‘Attacks on the wealthy authors of “Austerity 2.0” could backfire’, Financial Times, 18 November 2022

If Jeremy Hunt’s first Autumn Statement doesn’t run into problems over the next few days — not least with his Conservative colleagues — he will be exceptionally lucky. Every Tory chancellor who has delivered a Budget since 2010 has had to come back to the Commons to reverse one or more proposals — although none quite so spectacularly as his predecessor, Kwasi Kwarteng.

George Osborne, who Hunt apparently called for advice on this week’s package, knows this all too well. In 2012, he was forced to beat a strategic retreat on multiple measures after his “omnishambles” Budget. Nadine Dorries suggested that Osborne and prime minister David Cameron were “two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”.

Dorries was voicing a wider concern among Conservatives that the wealth and privilege of its top team make spending cuts and tax rises difficult to sell to hard-pressed voters — even if some of them, including this week’s cut to the capital gains allowance on dividends and second homes, are, symbolically at least, targeted at the well-off.

That concern is even greater now, given that the two Tories attempting to rein in public spending are far wealthier than Cameron and Osborne.

Hunt is reportedly worth at least £14mn and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (thanks to his wife, Akshata Murty) £730mn. But does the fact that half of the country apparently thinks Sunak is too rich to be prime minister really create a political problem? British attitudes to the rich are rather more nuanced — and less hostile — than imagined. Courtesy of detailed research conducted in the US, Germany, France and Britain by Rainer Zitelmann, a sociologist, we can see by how much.

Britons seem far less prone to envy than their continental cousins. Zitelmann classifies 34 per cent of the French and 33 per cent of Germans as envious of the rich, but only 18 per cent of British respondents (and 20 per cent of Americans) fall into that category.

The study also revealed, however, that the nation regarded some rich people as more deserving than others — entrepreneurs, the self-employed and top musicians and actors, with athletes not too far behind. Bottom of the list (no surprise perhaps) come bankers. Helpful for the proudly entrepreneurial Hunt, perhaps, but less so for Goldman Sachs alumnus Sunak.

Fortunately for both, although a fairly predictable set of negative characteristics are associated with the rich, only about a quarter of Britons picked ruthless or greedy. They were also significantly less likely than the Germans and French to blame the rich “for many of the major problems in the world” — Labour voters (33 per cent) were much more likely than their Conservative counterparts (13 per cent) to hold the wealthy responsible.

That divide resurfaces on attitudes to tax. Only 20 per cent of Labour supporters (compared with 46 per cent of Tory supporters) opposed “excessive” taxes on the rich since they’d worked hard. Asked if the rich should pay very high taxes to ensure the gap between rich and poor didn’t grow too great, 53 per cent agreed while just 21 per cent of Tories did. More Britons — by a margin of 38-29 per cent — favoured very high taxes for the rich than worried about them being excessive.

What we regard as “excessive” is moot. Conservatives are fond of reminding people of tax rates imposed on the rich in the 1970s — so “punitive”, they argue, that they stifled entrepreneurship and turned voters against high taxes, leading them to elect Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Recent historical research on public attitudes to taxation from the mid-1940s to the early 1990s, however, reveals that this narrative took hold only in the late 1980s, and is largely a myth. In reality, any “tax resistance” was outweighed by concerns about public services and overall fairness. It’s unlikely that Hunt’s modest decision to lower the 45p income tax threshold from £150,000 to £125,140 will encounter much opposition.

These days, a majority in Britain support a range of potential wealth taxes, one example being an annual tax of 1 per cent or more on those whose total wealth (excluding home and pension) exceeds £500,000.

All this suggests that Labour (back in 2008 the party dressed activists in top hats in a failed campaign to stop a wealthy Tory candidate winning a by-election) would be wasting its firepower in mounting too crude an attack on the UK’s multi-millionaire Downing Street neighbours. But a more subtle attack on the authors of “Austerity 2.0” could prove useful for the party, given this week’s decisions on tax — particularly in mobilising its own supporters.

The politics of envy? Maybe. But, as the essayist William Hazlitt put it nearly 200 years ago, “Envy among other ingredients has a mixture of the love of justice in it.”

Originally published at https://www.ft.com/content/a7bd1a68-998c-4d26-8a32-c3847b34bc88

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‘The Damned Disunited. Will the Conservative Party fall apart under Rishi Sunak’, UK in a Changing Europe, 24 October 2022.

Liz Truss made much of her connection with Leeds during her bid for the Tory leadership.  But, somewhat ironically, that connection’s even stronger than ever now that she’s resigned as Prime Minister. Not only did Truss live and go to school there for a while, but the 44 days she spent at Number 10 before announcing her resignation ended up exactly matching legendary football boss Brian Clough’s comically short stint in charge of the city’s football club in the summer of 1974 – a period immortalised in the pages of David Peace’s novel The Damned United, which was later made into movie starring Michael Sheen as the famously motor-mouthed manager.

Football fans of a certain age with only vague memories of what happened next can be forgiven for thinking that it was all downhill for Leeds after that, as tensions within the squad, as well as more bad managerial appointments, eventually saw the club demoted, never to recover the glory days they’d experienced under the man Clough took over from, Don Revie.

In reality, however, it wasn’t like that. Clough was rapidly replaced by former England captain Jimmy Armfield, who swiftly stabilised the situation and then further strengthened the side, which, during the four years he was in charge, reached a number of international and domestic cup finals and semi-finals, as well as finishing every season in a reasonably respectable league position.

In case it isn’t obvious by now: for Revie read Johnson; for Clough, read Truss; but the real question is, is Rishi Sunak Jimmy Armfield?

It’s easy to see why he might not be. In contrast to how Revie left Leeds (to take on the England job, incidentally), Johnson didn’t exactly leave his party with a ruthlessly efficient set of players capable of executing their individual roles to perfection but working well as a team too.

