Not the end of ideology.

AuthorSutcliffe-Braithwaite, Florence

On 17 March, Rishi Sunak told Parliament that the 'national effort' against Covid-19 would be 'underpinned by government interventions in the economy on a scale unimaginable only a few weeks ago'. He went on: 'this is not a time for ideology and orthodoxy'. (1) Under May and more so under Johnson, the Tories have attempted to reinvent themselves as the party of workers, or even the working class, as the party for industry and regional 'levelling up'. But old economic orthodoxies still underpin Tory decisions.

In subsequent weeks and months, the government has indeed made unprecedented interventions in the economy: government-backed loans to businesses, the Coronavirus Jobs Retention Scheme, small increases to Universal Credit (UC), deferring tax, supporting the incomes of self-employed people, and so on. But examining Sunak's rhetorical justifications for this set of interventions demonstrates the underlying structure of his beliefs about the economy, and here, in fact, not much has changed. On 17 March he talked about supporting 'jobs', 'incomes' and 'businesses'. (2) On 20 March he said, 'I have a responsibility to make sure we protect, as far as possible, people's jobs and incomes'. (3) And on 27 April he clarified that the 'goal' was to provide a 'bridge' over 'a sharp and significant crisis', by 'keeping as many people as possible in their existing jobs; supporting viable businesses to stay afloat and protecting the incomes of the most vulnerable'. Sunak spelled out the fundamental goal of all this: 'to maintain the productive capacity of the British economy'. (4)

In talk about supporting 'viable businesses' we see the persistence of longstanding Conservative framings of the economy as a competitive arena in which the weak must fail in order to promote productivity gains and innovation. Sunak admits not all businesses will make it, but implies this is unavoidable: survival of the fittest.

But how does the government justify paying one group of people up to [pounds sterling]2,500 a month while they are not working, while another group gets [pounds sterling]342.74 a month (the rate, after 6 April, for single UC claimants aged under 25)? One idea underlying this, of course, is the deep-rooted division between the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor. These categories have long been leveraged by Tories to stigmatise people who rely on benefits. But as the claimant base for UC drastically expands--950,000 people applied successfully between...

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