There comes a moment with all governments in power for a long time when, desperate to conjure up some of the old magic, they reprise old popular tunes in the hope – or belief – that they will have the same effect as first time around.
In October 1992 severe pit closures were announced. 30,000 jobs – mostly of miners in the Union of Democratic Mineworkers – would go. There were protests, not just from the usual suspects, but from many Tory supporters who felt this was a step too far and a betrayal. 150,000 joined a protest rally in London. John Major had to back down, provide extra funding and more generous redundancy packages. Rather than appearing the strong leader, he crossed the invisible line between what may be tough but necessary (and so capable of earning grudging respect) and what is seen as simply callous, unfair and a breach of promise. Above all, he lost touch with the human consequences of his policies. It took special political skill to make many Tory supporters agree with that Tory bête noire, Scargill, when he declared:
“It [the government] looks at us as mere statistics and dots on a computer print out. We’re not dots on a computer screen. We’re human beings.”
His became a zombie government – “in office but not in power” as his own ex-Chancellor cruelly but accurately put it – though he did at least last 5 months before Black Wednesday neutered him. The May government was a zombie one the moment the election results came in. Now the Truss government is doing the same to itself, rather deliciously, just as its conference starts. Even better, it is clear from her interviews, that Truss thinks she is the Thatcher for our times. In fairness to her fondness for wearing Thatcher-like costumes, this is not so much failed karaoke as the “mutton dressed as lamb” approach to politics.
What we’ve learnt from her recent actions and interviews is that she has picked some policies from the Thatcher era (tax cuts, spending cuts and deregulation) with little understanding of the context or why they worked 40 years ago and has combined this with no understanding of electoral mandates, the impact of her policies, fairness, good governance, effective leadership or what is needed to get economic growth. Let’s take these in turn.
- She wants economic growth. Amazing. No PM has ever said they want economic decline. The aim is not in question. It is the how which matters. On this there is little clarity. Quite how rewarding highly paid employees (who are not generally the entrepreneurs creating and growing new businesses) will create growth is left to our imagination.
- Her Chancellor has been made a target: the 45% tax rate decision was his and not discussed with the Cabinet. Is she suggesting she wasn’t fully behind it and couldn’t impose her will. Or is she giving herself an out if necessary to save herself? A bit early for this, surely?
- The presentation of a Budget as a fiscal statement so as to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny, the refusal to allow the OBR to do its job, the long delay in publishing its work and allowing the Treasury Select Committee to question the Chancellor, the undermining of the Bank of England and the Treasury (currently without either a Permanent Secretary or Deputy) suggest both arrogance and a lack of confidence in her ability to argue her case. Assertion is not persuasion.
- According to the Levelling Up Secretary, welfare must be cut because there has been too much profligacy. Where has he been? It is those with assets and the retired who have benefited most in recent years, precisely those the government now intends, in a spree of profligacy, to benefit again at the expense of the poor, the young and the working. According to the Party Chairman, all the poor – and, presumably, those facing increased mortgage payments as a result of the “fiscal statement” – need do is to cut consumption or get a job with a higher salary. Who knew? It is quite tone deaf, offensive and out of touch with real life for the vast majority, including those on good salaries. Does he realise what would happen to public services if those paid too little left their necessary jobs?
- Did the government understand the market impact of its statement? According to some comments by its defenders, it is not its job to understand the bond markets from which it is seeking to borrow. Seriously? The Chancellor’s only plausible claim for being Chancellor is that he has City experience. Did he intend a run on pension funds? They are now, according to reports, seeking cash from their corporate backers. There has been quite some destruction of value and impact on banks, companies and savers. It has damaged confidence, essential to investment.
- The highlight of Truss’s BBC interview was her response to a question about her mandate. Silence followed by “What do you mean?” Oh dear. Of course she has a Parliamentary majority. But even though all governments have considerable leeway once elected, they need to pay some regard to the basis on which they were elected. Would the “we have a mandate” crowd be singing this tune had Johnson been replaced by someone who decided to reverse Brexit and demanded their MPs do what they were told? More pertinently, in her pitch to the membership barely weeks ago, she explicitly promised no spending cuts. What price your word, Liz?
Truss has noted that Thatcher took tough decisions and was often unpopular and concluded that if she is unpopular, that means her decisions must be right. Perhaps they did not teach what a false syllogism is in the comprehensive school she attacked for being not good enough, despite it getting her to Oxford. These are serious times requiring serious leaders. Would it be too much to ask the Tory party to stop inflicting feeble tribute acts on us instead?