Indeed, by the time Johnson departed, over fifty of his frontbench had resigned in protest and he only narrowly won a confidence vote a few weeks previously. And when Truss came in she did a Clough by foolishly replacing tried and trusted team members with ones she reckoned were better suited to her style of play, simultaneously alienating both MPs who’d stuck with Johnson and MPs who hadn’t.

On the other hand, the mess Sunak inherits may, paradoxically, represent something of an opportunity for him. If he is more sensible than Truss and Johnson, both of whom rewarded loyalty rather than talent, and instead reaches across the party when choosing his frontbench team, that could come across an immediate improvement – as long as those MPs who were unaccountably given jobs under the previous regimes are prepared to accept their fate.

Whether that happens may depend on what Conservative MPs think of the party’s electoral chances. If, in reasonably short order, Rishi Sunak looks like he may be capable of saving some of them their seats, then they may well suck up their resentment. If he doesn’t, they’ll probably take it out on him, believing that, had he not removed them from their government post, it might have helped them secure a job with a lobbying firm or as a political pundit following their ejection from the Commons.

But what, I hear you cry, of ideology?  Surely the biggest problem Sunak faces isn’t a mere human resources issue but one of principle?  Won’t ‘the right’ of the parliamentary party go after him after his rejection of Truss’s tax cutting, supply side agenda?

To which the answer is: maybe; but maybe not.

There has been an awful lot of loose talk recently about both Sunak and Hunt being ‘moderates’ or ‘centrists’.  Perhaps, relative to Truss and Kwarteng, they are. But in relation to the rest of the parliamentary party? I don’t think so. In fact, they are more or less what most Tory MPs are these days – bog-standard Thatcherites who want taxes and spending as low as possible and the state as small as possible, but not so low and so small as to lose the confidence of the markets or the goodwill of the electorate.

Sunak is also one of the original Brexiteers, which might just mean he will be given a little more benefit of the doubt should he choose to take a more pragmatic the Northern Ireland Protocol – especially now he can argue he’s doing it for the sake of an economy. That probably won’t help him with the DUP, which in turn won’t help him get the Assembly up and running. But, hey, you can’t have everything.

In short, we hear a lot these days about the Conservative Party being ‘ungovernable’. And perhaps it is. But perhaps that’s partly a reflection of who was trying to govern it rather than something inherent or inevitable.

Theresa May was an ex-Remainer who blew her majority and tried to get a deal to which tens if not hundreds of her MPs objected. Boris Johnson was a disaster waiting to happen – the longstanding doubts about his integrity proved well-founded, and he was only interested in being Prime Minister, not in what prime ministers are actually there to do. And as for Liz Truss, the less said the better.

Rishi Sunak faces huge policy challenges, it is true. But they are, for the most part, not of his own making. His instincts align with the bulk of his parliamentary party. And he is intellectually, temperamentally and communicatively capable of doing the job of PM. Chaos, then, does not necessarily beckon.

Originally published at https://ukandeu.ac.uk/the-damned-disunited-will-the-conservative-party-fall-apart-under-rishi-sunak/

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‘Austerity, Brexit and 44 days in purgatory: the key stages of Tory rule’, Observer, 22 October 2022.

The age of austerity: 2010 and beyond

Up until the financial crash of 2007/8, chancellor George Osborne and PM David Cameron were ‘compassionate Conservatives’, keen to ‘share the proceeds of growth’. But when the shit hit the fan, they were all about balancing the book with cuts to public spending (particularly on welfare and local authorities) bearing a much greater share of the burden than tax rises.

The anaemic economic growth that inevitably followed also translated into stagnant real wages, which only served to persuade people in less prosperous parts of the country that they’d been ‘left behind’ by a liberal elite down in London. This was music to the ears of populist politicians like Nigel Farage, whose wickedly successful campaign to link that discontent with voters’ latent Euroscepticism and their manifest anxieties about mass migration was gaining serious momentum – helped by hapless home secretary Theresa May’s draconian but doomed attempts to meet the government’s unachievable (and economically nonsensical) promise to reduce net migration to ‘the tens of thousands’.

Still, the Tories were canny enough to protect pensioners – their most reliable source of the support. The NHS also survived the cuts, if not a disastrous reorganisation; but waiting lists still grew longer and longer.

EU referendum: June 2016

Panicked by UKIP’s rising popularity, and claiming to be concerned about the government being on the hook for Eurozone bailouts, Conservative MPs pushed Cameron into risking an in-out referendum on the country’s membership of the EU. Worrying far too much about avoiding ‘blue-on-blue’ infighting and far too little about actually losing the vote, Cameron, who’d proved unable to persuade his party he’d brought back much of substance from Brussels, blew it.

Far more of his friends and colleagues – including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – came out for Leave than he’d ever imagined, and Dominic Cummings and his colleagues persuaded them to mount a brutally effective campaign highlighting more money for the NHS and taking back control of immigration, while Nigel Farage took things to another level with his infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster.

Jeremy Corbyn (literally) didn’t help much either. Nor, of course, did the UK’s highly partisan (and – in terms of circulation – overwhelmingly pro-Leave) print media, while public service broadcasters’ determination to provide ‘balance’ backfired by allotting as much airtime to outliers as it did to the ‘experts’ dissed and dismissed by Leave in predictably populist fashion.

The consequent coalition of ‘the left behind’ and ‘comfortable leavers’ ensured the country voted for withdrawal by 52-48 in June 2016. Cameron resigned with immediate effect, leaving the country’s economic and diplomatic policy in limbo and his party in a rancorous mess.

Theresa May and hard Brexit: 2016-2019

The Gove-Johnson partnership dissolved within days of the Conservative leadership kicking off, forcing the latter out of the race and ensuring the former stood no chance of winning it. Bad blood abounded as Theresa May – a ‘reluctant Remainer’, widely (if wrongly) seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’ – was left as the last candidate standing.

