Friday 29 July 2022

Maintaining privilege is what the Tories are all about


In answer to a question at the Tory hustings yesterday, Sunak seems to have committed himself to a wholescale reintroduction of selection at the age of 11 and the opening of more grammar schools. Strictly speaking, his comments only apply to England, although I’m not sure that he fully realises that and, given the increasing disregard for the boundaries set by devolution, I wouldn’t be so sure that it wouldn’t end up applying here too. His argument, though, was specious at best, and even that’s giving him considerable benefit of the doubt. He said that “… education is the most powerful way we can transform people’s lives”. It’s a point with which many us would agree, but dividing children into sheep and goats on the basis of alleged academic ability at the age of 11 means that it’s a benefit which he plans to bestow on only a proportion of the country’s children.

One thing which all the research into selective education tells us is that separating children into two categories in this way has the entirely predictable effect of also separating them by parental income. The more comfortably off the parents, the more likely it is that their children will end up in a grammar school and vice versa. It’s not a 100% match, of course – as a council house kid who went to a grammar school in the days before selection was abolished, I know that from personal experience. But there is a high degree of correlation between parental affluence and success in the selection process, and the general result of selection is that more investment is made in the education of some children than others, setting out their respective life paths at the age of 11. The lives being transformed under Sunak’s vision are overwhelmingly the lives of the better off – who just happen to be the children (or more likely grandchildren, given Tory demographics) of the Tory party members to whose prejudices he is currently seeking to appeal.

That’s not to argue that comprehensive education has been an unqualified success – it has not. There are still ‘good’ schools and ‘bad’ schools based on academic results, although that may be as much to do with catchment areas as quality of education. Catchment areas are far from being equal in terms of socio-economic status. The solution to that, however, is not to entrench those differences in the structure of the system but to address the underlying causes. Far too much of what our politicians try to do on this is based primarily on trying to address the symptoms – how to help those from poorer backgrounds catch up with their more affluent peers. It’s a sticking plaster approach when what we really need is to address the underlying social and economic inequalities. It’s unrealistic to expect the Tories to come up with any sort of plan to do that; they are always going to be happier securing and enhancing their own privileges. What’s more depressing is the lack of clear alternatives from opposition parties on the issue. It allows the Tories to set the parameters of the debate, and, as Sunak’s comments show, they are not afraid of moving things further in the direction of privilege. One clear benefit arising from the Tory leadership debates is that they are openly demonstrating the extent to which they are the party of the better-off and the privileged, a fact which Johnson’s practiced mendacity managed to obscure in 2019.

Thursday 28 July 2022

An innovative Truss


Sometimes, the simplest ideas are the best, and Liz Truss has certainly managed to come up with one of the simplest solutions ever. Faced with what she sees as an unacceptable rate of murder in the UK, she will order police forces in Englandandwales to cut the number of murders by 20% before the next election. Some might think that it raises a number of awkward questions, such as why the other 80% of deaths due to homicide are acceptable. After all, if the number can be reduced by 20% by simply issuing an order to police forces, why not 50%, or 80% - or even 100%. Those are, however, mere details: we should be focussing instead on the innovative approach of government by decree and asking ourselves how it can be applied elsewhere.

One of the biggest issues of the day is global warming – following the new methodology, we can solve that by instructing the Met Office to reduce temperatures by 3 degrees Centigrade across the UK. That will be a lot cheaper than taking measures to reduce emissions. And rising sea levels – the Royal Navy could be ordered to turn back the sea before it reaches the coastline. Better than building new flood defences or abandoning some seaside communities completely. Fuel poverty, or even poverty more generally? No problem – people can easily be ordered not to be poor. Once the potential of this innovative approach is fully understood, the possibilities are endless, and since none of them require any government expenditure at all, every problem can be solved whilst still cutting taxes dramatically. Her financial programme starts to make sense after all.

It's such an obvious approach that I can’t imagine why no-one has thought of it before.

Wednesday 27 July 2022

Avoiding the question


As part of his attempt to win over the Tory members to his side, Rishi Sunak this week wheeled out the old chestnut about passing on government debt to our children and grandchildren unless the UK restores a balance between government income and expenditure. It’s one of those things which is obviously ‘true’; if a government borrows in the short term and takes generations to repay, then the responsibility for servicing and repaying that debt passes on, inevitably, from one generation to another. It’s not the whole truth, though. Whether from ignorance or a wilful attempt to mislead (I opt for the latter), it ignores the wonderful process called double-entry book-keeping. It was invented in 1494, which probably makes it a bit too modern for the Tories, but for the rest of us, it means we need to look at the other side of the accounts, not just at the debt.

