Friday, 2 February 2018

Politics with a 'C': Theresa May's Conservatives

So yesterday I spent probably the best part of four to five hours writing something, reviewing it, procrastinating, deleting bits, rewriting bits and generally struggling to get my ideas on to this sheet of digital paper. The problem is I was trying to be nice and polite, to present my arguments in a reasonable manner and avoid ranting. Yeah, well, I've given up that route.

Because this Conservative government is such a black hole of ideas and ambition it's depressing.

I'm generally a believer in free markets, free trade and capitalism. The Conservatives come the closest to encapsulating those ideas in their policies, albeit they often fall very short of the mark. Yet for the last 8 years all we've seen is a quasi mix of corporate welfare with elements of socialism. We got rid of Blair and Brown and ended up with virtual copies of them in Cameron and Osborne.

Now we have May and Hammond, who represent not so much the Grand Tour as the Grand Bore. Hammond in particular is a dull and less than inspiring type, probably the definition of knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing. He has somehow contrived to combine painful budget cuts across virtually the whole of government, leaving almost every department feeling the squeeze, yet without cutting taxes in a meaningful way and still being left with a significant budget deficit. 

As a result we have all of the down sides of lower government budgets but with none of the upsides. No single department has taken a solid hit, acting as it were as the sacrificial lamb that permits the survival and continued proper functioning of the others until such time as they can be properly reformed and their budgets looked at in a more sensible manner. Rather everyone has had their piggy bank raided, just enough to put them all under real pressure but not enough to make any real difference to the governments financial position or to liberate the economy from some unnecessary taxation.

It is the worst of all worlds, and now to top it off Hammond appears to be trying to outflank the rest of government and the result of the referendum to implement the softest of soft brexits, one foot in, one foot out, sacrificing all the main advantages of Brexit while retaining the worst elements of remaining in the EU. Much like his approach to taxation, Hammond seems determined to have the worst of everything and the advantages of nothing.

Some have suggested Theresa May should go. I don't think this is the right approach. Labour have a very slight lead in the polls, a testament to just how unattractive Labour is that they can only manage a neck and neck race with one of the most sorry governments in modern history. A leadership change would likely trigger an election and in this state I'm not sure that's something the Conservatives can win.

Rather I think May needs to grasp the nettle, though I doubt she will, and drop Mr. Hammond and probably David Davis as well. Politics is, always has been, and always will be, a dirty business. Friends remain as such only as long as they are politically useful. When their political value has been spent, they are often quite publicly discarded. It is political nature in action. And I feel the time has come for Mrs May to discard Mr. Hammond and Mr. Davis as no longer politically acceptable, lest her party discard her, and then the country discard her party.

For that ultimately is the most dangerous scenario, and it is for moments like this that leaders are born, prepared and put to the final test. As much as the Prime Minister might like her Chancellor and see him as a close ally, she also has to recognise that for the good of the nation - nation before party, party before friendship - she must make that difficult choice and authorise that final axe blow on Mr. Hammond. The ability to make these tough choices often defines a leader.

On top of that though the Conservatives need to find a voice ahead of the next election, a rallying call to the public. Labour under Corbyn are far more of a threat to the country than any imagined Tom Clancy style assault by the Russians. The policies advocated by Corbynism are no different to those of Marxism; an ideology that has failed everywhere it has been tried and led to national catastrophe after national catastrophe. It has done more to ruin countries than any act of mother nature or indeed most wars (the Chinese suffered nearly 20 million deaths all told in WW2; Mao's "Great Leap Forward" killed around 30 million).

Corbyn and his crew are no different to those vile people that knowingly peddle nonsense like Homoeopathy and Reiki, targeting the most vulnerable, the most desperate and the most needy, promising miracle cures for all. Worse, the rhetoric of Corbyn et al has a distinct whiff of authoritarianism about it, with calls for the government to seize property and capital from those that it deems unworthy and to not just redress the balance as it sees it, but to actively set out to punish those that it feels have committed ill-defined wrongs.

To counter this the Tories need something more substantial than just "we're getting on with the job". Appealing to young people is not the answer either, as data shows that around 70% are firmly in Corbyn's camp, having switched allegiance from the Lib Dems after their disastrous run in government. Young people simply do not vote Conservative in any great numbers. Pandering to people who despise you is not an election winning strategy. Besides, the Tories have their own bastion in the 65+ vote which continues to show strong support for the Conservatives (while also demonstrating much higher voting turnout). 