Convinced that the referendum was all about the immigration she’d been unable to control as home secretary, and desperate to prove her credentials to Brexiteers wanting trade deals done with the US and the world’s rising powers, May quickly made up her mind that withdrawal from the EU meant leaving both the single market and the customs union, not fully realising, perhaps, the complicated consequences for Northern Ireland.

Caught between her anxieties on that score and the unrelenting pressure to play hardball emanating from Brexiteer ultras in the ERG who never tired of reminding her declaration that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, she failed to persuade her party to vote for the compromise, losing several high-profile colleagues, the brazenly ambitious Boris Johnson, chief among them. Public frustration saw Farage’s newly-formed Brexit Party deliver the Tories a devastating defeat at the European elections, by which time May was on her tearful way out.

Boris Johnson: 2019-2022

Finally fulfilling his puerile dream of becoming ‘world king’ (or at least UK prime minister), Boris Johnson rode a tide of Tory desperation straight into Downing Street, where, helped by his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, he set about seeing off Farage by promising to ‘get Brexit done’ – ‘by any means necessary’. After unlawfully proroguing parliament, ridding the party of Tory MPs who’d thwarted a no-deal Brexit, and agreeing to a customs border down the Irish Sea, he took his ‘oven ready deal’ to the country and (with a little help from Jeremy Corbyn, as well as some supposedly sincere promises on public spending) the Tories won a ‘stonking’ eighty-seat majority.

It quickly became apparent, however, that their populist leader had little interest in, or talent for, actually governing – a reality fatally exposed by his so mishandling the Covid crisis that the UK was left with one of the highest death tolls of any comparable country. N0 10 was also revealed to have hosted myriad illegal parties during lockdown. Notwithstanding his support for Ukraine, his endless references to the country’s successful ‘vaccine roll-out’ and his Cabinet colleagues’ ‘war on woke’, Johnson’s popularity (never as great as his fan-club imagined) evaporated, and a toxic combination of scandal, sheer incompetence, disastrous by-elections and plunging poll-ratings saw him railroaded out of Number Ten by his own MPs.

Trussonomics: 44 days in purgatory

Rather than move on rapidly, the Conservatives, wary of what happened when May won the crown without being tested on the proverbial campaign trail, staged a seemingly endless leadership contest. Ironically, however, the widespread animus felt toward front-runner Rishi Sunak for supposedly ‘stabbing Boris in the back’ delivered victory to Liz Truss – an awkward free market fundamentalist who was more than happy to tell party members whatever they wanted to hear, particularly on tax cuts.

Many expected her to pivot back to a rather more practical stance upon assuming office, not least because it was obvious that the government was going to have to spend billions protecting the public from fast-rising energy prices. But Truss, together with her ideological soulmate and chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, and cheered on by Brexiteer ultras and ‘Tufton Street’ think tanks, was determined to seize a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to slash taxes and deregulate in the name of ‘growth, growth, growth’ – to hell with experts and ‘Treasury orthodoxy’.

The markets balked, and voters looked on aghast before stampeding toward Keir Starmer’s Labour party. Several excruciating media appearances, sackings and parliamentary chaos ensued in short order, and before we knew it, she too was gone – just a bad dream, or a nightmare that the Tories will find it impossible to escape?

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/oct/22/austerity-brexit-and-44-days-in-purgatory-the-key-stages-of-tory-rule

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‘The Conservatives have come back from oblivion before’, Financial Times, 21 October 2022.

It’s not often that things get so desperate in UK politics that one is forced to take solace in poetry. But WB Yeats’s lines capture the truly parlous state in which the British Conservative party finds itself right now.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.

But before we write off what is, after all, the world’s oldest and most successful political party, it’s worth reminding ourselves that it has been here before — many, many times. The Conservatives have faced any number of supposedly existential crises in the hundreds of years they’ve been around — many of them self-inflicted and all of which they’ve eventually recovered from.

Indeed, it was only a few short years after Robert Peel put together the modern Conservative party’s first real statement of aims, the Tamworth Manifesto, in 1834, that the Tories tore themselves apart over the Corn Laws. The turmoil was so damaging that Benjamin Disraeli, remembered as one of the political titans of the Victorian era, actually spent the majority of his parliamentary career in opposition rather than government. It wasn’t until Lord Salisbury emerged as the leader of the party after Disraeli’s death in 1881 that the Tories could credibly claim to be the country’s “natural party of government”.

But anyone believing that things settled down nicely under Salisbury, who was prime minister three times between 1885 and 1902, and his successor Arthur Balfour, in charge until 1906, would be, to quote Liz Truss, “wrong, wrong, wrong”. Both men, and particularly Balfour, had to cope (and this might sound familiar) with a ferociously ambitious colleague hell-bent on upending the free-trade policy that, for decades, had been one of the main drivers of Britain’s economic growth.

Partly as a result of Joseph Chamberlain’s campaign to get the government to adopt tariffs, and partly because of Britain’s involvement in the Boer War — a foreign entanglement that, not for the first or last time in the country’s history, turned out to be both more protracted and costly than had initially been hoped — the Conservatives crashed. It was exactly the kind of defeat, at least in terms of seats, that opinion polls suggest may be on the cards at the next election. Losing 246 seats, most of them to a resurgent Liberal party, the Tories returned only 156 MPs to Westminster.

As the Liberal government started to enact landmark social and fiscal reforms that many assumed would lock in the support of the country’s growing working-class electorate, many Conservatives feared that they might be out of power for years and years. Yet, just four years later, and still under Balfour (who was, incredibly, perhaps, from our contemporary perspective, allowed to stay on as leader after such a heavy defeat), the Tories not only gained more than 100 seats but won only two fewer constituencies, and more individual votes, than the Liberals.