All debt has to be balanced by an asset somewhere, and in this case, what looks like a debt to the government looks like an asset to all of those who have loaned it money. And that, whether directly through NS&I products or collectively though pension and insurance funds, includes most of us. It’s true that we pay interest on the debt as part of our taxes, but it’s also true that we receive that interest back in our pensions and from some of our savings. And although it’s true that unredeemed government debt effectively passes down the generations, the same is equally true of the assets represented by that debt. It has to be, otherwise the sums don’t add up. At a population level, the problem is not that one generation is repaying the debt of its predecessors, because that new generation has also inherited the savings; it’s not an intergenerational problem at all. The real issue is at an individual level, not at a population level: because of an insufficiently progressive taxation regime, the individuals paying interest on the debt through taxes are not always the same people as are receiving the interest on the money loaned to the government. In short, the process serves to transfer wealth from the comparatively poorer to the comparatively richer.

The political question here is why, given that it’s their own supporters who disproportionately benefit from such a wealth transfer, the Tories are so keen on reducing debt in the first place. It’s hardly as if those lending the government money are keen to be repaid (they are not; it’s a safe repository for surplus money). But the Tories are not really against it at all; it has far more to do with advancing an ideological position about reducing the amount of government expenditure (and therefore taxes – and guess who benefits most from tax cuts?), whilst finding a supporting argument which those who have most to lose from smaller government expenditure can relate to and support. In truth (as Richard Murphy pointed out yesterday) the Tories are not and never have been the party of low government debt; quite the reverse. What they’re against is the redistribution implicit in a large state working for the benefit of all its citizens rather than just the richest, and nonsense about the national credit card is just a convenient form of argument. And whatever they may say, they really don’t care about reducing debt at all – in arguing for tax cuts whilst increasing debt, Truss is being far more honestly Conservative than Sunak (allowing rich people to pay less tax leaving them more money to ‘invest’ by lending it to the government in exchange for regular interest payments is classic Conservatism), even if she sees it as simply a transactional position to win the votes of the Tory membership.

An internal Tory debate about the size of the national debt is a convenient distraction, but ultimately it’s a Big-Endian debate. The real question should be about what we want the state to do and how. It’s easy to see why the Tories would prefer to avoid that question.

Monday 25 July 2022

Escaping the madness


It’s good to know that, if he becomes PM, Rishi Sunak will put the UK on a crisis footing in order to address the problems left behind by the outgoing government. It is, however, a bit like a bored firefighter becoming an arsonist to show how good he is at putting out fires. The specific problems to which he refers, in the NHS, have all got worse during the last 12 years of Tory rule, and even more so during the three years of the Johnson government. Whilst it’s true that the Covid pandemic exacerbated the situation, things wouldn’t have become quite so bad if the Chancellor at the time, whose name Sunak obviously can’t quite remember, hadn’t been so determined to prioritise what he called fiscal responsibility over meeting people’s needs. And that other Sunak, to whom the current one is obviously no relation, was quite happy for people to be briefed on a regular basis about how he had been amongst those arguing in Cabinet for fewer restrictions and for ending the restrictions sooner – decisions which have added to the difficulties faced by the Health Service.

Sunak 2 might even get away with the trick – not in the sense of solving the NHS backlog problem, of course: neither candidate is willing to do what that would take. But presenting the government as a completely new one, taking no responsibility for the actions and policies of its predecessor is exactly what Johnson did three years ago. Truss N (I’m not sure what iteration we’re up to in her case, but it’s certainly more than 2) will no doubt try the same trick if she wins, in her case trashing what passed for an economic policy under her predecessor. I’d like to believe that it can’t work, that people would see through it this time round, but sadly I’m not at all sure that it won’t work just as well a second time. According to the insights of Dominic Cummings (admittedly not exactly the most dependable of sources, but what he says on this is so mad as to be just about believable), Johnson is backing Truss on the basis of his belief that any government led by her would implode before long, giving him the chance to return by acclamation. The second part of that – the triumphal return – is certifiably bonkers, but the first part – the implosion – has a certain ring of credibility to it. It comes to something when, in a phrase I never thought I (or anyone else) would ever write, our best hope of escaping madness lies with Liz Truss.

Thursday 21 July 2022

Honesty, consistency, and the Tory leadership race


Given what Liz Truss has had to say about the economic policy which has been pursued by successive governments for twenty years, she’s probably going to be furious when she finds out which party was in government for the last twelve of those years. And even more so if she ever realises that she was a minister in that government for ten of those years, including two years at the Treasury. Apparently, it’s all been a huge mistake and she knew that all along, even as she trudged through the division lobby voting in favour of budget after budget. And given her insistence that she is a Thatcherite and will govern as a Thatcherite, let’s hope no-one explains to her that it was her heroine who did so much to normalise the idea that governments, like households, can only spend what they receive in income.

When she was busy supporting governments which argued that there had to be a balance between government income and expenditure, and when she and others attacked politicians of other parties for arguing the opposite, she already knew deep down that they were right, but was just biding her time waiting for her opportunity to lead a government which would reverse the policy. What a refreshing change it will be to have such an honest politician to replace the congenital liar currently occupying Number 10. We can confidently believe every word she says, at least until she changes her mind again.

