes expected in the coming days.