You might think such experiences might have taught later the Tories a lesson about indulging in internal warfare over an economic programme that most experts thought as unworkable as it was unpopular. Not a bit of it. Protectionism remained popular with many in the party even though the policy lost them another election in 1923 — a contest which the leader Stanley Baldwin, who had inherited a healthy majority with years left to run, felt duty-bound to call (in marked contrast to Truss and, no doubt, her successor) to secure a mandate for such a marked change of direction.

Having reverted to free trade, Baldwin then won a landslide the next year only to throw it away five years later in yet another doomed attempt to persuade the country to adopt protectionism. It was a flip-flop worthy of our own era.

All of which — in common with more recent and familiar instances of electoral and reputational recovery after landslide defeats in 1945 and 1997 — serves as a valuable reminder of the Conservative party’s strong survival instinct. While it maybe something of a lumbering dinosaur (and occasionally with policies and attitudes to match), it is a dinosaur that has, over the years, nevertheless survived several massive meteorite strikes that might have been expected to finish it off once and for all.

The conventional wisdom is that the Tories’ ability to thrive under ever-changing socio-economic and cultural conditions is down to its supposedly preternatural talent for adaptation and its healthy suspicion of idées fixes. Yet, as its 19th and early 20th century history, as well as most of the 13 years it spent in opposition in the New Labour era, suggests, both of those qualities can be seriously overestimated.

Time and time again, in fact, the Tory party has found itself ideologically stuck and electorally shellacked, only for voters to forgive and forget when, as inevitably happens, “the other lot” eventually mess up.

True, that nearly always requires some time out of office as well as a new leader (or three). But we live in an old country, with small-c conservative reflexes, and two-party politics underpinned by an electoral system that, for good or ill, looks likely to be with us for some time yet. Whether deserved or not, there will be, to borrow from the title of Yeats’s poem, a second coming for the Conservatives. There always is.

Originally published at https://www.ft.com/content/91571531-931e-45c6-83fa-d85193fe6f27

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‘”Difficult decisions” require the consent of the country’, The Independent, 20 October 2022.

“I have”, Benjamin Disraeli is reputed to have said when he became Tory prime minister for the first time in 1868, “climbed to the top of the greasy pole” – a deliciously apt metaphor given the alarming rate at which his 21st-century equivalents seem to have been slipping off it in the years since the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016.

Short stays in Downing Street were not that unusual in Disraeli’s day, of course: Britain’s party system wasn’t fully consolidated, and in any case, politicians back then were far more likely than their modern counterparts to fall gravely ill and even die in office. But rapid turnover at the top wasn’t totally unknown in the 20th century, either. And elections could sometimes come thick and fast, too.

In May 1923, for example, following his victory in the November 1922 general election, Tory prime minister Andrew Bonar Law, having spent barely 200 days in office, was forced by ill health to give way to his cabinet colleague Stanley Baldwin. However, when Baldwin called a general election in December 2023, he managed (Theresa May-style) to lose his majority.

Ramsay MacDonald then became the country’s first ever Labour prime minister – but not for long: 10 months later his minority administration lost a vote of no confidence in the Commons, after which Baldwin returned to office having won the general election of October 1924 – the third to be held in under two years. A cynic might suggest, on the basis of all those ups and downs, that sometimes you really can have too much of a good thing. But to argue that Britain at the time was suffering from some sort of surfeit of democracy would be mistaken.

For one thing, Britain wasn’t actually a democracy at all until 1929 – the date of the first election in which adult women were finally entitled to vote. And for another, the three elections of the early 1920s (and indeed the 1931 election, which saw the country’s second Labour government swept away in the wake of the Great Crash) were crucial in the sense that the prime ministers who called them were, quite rightly, seeking a fresh mandate.

In 1922, Bonar Law sought a return to single party majority government under the Tories after six years of wartime and post-war coalition under David Lloyd George. In 1923, Baldwin felt duty-bound to seek permission for a sudden, even spectacular reversal of Britain’s traditional free-trade policy. In 1924, MacDonald had no choice but to go to the country in the hope that it had come to recognise that Labour politicians were not merely trade union ciphers but were capable of governing in the national interest.

And in 1931 he was essentially confessing to voters that he’d been wrong, and that – with the exception of himself and a couple of cabinet colleagues who had joined the National government – they weren’t after all. On those grounds, it would seem – whatever else you might think of them, and irrespective of the fact that they also went to the country because they believed they would win – that Theresa May, in 2017, and even Boris Johnson, in 2019, were doing the decent thing, democratically speaking.

Having argued, however reluctantly, for Remain during the referendum campaign, May was, by early 2017, promising to deliver a hard Brexit – something for which the Conservatives, re-elected just two years previously, had only the shakiest of mandates. She (or at least her adviser Nick Timothy) also envisaged a more interventionist, less austerity-obsessed policy programme than the one on which David Cameron had run.

As for Johnson, he was promising (whether or not he really meant it, or even much cared about it) more spending on public services than she was, as well as promoting a deal with the EU in which the status of Northern Ireland would be markedly different from what May had envisaged. General elections were therefore wholly in order. By the same logic, Liz Truss, when she took over, should have been considering going to the country sooner or later, too. But she wasn’t: she hoped to use the healthy majority won by her predecessor to pursue market-fundamentalist policies that were a major departure from the ones on which she and her colleagues had campaigned in 2019.

As for whoever eventually takes over from her: if the Tories really are planning to take “decisions of eye-watering difficulty” (Hunt-speak for spending cuts), then that represents no less a departure from what was promised in 2019, and, as such, arguably merits going back to the country to gain its consent. That won’t, of course, happen. Morality, or the conviction that a change of leader constitutes a change of government, might dictate a fresh election. But reality, tempered by polling that seems to predict annihilation for the Conservative Party, points in a very different direction.

Originally published at https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/election-now-liz-truss-difficult-decisions-b2205234.html

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‘Make no mistake: Liz Truss’s days are numbered’, El País, 18 October 2022.