We should not be too critical, though – as Luke’s gospel tells us “… there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not”. Repent is about the least that she can do, although whether her understanding of the word repentance is any deeper than that of her predecessor is another question. And it’s only a half repentance anyway.

In arguing that the government can both cut taxes and spend more, she is accepting the basic truth that government income and expenditure do not need to be in balance, and its corollary that lack of money does not prevent governments from spending it. Whether that gap is met by 'borrowing' or new money creation is an interesting question for debate, but since the government insist on treating both as ‘borrowing’ in the official accounts, it’s an academic distinction. The problem with her position is not about whether the government can spend money it doesn’t have but about how it spends that money. And on that point, she’s propounding the generally discredited theory that cutting taxes magically generates economic growth by putting money into the hands of consumers who then go out and spend it rather than, say, repay debt, and businesses which invest it in new capacity rather than shareholder pay-outs, and that it causes no inflation in the process. Of course there are some economists who argue, based on economic theory, that that will be the result, and she even referred to one of them, Patrick Minford of Cardiff University, who seems to be something of an outlier’s outlier on the matter. I’m not sure which is going to be worse for us all – Sunak’s insistence that there is no spare money or Truss’s insistence that there is plenty of money but that it should be given out to the most well-off in the form of tax cuts.

The issue with what Truss is saying isn’t with the theory but with the complete lack of any empirical evidence showing that it works in practice. And the reason for that isn’t necessarily that the theory is wrong per se, but that the assumptions that need to be made to make it work simply don’t hold true in the real world. Any economic model only predicts what will happen in the real world to the extent that the assumptions underpinning it are valid and accurate. Hers are neither.

I doubt she will be particularly concerned about that at this stage; her appeal is aimed only at that tiny minority of the population represented by the Tory membership register: predominantly older, male, white, and richer than the population at large. Curiously enough, that just happens to be a demographic which would benefit personally from her proposals – what a lucky coincidence that is. Whether her views will survive contact with reality if she reaches Number 10 is also something about which I doubt she will be overly concerned. We’ll simply discover that her deeply-held long-term conviction that fiscal rectitude is essential was just temporarily hiding after all. What a refreshing change it will be to have a PM who is so consistent in her views.

Wednesday 20 July 2022

Johnson is not as lacking in skills as some suggest


When I saw this headline, my first thought was that it must have something to do with Liz Truss and Brexit dividends. In the early days after the Brexit vote, the then Trade Minister, Liam Fox, came up with the brilliant idea that the damage caused to the UK economy could be rectified by selling innovative jams to France, and given Truss’s preoccupation with cheese imports, maybe innovative cheeses was going to be the next big thing. Disappointingly for fans of the sort of innovative food products which membership of the EU allegedly prevented us from making, it turns out that it’s only the factory which is innovative, not the cheese. It made me wonder whether poor old Liam Fox, not always known for the most coherent turn of phrase, had been misunderstood all those years ago. Perhaps he had intended to refer to jam produced in innovative factories rather than innovative jam, but had been misquoted by a bemused reporter. Just for a bit of fun.

There was, though, no such confusion surrounding the infamous cheese speech. That was pure, unadulterated Truss, something we’re likely to see more of if the bookies’ predictions are realised. A few days ago, the Guardian’s sketch writer, John Crace, expressed the hope that the Tories would unite around Truss, not because she’d be brilliant at the job (spoiler: she would not), but because whoever they choose “…we’re f**ked regardless. So we may as well go down with a laugh.” That’s what counts as optimism these days. The Guardian’s live news feed from yesterday had the final lap of the race down to a question of deciding not who would be the best candidate, but which candidate would be best to stop the one they least want, telling us that “… ‘Stop Mordaunt’ may be a more powerful voting incentive than ‘Stop Truss’. The ‘Stop Mordaunt’ vote might also be a ‘Stop Sunak’ vote, if MPs are assuming that Truss would beat Sunak, but Sunak would beat Mordaunt”, as though the whole thing is reduced to a giant game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Although, on second thoughts, that might be a better way of choosing the winner, reflecting the ultimate shallowness of the whole charade.

In the meantime, it seems that whoever wins – but especially if it’s Sunak – the current incumbent is planning to be hovering in the wings trying to frustrate any attempt to do anything that he wouldn’t do (not that that actually represents much of a restriction), and heavily invested in ensuring the failure of whoever emerges as winner. It’s not as if he lacks ability or experience in this particular quest – after all, he has almost singlehandedly brought down the last three Tory Prime Ministers, even if the third (himself) was more by accident than design. Why not aim for a fourth? Or even a fifth – they could probably just about fit another one in before the next election can be postponed no longer. History may record that bringing down Conservative PMs is the one undoubted skill which he possesses.