The battleground is really the middle ground, those from 25-65, who represent both the bulk of voters and those who seem the most left behind by the main parties right now. It is here that the Conservatives need to come up with something fresh, ambitious and inspirational.

They might start by refusing to allow Labour to take the moral high ground over the NHS. Let's not forget that Labour is the party of the Mid-Staffs scandal after all. It also worth noting that most of the current issues facing hospitals this winter have been caused by Delayed Transfers of Care, aka bed blocking, for which local councils need to shoulder a considerable amount of the blame for their failures in providing social care. 

Worthy of note is that almost all of the worst hit hospitals have been in areas served by local Labour government and that hospitals have been progressively dissuaded from exercising their ability to essentially fine councils for causing delays - designed as an incentive to make councils take social care seriously and to help hospitals recover costs incurred that are not their fault - on the mistaken argument that councils are short of money, though apparently they have enough for oil paintings for their offices and limousines for their local mayors.

The government also needs to find its voice on housing. The era of green belts (frequently an oxymoronic term) and ridiculous demands for social housing need to crumble and fade to dust in the face of the reality of a housing shortage, and they can take the ridiculous help to buy policy with them. Government cannot solve the housing crisis by regulating more or getting more involved. It needs to do the one thing that we know for a fact consistently adds the most value to any industry or economy; get out of the way.

On education I'd like to see something a little more radical, possibly the return of selective schooling, but targeted at the poorest and lowest academic achieving parts of the country first. New technical colleges where young people can learn a variety of trades. Importantly, the government needs to review its academies program and find out why so many of these schools are running deficits at the same time as their group chief executives are enjoying bumper pay rises. A more general reform of the bidding process for public sector work to avoid more Carillion and Capita incidents might also be an idea.

For transport I'd like to see HS2 either realigned to match the vastly superior HSUK proposal or otherwise scrapped as the white elephant that it currently is. They most certainly need to do a better job of explaining what a disaster nationalisation has been historically (halving passenger numbers until 1995 when privatisation reversed the trend). The government also needs to get serious about the Northern Powerhouse project as well as the proposals for a Severn Powerhouse, connecting and unlocking the potential of the communities on both sides of the river.

And of course Brexit. Mrs May said when she was first elected that "Brexit means Brexit" and that she would rather take no deal than a bad deal. Right now the country is headed towards a bad deal. Mrs May needs to appoint a negotiator who will put their foot down and say no to a transition period and no to the customs union, being prepared to potentially fall back on the Canada template that was suggested by the EU as an option of last resort, or even to dispense with this and fall back on the WTO option if a Canada style deal is deemed unacceptable for the UK's circumstances.

One of the primary advantages of leaving the EU is the ability to open up the UK market to free trade on a global level. Lowering tariffs unilaterally has been demonstrated time and again to have a tremendous economic advantage to the nations that embrace it. The UK should be bold, not timid, and embrace the significant benefits that stem from lower prices on food, clothing and all manner of other items, benefits which especially accrue to those on the lowest incomes.

Whatever happens, the Prime Minister must come up with a vision of some kind beyond just "keep calm and carry on". While her patience has been her overriding virtue so far, the one ability that has allowed her to weather each storm in turn and navigate her way to calmer waters on the other side, the reality is that patience within the Conservative party appears to be wearing thin, as it is with much of the electorate.

Governments are not elected to just sit on their hands and hope the policies of the past will all come good. They are elected to drive change and make things better. The Conservatives need to offer something that traditionally Conservatives of the past have always stood for and tried to bring to the table; ambition and aspiration. Normal jogging is no longer enough. The Prime Minister and her team have to come up with something new, fresh, something that offers genuine hope. 

The alternative is a left wing takeover of number 10 and all the consequences that brings with it.


  1. Good article.
    Think you might even be a little generous with that Mao figure.

    1. Cheers anon,

      What's a million or so deaths in pursuit of the glorious revolution comrade?

  2. I liked your article. However the fault for Hammond's behaviour IMHO is May's alone, in that she is trying to keep the pro-Brexit and soft Brexit / No Brexit MPs together and achieves nothing. If the Government is to progress then it needs to clearly signal which path it is going to take and staff the cabinet accordingly. This will likely mean a minority government but we are better with that (and then a likely election) than doing nothing.

    1. Sorry fella, this got caught in the spam filter. Only just found it.