For aficionados of irony, the spectacle of a free-market-fundamentalist finance minister being forced from office by the markets themselves is nothing short of delicious. But for Prime Minister Liz Truss, who at the end of last week decided to throw her Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng to the wolves in an attempt to save her own skin, there’s nothing remotely amusing about the situation. ‘KamiKwasi’ may have been a hapless failure but he was at least a useful lightning-rod. Now he’s gone, Truss is left horribly exposed.

A prime minister firing their finance minister is hardly unprecedented: after all, arguments between Number Ten and Number Eleven Downing Street have been a near-constant feature of British political life, and successive chancellors have often had to pay a political price when the UK economy has run into trouble. But two things about Kwarteng’s spectacular fall from grace stand out.

First, the UK has never seen a chancellor dismissed so soon after being appointed – especially not by the very same prime minister who gave them the job in the first place. Second, Kwarteng’s dismissal had nothing whatsoever to do with policy differences with Truss: indeed, in another delicious irony, he is probably the first chancellor ever to be sacked for agreeing wholeheartedly with his boss.

Both Truss and Kwarteng had long argued that the state should shrink, taxes should be lower, public spending should be cut, welfare benefits should be less generous, and regulations on businesses should be removed. Only then could the British economy be made fit for the 21st century, ensuring that the country could carry on fulfilling its destiny one as of the world’s great trading, diplomatic and military powers.

True, Truss – unlike Kwarteng – initially saw Brexit as something of a distraction. But once the UK voted to leave the European Union, she embraced it with the zeal of a convert, convinced, like him, that the only way to reach the neoliberal nirvana foreshadowed in their 2012 book Britannia Unchained would be to exploit the sovereignty regained by its departure from the EU to bring about the changes they longed for.

Truss winning the leadership of the Conservative Party, becoming prime minister and appointing Kwarteng as her chancellor, then, was the chance for the pair to finally realise their dream. But their decision to do so via a shock-and-awe, move-fast-and-break-things, ‘mini-Budget’ that promised supply-side reforms and unfunded tax cuts for the rich rapidly turned into a nightmare.

The pound plunged, the cost of government borrowing shot up, prompting sharp increases in interest rates on home loans and obliging the Bank of England to intervene in order to safeguard occupational pension funds. Rescuing the situation has required a reversal of many if not all of the mini-Budget’s proposals as well as Kwarteng’s replacement (announced in a humiliating, even excruciating news conference conducted by Truss on Friday afternoon) by Jeremy Hunt – a more experienced politician who has immediately made clear that he will be effectively scrapping his predecessor’s plans so as to calm the markets.

The question everyone is asking, however, is will that be enough – even if, for the moment at least, the markets seem prepared to give Hunt the benefit of the doubt – to save Liz Truss? Opinion polls suggest, after all, that the public hold her every bit as responsible as her former finance minister for the calamity and chaos of the last few weeks. They also suggest that voters, who currently say they prefer the opposition Labour Party to the Conservatives by an eye-watering margin of something between 21 and 33 percentage points, now see her as generally untrustworthy, incompetent, overly-ideological and even dislikeable – something that research suggests matters a great deal electorally as politics even in parliamentary systems has arguably become more ‘presidentialised.’ Unsurprisingly, perhaps, around six out of 10 British voters now think Truss should step down.

The problem is, of course, that the only people who can make that happen are her own colleagues on the Conservative benches at Westminster. But in reality it’s not as big a problem as many imagine.

The party’s rules say MPs can’t try to vote their leader out for a year. But those rules can be easily changed by MPs themselves – and they will be if she refuses to go voluntarily.

True, Conservative MPs know they cannot then inflict another full-blown leadership contest on the country. But they also know those same rules can, if necessarily, be flexed to ensure that grassroots members of the party are cut out of the process.

Currently, as happened over the summer (and back in 2019) MPs first vote to decide on two candidates who then go through to a ballot of all party members. But there are several ways of avoiding that ballot.

MPs could negate the need for even a parliamentary vote by agreeing on who should take over. Or, should the fact that at least three or four of their colleagues are clearly interested in the job render a ‘coronation’ impossible, they could hold that vote and agree that whoever finishes second should concede defeat. Or they could set the nomination threshold so high at the outset that only one candidate enters, and therefore wins, the race.

‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’, as the saying goes. Most Conservative MPs are now thinking not about whether they should replace Truss as prime minister but about how – and when. It could be sooner. It could be later. But make no mistake: Liz Truss’s days are numbered.

Originally published in Spanish at https://elpais.com/opinion/2022-10-18/todas-las-miradas-puestas-en-liz-truss.html

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‘Nationalised ideas factories would make better policy’, Research Professional News, 12 October 2022.

Anyone who’s being paying attention to the disastrous start of Liz Truss’s premiership may have seen it blamed on ‘Tufton Street’ —shorthand for a network of free-market think tanks five minutes’ walk from the Palace of Westminster.

It’s rumoured that some of the tax-cutting and deregulatory policies in the government’s pound-crashing, interest-rate-hiking Growth Plan were dreamed up by right-wing wonks so in thrall to neoliberal economic theory that, ironically enough, they failed to realise how the markets would react when Truss offered no plans to balance the books.

Those rumours aren’t unfounded. Truss and her cabinet brought in a host of staffers with past or present links to various right-wing outfits. This traffic is hardly new: think tanks based in Tufton Street (pictured above) were invited to pitch, dragons-den-style, suggestions for the Tories’ 2019 manifesto.

Moreover, there is a long history—or at least a mythology—of think tanks influencing governments. In the 1970s, some of those very same organisations supposedly supplied the policies that helped Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives unleash socioeconomic reform upon an unsuspecting nation.

That claim is debatable: the Centre for Policy Studies set up by Thatcher and her intellectual mentor Keith Joseph may have helped them win the battle of ideas, but nearly all the actual policymaking in opposition was done by the party’s MPs and the Tories’ in-house research department.