Tuesday 19 July 2022

Debates were a failure


There are only 358 people with a vote at this stage of the Tory leadership contest; what anyone else thinks of the candidates is utterly irrelevant. And the Tory tradition for honesty, integrity and consistency being as it is, it was always obvious that the promises and policies gushing forth from the mouths of the contenders seeking those 358 votes would not be the same as those which will gush forth from the final two when the membership gets to vote, and that those in turn will not be the same as those which gush forth from the mouth of the winner when he or she attempts to win a general election. Three different electorates require three different platforms; the only objective is to win, not to implement any particular programme after doing so.

With that in mind, the strange thing is not that two of the candidates pulled out of the final televised debate, but that any of them agreed to participate in televised debates in the first place. It should have been obvious to them that such debates would demonstrate only three things: how much they hate each other; how far they’re prepared to go to take each other down; and how different what they say to their party is from what they will say to the electorate in due course. Televised public debates to reach and persuade an electorate of 358 individuals is a remarkably blunt weapon; to their ‘credit’ they’ve collectively succeeded in blunting it even further.

Perhaps they believed that taking part would give them some sort of head start for the next two stages; perhaps they believed that they were reaching members and voters who would put pressure on their constituency MPs to support one candidate rather than another. The only thing certain is that none of them believed that openness and transparency was going to be a brilliant idea – they have, after all, got an awful lot not to be open or transparent about.

I suppose we should be grateful that the one who wanted to invade Siberia has been knocked out. Invading Russia would certainly have been one way of bringing a quick end to the war in Ukraine, even if there would have been few of us left to notice. The thing is, though, that it’s far from clear that such madness had much to do with his elimination; he had, after all, been perceived as one of the saner ones. And that’s the real problem with those televised debates: they might have damaged the Tory Party, but they haven’t really displayed how mad some of the thinking of mainstream Tories has become.

Monday 18 July 2022

One big step forward is better than none


A key part of the PM’s last stand as he attempted to deny the wishes of those who foolishly think that honesty, integrity and decency have a role in Conservative politics was his repeated claims that ‘he’ had some sort of personal mandate from the 14 million people who voted for the Conservative Party in 2019 under his leadership. Constitutionally, it’s rubbish, of course. The only people who voted for him were the electors in his own constituency; as far as the rest of the UK was concerned, people vote for individual candidates in individual constituencies and the identity of the PM only becomes known when it becomes clear who can get a majority of MPs to back him or her in the House of Commons.

But that which is constitutionally true and that which is true in practice aren’t necessarily the same thing at all, and there is a real sense in which Johnson actually had a point. Anyone who’s ever been involved in an election campaign will know that (at parliamentary level, anyway – local councils are a rather different kettle of fish) many people vote for the party rather than the candidate (and that’s at least partly based on their perception of the party leaders), some without having much of a clue about who the local candidate actually is. Then there’s the donkey vote – the idea that a donkey with the right colour rosette would still win in many constituencies because of traditional party loyalties. And it’s also why the idea that paying a larger salary would attract more people of ability is a very silly one – it’s more likely to encourage greedy donkeys. With the exception of a very small number of very marginal constituencies, the idea that the personal attributes of the candidate are the prime driver of his or her election is a convenient fiction, and even in those constituencies the difference made by the candidate is, well, marginal. A system which pretends to base itself on the idea that there is a direct and very personal relationship between elected members and their constituents is basing itself on a fiction – a convenient one for those elected individuals who have an over-inflated view of themselves, but a fiction nevertheless.

That brings me to the debate about the electoral system to be used for the expanded Senedd in Cardiff. Many of those arguing against the d’Hondt system do so on the basis of supporting the fiction referred to above: the idea that people can and should choose individuals rather than parties to represent them. Having to rank people, even within their respective parties, on the basis of preference may encourage some to think a bit more about the individuals, but I’ve yet to see any hard evidence that they do so in sufficient numbers to make voting for most people other than a question of choosing a party and sticking to it. (For sure, there is evidence of that at council level – but that’s with smaller constituencies where people can become well-known as individuals; the extent to which the same happens at parliamentary level – especially with the huge constituencies being proposed – is doubtful to say the least.)

There is no ‘perfect’ electoral system, largely because there is no universal agreement on what are the most important objectives. Personally, I have always favoured STV, but for rather different reasons. Under d’Hondt, the votes of those who support ‘minor’ parties (i.e. those which don’t reach the threshold for representation) are effectively completely disregarded, whereas under STV, their second, third (and so on) choices can influence the election outcome. In terms of maximising the influence of every elector, that simply seems to me to be a better approach. The d'Hondt system, on the other hand, does provide a very direct relationship between first choice party and overall outcome across the electorate as a whole, and unquestionably makes it easier to legislate for gender balance within the Senedd. Both have advantages and disadvantages, but both provide for a much more proportional outcome than any system in use in the UK (apart from Northern Ireland) currently. We also know that, with STV, the larger the number of seats in a constituency, the more proportional the eventual outcome. But that can become unwieldy under some circumstances. Imagine, for instance, six-seat constituencies (as proposed for the expanded Senedd) fought by six parties each putting forward six candidates – the ballot paper would include 36 names with electors being asked to rank as many or as few as they wish in order of preference.

Given that the proponents of d’Hondt for the Senedd already have the majority needed to implement their proposals, any real debate in Wales is about trying to convince the Labour Party to change its mind, an outcome which seems unlikely. Sometimes it’s just better to take the improvement that’s on offer, even if there’s only a vague hope that it might lead to something better in the future. And Welsh Labour’s conversion to a fully proportional system, even if not the one many of us would choose, is a huge step forward.

Wednesday 13 July 2022

Johnson's parting gift to his party


Fresh from demonstrating their commitment to honesty, integrity and decency in politics by leaking dirt on each other to the Labour Party, the Tory leadership contenders are lining up to give their views on whether or when another referendum on Scottish independence can or should be held. Some say ‘not for ten years’ whilst others simply say ‘no’ or ‘it’s not the right time’, and one, Tugendhat, said that “you can't keep asking the same question hoping for a different answer”. There are reasonable arguments to be made (none of which have anything to do with a bit of campaign rhetoric from Alex Salmond in 2014 about “once in a generation” opportunities) for not repeating the same question in a referendum too frequently, and in that sense they have a valid point. The real question, though, is the one that they don’t seem to be asking themselves and neither do the compliant media seem to be asking them, and that is: who gets to decide when the time has come, how often to ask the question, whether some sort of event is needed before holding a further vote and what such a trigger might be.

But even without asking those questions, it is clear that there is a common, unstated, assumption: the answer is not Scotland. Yet that is really the heart of the issue. It might be considered wise to wait an arbitrary number of years between votes. It might be considered wise not to repeatedly ask the same question in a referendum. It might be considered wise to predetermine that a certain type of trigger is needed before running a further vote. It might have been wise to formally determine such issues in advance of the last vote – but that wasn’t done.  However, the only people who can decide what is wise or not in this context are the people of Scotland themselves. And even if some rules about further votes had been set in advance, in a democracy nothing can or should stop people from changing their minds. If Scots decide it is time to ask the question again – as they have done, by returning a majority of both MPs and MSPs on a manifesto of holding a vote in a succession of elections – on what moral basis or principle should the UK PM refuse? Telling Scots that they do, of course, have the right to independence if they vote for it (which is what being in a voluntary union amounts to) but that only the English government in London can decide when or whether they’ll ever be allowed to have such a vote is telling them that ultimately, they have no such right at all and there is nothing voluntary about the union.

In terms of making a coherent argument against independence, denying a vote by hiding behind laws imposed by London doesn’t look like the smartest of moves, although we should acknowledge that being smart isn’t exactly the prime qualification for becoming Tory leader. Delaying the vote as long as possible also looks to be self-defeating when all the polling shows that younger voters in Scotland are supporting independence in ever increasing numbers, whilst older voters are doing what older people have a demographic tendency to do; delay is only increasing the probability of a positive vote. Perhaps they genuinely believe that they can hold the line against both independence and a referendum for more or less ever by using the courts; perhaps Scots independentistas really will just say ‘OK’ and stop campaigning, although that looks like a forlorn hope to me. I suspect that the truth is more likely to be that they can see the tide turning against them, don’t know how what else to do, and are taking the essentially short term view which results from the winner-takes-all UK electoral system. Hoping that ‘something will turn up’ if they delay long enough isn’t the best strategy anyone has ever devised. It looks like being his or her own worst enemy is Johnson’s parting gift to his party’s next leader.

Monday 11 July 2022

Money trees and Thatcherite myths


One of the things which has emerged from the Tory Party leadership pantomime to date is the fact that almost all of the candidates (Sunak being the sole exception as far as I’m aware) have remembered that there is a magic money tree after all. Indeed, the rate at which some of them are committing to both cutting taxes and spending more suggests that they’ve found a whole forest full of them. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on what they’re planning to do with all the money that they’re proposing to pick from the heavily-laden branches.

The prospects are not good: as Richard Partington put it in the Guardian, “…planning fiscal policy to woo a narrow group of mainly affluent Tory party members isn’t likely to meet the needs of wider society amid the worst hit to household finances of our times”. It’s a good summary, reminding us that however slick the videos or enticing the promises, they’re not aimed at the population at large, only at that small minority who actually get a vote on who should be the next PM. Initially, that’s the 350 or so Tory MPs in the House of Commons (I’m reluctant to state a precise number, given the regularity with which it is being reduced by further scandals), and then it’s the roughly 200,000 members of the wider Tory Party. By concentrating on using the money which they know can be made available to put more into the pockets of the most affluent, they are merely reverting to type.