This is not to dismiss the influence of think tanks. Given how stretched the research capacities of our main political parties are, and the revolving door between them and think tanks, that would be foolish. But they are seldom if ever as responsible for government policy, as they love to claim.

In truth, think tanks are best seen as ideas factories, pressure groups and more-or-less partisan outriders. They supply (hopefully evidence-based) research to politicians, and occasionally civil servants, who lack the resources or inclination to gather it themselves, offering novel solutions to familiar problems or highlighting overlooked issues.

This usually happens in public, via the media, where broadsheet opinion articles are particularly prized, or reports. The latter are produced either by in-house staff or in conjunction with some kind of commission made up of genuine experts and those recruited for their high political or media profile.

So far, so unproblematic—although there are legitimate questions about the extent to which the media seems to give more attention, and so legitimacy, to some think tanks over others.

Funding, however, is thornier. The ideal source is a recurring donation untethered to any particular piece of work. But most think tanks must rely on one-off income from individuals and companies willing to sponsor a specific project. This must be handled carefully, so as to avoid producing research to order.

Many of the UK’s best-known think tanks, including the widely respected—and very well-funded—Institute for Government and Resolution Foundation are educational charities. The Charity Commission regulates their finances and the extent to which they can be explicitly partisan.

Dark money

But, surprisingly and somewhat controversially, charitable think tanks can also stake out a defined point on the political spectrum. The best-known examples are the Institute for Economic Affairs and Policy Exchange on the right, and the Institute for Public Policy Research on the left. The Social Market Foundation and Demos are seen as more centrist.

Others, particularly on the right, are not subject to oversight by the Charity Commission. They include the Centre for Policy Studies, the Adam Smith InstituteBright BlueOnward and the Centre for Social Justice. On the left, the Fabians fall into this category.

The consequent lack of transparency leaves those most associated with Tufton Street, including the Centre for Policy Studies and Adam Smith Institute, especially open to accusations that they are funded by ‘dark money’ from business people with vested interests and market-fundamentalist viewpoints.

This is making the ecology of UK think tanks ever more like that of the United States. The resulting downsides and dysfunction should lead us to look elsewhere for a model.

One possibility is Germany. There, the state funds, and so regulates, a number of foundations (stiftungen) associated with, but operating at arm’s length from, each of the main political parties.

They function both as think tanks and, by having offices in other countries, boost Germany’s soft power. But they do so transparently, consensually, inclusively and democratically—values we could do with a lot more of in the UK right now.

Originally published at https://researchprofessionalnews.com/rr-news-uk-views-of-the-uk-2022-10-nationalised-ideas-factories-would-make-better-policy/

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‘The new British government and the House of Commons do not represent the country’, Le Monde, 1 October 2022

It’s hardly surprising that, in a country where both women and people from ethnic minorities were so underrepresented in politics for so long, a huge amount of attention is being paid to the fact that, for the first time ever, none of the top four posts in government have gone to white men.

But we shouldn’t allow our wholly understandable desire to celebrate that development to blind us to the fact that on another, surely equally important, measure of diversity, British politics has, if anything, been going backwards rather than forwards.

Gender and ethnicity matter – of course they do.  But so too does social class.  And on that score, neither the new Cabinet, nor the House of Commons as a whole, is anything like representative of the country it is responsible for governing.

Take the three Conservative politicians who are being feted as examples of diversity right now – James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, and Kwasi Kwarteng, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  All went to fee-paying schools, the latter to Eton, the private school which charges full fees of over €50,000 per pupil per year and which also educated Truss’s preternaturally posh predecessors, David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

And they are not alone.  More than two-thirds of Truss’s new Cabinet were privately-educated, compared to under ten per cent of the UK’s population as a whole.  And the same, incidentally, goes for nearly half of all Conservative MPs.

Interestingly, Truss herself, like both of the other women who have risen to become British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, was state-educated, even if, like them, she went onto study at the elite Oxford University.  But she has hardly struck a blow for increased socio-economic diversity by appointing a Cabinet which not only contains more privately-educated members than Cameron’s and Johnson’s but fully twice as many as Theresa May’s.

But this is not just about where politicians went to school, even if, in the UK at least, that does serve as a useful proxy for their class background.  Nor is it just about the current Cabinet or the Conservative Party.  In reality, they are all part of a wider trend toward the near-complete disappearance of working class people from representative politics at a national level.

For the first time ever, the parliament elected in 2019 contained not a single MP who was employed in a manual occupation immediately prior to entering the Commons.  In part this is a function of the fact that British politics is increasingly seen, whichever party people are elected for, as a profession only (or at least largely) for people with university degrees.

In 2019, for instance, nearly nine-out-of-ten UK MPs were graduates.  And since, in spite of the massive expansion of higher education we’ve witnessed over the last few decades, working class people are still significantly less likely to go on to higher education, that also means they’re less likely to end up in parliament.

The British Labour Party still has strong links to the trade union movement, which, by getting involved in the party’s selection processes and by financially sponsoring particular candidates, continues to have an influence on the make-up of parliament.  But Labour MPs with trade union backing no longer come straight from the factory floor as, traditionally, they used to; instead they’ve worked for unions in a research capacity or in their regional or national headquarters.

The Conservative Party, predictably enough, never had as many MPs from ‘ordinary’ backgrounds as its Labour rival.  But there were some – more often than not, self-made men who’d done well in business and then went into politics.  Now, however, even those who come into parliament that way are increasingly people from thoroughly middle class backgrounds who went to university before starting their careers in the City of London or as entrepreneurs.

It’s also the case that, as media has become more important to politics, and as candidates are now expected to engage far more with their constituencies even before they are elected, the costs of getting selected by a party in the first place have increased, making it even harder for people from working class backgrounds to make it into parliament.

But does this matter?  I would argue strongly that it does.  While what political scientists call ‘descriptive representation’ doesn’t automatically provide ‘substantive representation’, since politicians’ backgrounds don’t wholly dictate their policies, they are often correlated. There is also a strong correlation between class and turnout at elections – which, one can argue, is hardly surprising when ordinary working people can see hardly anyone who looks and sounds like them among the people they are urged to elect.