I’m sure that they would argue that cutting taxes firstly puts more money in people’s pockets and secondly encourages economic growth, which generates more tax revenue for the Exchequer in the longer term. The first is true, after a fashion. People having more money in their pockets are better able to protect themselves against the cost of living crisis, but that rather ignores two very obvious facts: cuts in taxes are of more benefit to those who pay the most tax, and cuts in taxes do nothing for those whose income is so low that they aren’t paying the taxes in the first place. If the aim is to target help at those most in need, increasing benefits is a far more effective way of doing it. That group tend not to vote Tory though.

The second – about encouraging economic growth – is much more contentious. It’s regularly trotted out as though it were gospel truth, but the idea that ‘tax cuts pay for themselves’ is one for which there is scant empirical evidence, just like the infamous Laffer Curve. What the argument does achieve is a justification for putting more money in the hands of those who already have most and further increasing inequality. It gives a specious veneer of apparent theoretical and academic validity to those who merely want to fill their own pockets and those of their supporters.

Sunak, on the other hand, is standing up for the traditional Thatcherite myth that there needs to be an equivalence between spending and taxation. Strangely, he still seems to be the bookies’ favourite, despite making an argument which runs directly contrary to the personal financial interests of those with a vote in the contest. (He’s also backed up, apparently, by the Labour Party, whose leader has referred contemptuously to “…more than £200bn of unfunded spending commitments” made by the contenders over the weekend. That may make Starmer and Sunak the last true Thatcherites.) Maybe he’ll win anyway, but the more venal instincts of the membership appear more likely to win out.

That could leave us with the second favourite, Liz Truss. She has received a surprising compliment from Dominic Cummings this weekend. Having previously described her as being “about as close to properly crackers as anybody I’ve met in parliament”, he has now opined that, of the candidates so far declared, “at least 1 is more insane than Truss”. Whether Truss will see that as some sort of endorsement is doubtful, however; and the suggestion that multiple candidates are mad is certainly not very reassuring for the rest of us. Always assuming that the opinion of Cummings on the madness of other people is worthy of any credibility anyway.

Sunday 10 July 2022

Having multiple personalities might be an advantage


Some people are being very unkind about Grant Shapps, following his announcement that he is standing in the election to become Tory leader and PM. They seem to think that a man with three known aliases, under one of which he sold a ‘get-rich-quick’ scheme which many might think looks an awful lot like pyramid selling, is somehow unfit to become the UK’s leader. Leaving aside the question of whether being fit for office is an essential qualification for high public office anyway (and the last three years have demonstrated very clearly that, for the Tories, it is most definitely not), the critics might be overlooking the potential opportunities here.

Appointing Michael Green as Chancellor, Corinne Stockheath as Defence Secretary, and Sebastian Fox as Home Secretary would see all four of the so-called ‘Great Offices of State’ filled easily and instantly with people who would be utterly loyal to the PM, and who would know exactly what the PM was thinking without even having to ask. It might be unreasonable, though, to expect any discount on the salaries – proponents of getting rich quickly aren’t usually keen to forgo an opportunity for extra income. And as a bonus, what could be better for the country’s economic prospects than having a chancellor who can convince punters the public at large that there are easy ways to become very wealthy very quickly, with little need to do much by way of work? Whilst Stockheath is known as the sort of person who can give glowing testimonials to her alter egos, the hidden talents of Fox are exactly that, hidden. But that, in itself, would surely be a welcome change from the current situation where the talents of the incumbent, Priti Patel, are far from being hidden. How much better off the country would have been if they’d been allowed to remain hidden instead of being so cruelly exposed.

To those who think that appointing a man with three aliases and a record of selling dodgy personal enrichment schemes would be descending from crisis into farce, I have only one message. Just take a look at some of the other candidates.

Friday 8 July 2022

Vote Tory to rejoin Single Market?


Labour have said that, if the Tories do not remove Boris Johnson from Downing Street in the next few days, they will table a formal motion of no confidence in the House of Commons. It’s unlikely to be passed, and I doubt that Labour would really want it to be either. They’d much prefer the spectacle of a whole host of Tory MPs who’ve openly declared their lack of confidence in the PM lining up to cast their votes expressing their complete confidence in his government. But unlikely is not the same as impossible; there is just a possibility that it might succeed and lead to an immediate general election.

There is another unlikely but not impossible event on the horizon as well. It’s always seemed to me that the ‘investigation’ into Starmer’s bottle of beer was a rather pathetic attempt by the Tories to try and create some sort of false equivalence with Johnson’s incessant disregard for the rules which he himself introduced, and that the police would eventually conclude that no rules had been broken. I could be wrong, though – whilst the force doing the investigation isn’t the badly-flawed Met, it is still possible that Mr Plod will find an interpretation of the rules under which they can issue fines to ‘Keith’ and his deputy, both of whom have already committed to resigning if that were to happen. That could leave us holding a general election in which both the main parties were under caretaker management, and neither could tell us who would be PM if they won. It’s a fascinating prospect, and the fact that it is not impossible underlines, yet again, just how badly broken the UK’s political system is.

Leaving aside my personal fantasy of watching two leaderless parties struggle their way through the contest, in the real world the likelier scenario is that we face an election next Spring (whilst the UK system does not necessitate a new PM calling an election, there is a general expectation that he or she should do so). The Tory Party will be under a new leader who will be going head to head with Keith. Given the need for the new Tory PM to put some distance between him or herself and the disaster that went before, there is one obvious policy choice which he or she could make which might actually transform the chances of success, and that is to promise to negotiate membership of the EU single market (SM) and customs union (CU). Membership would, at a stroke, resolve the problem of the NI Protocol and help to reduce shortages of some products. It would also boost economic growth and have an impact on inflation. Most businesses would welcome the move – the Tory Party might again come to be regarded as the party of business rather than the party of F*** Business (© Boris Johnson, 2018). Best of all (from the Tories’ perspective) it would completely wrongfoot Labour, who, after Starmer’s commitment last week not to seek membership of the SM or CU, would find itself arguing that it alone could make the impossible work, by following a plan remarkably similar to that of Johnson but without the petulance. Remainers might find that, despite all that has happened, the Tory Party is more in line with their views than Labour.

Could it happen? Certainly there are those in the Tory Party, such as Tobias Ellwood, who are arguing in favour of such a move. Dan Hannan (then an MEP), one of the earliest prominent Brexiteers, said in 2015 that “Absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the Single Market”, and has said this year that "Staying in the single market, or large parts of it, would have saved us a lot of trouble". Despite what many Brexiteers currently believe, there was never anything inconsistent between leaving the EU and remaining in the SM and CU; the link between the two only became ‘necessary’ after the vote had been held. Such views do not currently appear to be mainstream in the Conservative Party, although it’s unclear whether that’s because people don’t hold them or are simply parroting the (current) official line. But neither are they entirely eccentric, particularly among business donors, whose influence (in normal, non-Johnsonian times) should not be underestimated. The question is, perhaps, less about whether the party could change its views on such a major issue (it can, and frequently does, usually at the whim of the leader), and more about whether a candidate talking about making such a change could ever make it into the final two when MPs vote for the next leader. If it were to happen, it’s much more likely to be the result of a candidate who says the opposite to get elected as leader and then changes his or her mind after taking up residence in Downing Street in the light of getting a ‘full briefing’ on the economic realities. They call it ‘pragmatism’ (although others might see it as a lack of any underlying principle), something which has rarely been in short supply under the Tories under all leaders except the current one. And saying one thing to get elected and then doing the opposite is not exactly an unusual proposition for Tories. Even without Boris.

Thursday 7 July 2022

It's not just about an individual


The usual argument against the sort of constitutional reform which would lead to a written constitution which formally acknowledges rights, duties and responsibilities – and limits thereon – is that what we have ‘works’. And so it does, after a fashion, although it’s not too difficult to find examples of where it doesn’t really work at all. But what a crisis of the sort we are currently enduring shows is that a whole system which depends entirely on a mixture of convention and ‘doing the decent thing’ provides no protection if those charged with operating it are without decency, and regard following convention as being optional.

For all the talk of Tory MPs holding a new vote to remove the PM, they can’t. They can hold a vote to remove the leader of their party, but it’s only convention which decrees that that person should be PM. There is nothing at all to stop Johnson carrying on as PM even after he is sacked as party leader. Only the monarch can sack the PM – and because she (unlike him) is likely to feel bound by convention, she is unlikely to do that unless the House of Commons formally passes a vote of no confidence in the government. Any Tory MPs continuing to cower behind the anonymity of a secret ballot might yet be forced to vote openly against their own PM, and in the process trigger an election which will lose many of them their seats.

The PM is apparently struggling to find MPs who are willing to fill all the posts in his government. But it’s only convention which requires the government to have so many ministers. There’s nothing to stop the PM from merging ministries into a much smaller number – even as small as one, perhaps – and appointing himself to all the posts. As an alternative, it’s only convention which requires ministers to be members of the House of Commons – there are no formal rules which prevent the PM ennobling a hundred friends and sycophants and appointing them to government posts.

Theoretically, a government needs to get its legislative programme through the House of Commons – but it’s only convention which requires it to have such a programme at all. The executive branch of government has long wielded most of the power, and recent legislation, such as that following Brexit, has increased that imbalance – there is an awful lot that a government can do and change without ever needing to pass a single bill. The one obvious exception is the Finance Bill implementing the budget, but that’s some way off. There's plenty of time to find a way around that as well. A determined PM could govern for months, at the least, without requiring any consent from parliament. And governments of both parties have acquiesced over the years in a process of gradually neutering parliament’s own ability to act, or even to debate, without the consent of the government.