All this, remember, may even have helped deliver the vote for Brexit in the 2016 referendum.  At least in part, that result was the revenge of working class voters who didn’t normally vote on a political class from which, sadly, they’ve been disappearing for decades.

Originally published (in French) at https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2022/10/01/le-nouveau-gouvernement-britannique-et-la-chambre-des-communes-ne-sont-absolument-pas-representatifs-du-pays_6143943_3232.html

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‘Memoirs are made of this’, Encompass, 1 September 2022.

Contrary to what you might have read, Boris Johnson has not been entirely idle over the summer.  As well as taking his latest wife and children on a couple of foreign holidays and doing what he can to ensure that Rishi Sunak (who he seems to hold personally responsible for his downfall) didn’t succeed him, he has apparently been busy talking to publishers about a book based on diaries he claims to have been keeping for the last few years.

The fact that someone as preternaturally disorganised as Johnson has, amidst the political, economic and diplomatic chaos he has created since 2016, managed to summon up the daily self-discipline required to journal his innermost thoughts will come as a huge surprise to many.  But the fact that he’s aiming to negotiate a seven-figure book deal will not.  Johnson’s money problems, combined with his obsession with besting David Cameron (who was allegedly paid ‘only’ a six-figure sum for his memoirs), were always going to make such a deal inevitable.  Besides, Johnson, of all people, is familiar with his idol Winston Churchill’s quip that ‘History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.’

Johnson is not, of course, the first disappointed Tory prime minister to attempt to reinforce and/or rescue their legacy by effectively getting their retaliation in first. It’s just that less and less time seems to be elapsing between their defenestrations and the emergence of their occasionally dubious accounts of their rise to power and their time at Number Ten.  Getting on for a quarter of a century had passed before Ted Heath released The Course of My Life, but his successor, Margaret Thatcher, managed to publish The Downing Street Years less than 36 months after she was booted out (or, as she saw it, betrayed) by her colleagues.  Cameron achieved a similar feat with his For the Record.

As a keen student of the Conservative Party, I have been obliged (nay, keen) to read each of them from cover to cover.  Predictably enough, they are, all of them, at once illuminating and infuriating – at points genuinely self-aware while, at others, transparently self-justificatory.

Whether Johnson, by all accounts something of a narcissist and a sociopath, is really capable of much (indeed, any) halfway honest insight into his own character and motivations remains to be seen.  But we can pretty much guarantee that the money-spinner he produces will portray him, his motives and his actions in the best possible light while painting his rivals and opponents in altogether darker (or at least drearier) colours.

Certainly anyone naïve enough to believe Johnson might supply us with something that might conceivably pass for the truth on Brexit is bound to be disappointed.  In fact, if I’ve learned one thing from reading reams on Europe from Conservative politicians over the years, it’s that their party’s interminable infighting over the issue makes it virtually impossible for them to level with readers – not just when it comes to the inevitable trade-offs involved in Britain’s relationship with the EU but also when it comes to the reasons they themselves did what they did. 

Until Johnson’s effort emerges in due course, Cameron’s book, which came out almost exactly three years ago, will have to serve as the latest case in point.  Indeed, its attempt to effectively rewrite history when it came to why he called the 2016 in/out referendum (as well as his inevitably partial take on why he lost it) was one of the main reasons why I’ve just published my own slim volume on the issue.

While it might suit Cameron (and others) to suggest that by holding a vote he was somehow bowing to the inevitable and to the democratic demands of the British people, it won’t do. The referendum was, in effect, a war of choice – and one fought largely to manage his own party. Cameron also wanted to spike the guns of the populist radical right insurgency, UKIP, that had so spooked Tory MPs and whose rise was fuelled by his failure to fulfil his patently unrealistic promises on immigration.

When it comes to why Cameron lost the referendum, yes, he was let down by colleagues (most obviously Johnson himself) and by Corbyn.  But he could and should have predicted that. Moreover, he did  himself (and the country) no favours by fighting with what amounted to one hand tied behind his back for fear that, when he won (as, for the most part, he thought he would), he might otherwise find it tricky to put his party back together again.

And talking of putting the Conservative Party back together again, we are – thank goodness – finally about to find out who is to succeed Boris Johnson as its leader and as prime minister.  Given the perfect storm of problems with which he’s left whoever takes over, it seems unlikely that they will have much time to keep a diary.  We may well be reading their memoirs, however, rather sooner than they probably hope.

Originally published at https://encompass-europe.com/comment/memoirs-are-made-of-this

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‘Wonder who Liz Truss will reward with a job or punish with exile? History can tell us’, Observer, 21 August 2022.

With Liz Truss apparently so far ahead in the Tory leadership contest, talk is inevitably turning to who she will appoint to her first cabinet. Kwasi Kwarteng, an ideological soulmate since he and Truss helped write the state-shrinkers’ bible, Britannia Unchained, is routinely tipped as her chancellor, while her old friend and karaoke partner, Thérèse Coffey, seems destined (depending on who you believe) to become home secretary or chief whip. Top jobs are also expected to go to former leadership contenders Suella Braverman, Penny Mordaunt and Tom Tugendhat, all of whom backed Truss after falling by the wayside. Kemi Badenoch may pay a price for not jumping on the Truss bandwagon but few expect her to miss out entirely.

Precisely what will happen to Rishi Sunak, who looks likely to end up being just another of Truss’s erstwhile rivals, is less certain. Given the bad blood that has developed between their respective campaigns over the contest, is Truss going to offer Sunak a job – and not just a job but a job he would actually be willing to accept?

Truss’s decision on Sunak’s future, as well as her other cabinet picks, should give us an invaluable insight into one of the most important questions facing any party leader who takes over as prime minister after their predecessor has resigned (more often than not as a result of being forced out by their colleagues). Namely, in trying to put the party (and the government) back together after it has fallen apart, is it best to preserve some sense of continuity or to signal regime change by replacing what have arguably become all-too-familiar faces? Should one aim to emphasise unity, believing the old saw that voters don’t like divided parties? Or, as some suggest, is a clear-out essential if a new direction is the order of the day?

A couple of supplementary questions arise. Which of the two approaches – continuity or clear-out – has been most commonly pursued by the Conservative party and which seems more likely to produce electoral success?

A glance back at postwar political history reveals a clear, if relatively recent, trend – at least when it comes to Tory leaders who have taken over at No 10 courtesy of their colleagues rather than the electorate. As for which strategy – clear-out or continuity – better delivers eventual victory, that’s a little harder to tell.

The simplest way of determining the trend over time is to compare the cabinets of the outgoing Conservative prime ministers with the cabinets first appointed by whoever took over from them. What proportion of those who sat around the table at the invitation of the ousted (or at least the ex-) PM retained their seats – even if they were appointed to a different post – under the new dispensation? Some of the churn will be accounted for by genuinely voluntary departures on the part of a few of those previously appointed as cabinet ministers. But that’s most easily controlled for simply by ignoring it in all six postwar handovers – 1955 (Winston Churchill to Anthony Eden), 1957 (Eden to Harold Macmillan), 1963 (Macmillan to Alec Douglas-Home), 1990 (Margaret Thatcher to John Major), 2016 (David Cameron to Theresa May) and 2019 (May to Boris Johnson).

What we can’t ignore is that “cabinets” have effectively got bigger because of the fashion (presumably arising from a desire to minimise disappointment and also the number of colleagues outside the tent who might otherwise be tempted to piss in) to allow those not formally appointed to the cabinet to attend it nevertheless. But we can allow for that and we can also note that this de facto increase in those “in the room”, if not sitting around the table, could make unity (assuming that’s the path that’s chosen) easier to achieve: after all, it makes more slots available to any new leader anxious to soothe bruised egos and/or reward personal loyalty at the outset of their premiership.

First things first, the trend is clear, but recent: whereas past Tory prime ministers who took over midstream tended to opt for continuity, their more contemporary counterparts have, for good or ill, opted for clear-outs. When Churchill was forced to make way for Eden in 1955, nearly 90% of his cabinet picks were kept on. Macmillan, in turn, retained three-quarters of Eden’s outgoing cabinet in 1957, while 80% of those serving in Macmillan’s last cabinet made it into Douglas-Home’s in 1963. True, after the brutal defenestration of Thatcher, in November 1990, her successor, Major, famously found room for Michael Heseltine, the man who did more than anyone else to bring her down. But – and this is all-too-easily forgotten – he also reappointed nearly 90% of those who’d served in her last cabinet.

Fast forward to 2016, when May took over from Cameron and a very different picture emerges: barely half of his picks kept their jobs when she put together her first cabinet. In 2019, when Johnson helped take out May in order to succeed her, fewer than a third of those in or attending her cabinet made the cut. In both cases, the number of new faces (some of whom were old faces who had previously been sacked or had resigned from cabinet) ran into double figures for the first time.

That big shift says something profound about how politics and the Tory party have changed. As regards politics, it’s another reminder that prime ministers, inasmuch as they ever were, are no longer primus inter pares but have become more presidential figures – not merely captain of the team but also its manager and hence more willing and able to part with those whose faces and playing styles don’t fit, in exchange for those who seem happier to do their bidding.

As regards the party itself, although it’s a simplification to suggest that the Conservatives had little or no ideology before Thatcher, it’s nevertheless the case that, ever since, and especially as Europe and culture wars have moved up in the mix, the party has become more of an arena, even a battleground, in that respect. Inevitably, and far more so than used to be the case, contested changes of leadership tend to revolve as much around principles (or what passes for principles) as around personality and practicalities. As a result, those who succeed to the premiership don’t merely want to stamp their authority on their party – they want to impose their worldview too.

Whether the clear-out that is the correlate of that desire is more likely to bear fruit than opting for continuity is more of a moot point. Certainly, the “huge great stonking mandate” Johnson claimed to have won in 2019 suggests it might. Even if May’s catastrophic loss of her majority when she ill-advisedly went to the country in 2017 suggests otherwise, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that, while she sacrificed seats, her commitment to Brexit and ending austerity increased the party’s vote share substantially, especially in the Midlands and the north, helping to set up her successor’s big win two years later.

But continuity can also work. Not for Douglas-Home admittedly: in 1964, a year after he took over, the Tories were out after 13 years in power. But others did better. In 1955, Eden increased the Tories’ overall majority from the mere 17 Churchill had managed four years earlier to 60 seats, and in 1959 Macmillan increased it to 100. Admittedly, the majority of just 21 that Major won in 1992 paled in comparison with the 102 Thatcher achieved in 1987. But, compared with the drubbing that appeared to be on the cards when he’d taken over 18 months earlier, it represented something of a triumph – and one achieved with the economy struggling to emerge from recession and with a startlingly similar vote share (42%) to the one the Iron Lady had realised five years earlier.

Nor does continuity of personnel necessarily preclude major changes of policy direction: Macmillan hastened the end of empire and began the UK’s move towards Europe – hardly minor adjustments. Meanwhile, clear-outs don’t always prefigure anything like a 180-degree turn: Johnson simply did Brexit harder than May and talked even more (even if he didn’t really do much more) than she had about investing in public services and in those parts of the country that had supposedly been ignored by previous governments.

In any case, clear-outs can disguise continuities of a more worrying kind. Truss might appoint a new-look cabinet but, if they, like their predecessors, end up spending most of their time denying reality in order to save their boss’s skin, will anything have changed?

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/aug/21/wonder-who-liz-truss-will-reward-with-a-job-or-punish-with-exile-history-can-tell-us

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