Perhaps Johnson is weighing up all these factors; perhaps he will opt for an immediate dissolution and a new election as some are suggesting. That doing so might embarrass the monarch is simply a breach with convention, not a breach of any rules. He certainly still seems to believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that he is immensely popular amongst the electorate and that an election would see him triumph rather than destroy what’s left of his party. Perhaps he will, after all, resign, however unlikely that currently looks. Even if he does, it would be a mistake to breathe a sigh of relief and believe that ‘the system’ has stood up to his delusions. He has exposed the weaknesses and deficiencies of informal rules and conventions and the change needed is more than the replacement of an individual.

Wednesday 6 July 2022

Sunk costs, bankruptcy, and sudden discoveries of principle


Most large organisations fall prey, at some time or another, to the sunk cost fallacy. A project, especially an IT project, in which significant sums of money have been invested over a time fails to deliver on time and on budget, but the argument is made that having already invested £n million, it would be wasteful to not spend just a few £million more to complete the work. And when even that first tranche of extra money fails to bring the project to a conclusion, the process is repeated. At each decision point, the decision to invest a ‘small’ additional sum looks easier and more reasonable than agreeing to write off the much larger sum. And so some projects continue for years in a zombie form; always around 95% complete and never ever coming to fruition because the decision makers are afraid to admit not only that they got it wrong at the first decision point, but also at every subsequent decision point. Their personal investment grows with every wrong decision.

It doesn’t only work in terms of time and money though; in other scenarios, the investment can be in terms of credibility, or reputation. Take the current government as an example. All those Tory ministers and MPs who have been sent out, time and time again, to debase themselves just a little further in defending the indefensible should surely be asking themselves at what point they write off the damage to their reputations and stop digging the hole in which they find themselves. In truth, the sunk cost fallacy tells us that it’s much easier to believe that, with one more act of self-abasement, one more voluntary humiliation, perhaps things can be turned around. If the project turns out successfully as a result, they might just recover some of the reputational damage they have suffered. Two major players (interestingly, both former bankers, presumably familiar with the fallacy) and a handful of minions finally snapped yesterday, and decided to throw no more of themselves into a lost cause. However, most have, thus far, shown themselves willing to continue the self-sacrifice. In the case of those who know that no-one else would ever give them a job in government, they may well be concluding that they have nothing to lose. Even they can occasionally be right about something. As for the rest, those with more than a solitary functioning neuron must surely realise by now that the flow of scandal, untruth and misjudgement emanating from Downing Street isn’t going to stop, not just any time soon, but ever; although the caveat might itself exclude a lot of MPs and ministers as well as explaining their inaction.

Hemingway had one of his characters respond to a question about how he went bankrupt with the words, “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” It’s a concept which doesn’t just apply to bankruptcy; it happens in other contexts as well. When it comes to collapsing governments, we might just be moving from the gradual phase to the sudden phase.

Monday 4 July 2022

Smart thinking?


For as long as I can remember, the Labour Party has been promising either abolition or reform of the House of Lords. Under Blair, they actually took a few baby steps, and managed to reduce the number of seats occupied by hereditary peers to a ‘mere’ 92, but then progress stalled, partly because it was too hard and partly because they’ve never been able to agree with each other on exactly what reform is needed. They’re at it again today – the current temporary manager of their Scottish branch office has said that Labour will replace the House of Lords with an elected Senate, in which the members have “…a mandate to represent their nation or region”, and in which “Scotland and other parts of the UK [will be given] a greater say in UK-wide legislation”. It’s meaningless waffle, announced before the work has been done to flesh out how such a mandate would work in practice (spoiler: it can’t and won’t), let alone how ‘Scotland and other parts of the UK’ can avoid simply being outvoted in a whipped vote (spoiler: they will be outvoted).

This is, apparently, one prong of Labour’s three-pronged ‘big idea’ “as an alternative to Nicola Sturgeon’s plan for a second referendum”. Another of the prongs is “a legal duty to cooperate between the UK Government and the Scottish Government”. Well, yes. The chances of English politicians – even Labour ones – accepting that England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland should be represented as and treated as equals has a probability close to zero. And what exactly does it mean if the different governments have very different views on what needs to be done? It sounds more like a demand that devolved administrations do as they are told than a means of guaranteeing no interference in devolved issues. His third prong is “joint governance councils to replace the Joint Ministerial Committees [which] would have a statutory footing”. And how exactly does that future-proof devolution against the next Tory government which can simply repeal the legislation or, if it follows the current example, just ignore it? This master plan is supposed to persuade Scots, in particular, that they should forget any idea of taking control of their own affairs and depend on Labour instead. It’s embarrassing that Labour should be reduced to such half-witted sloganizing.

The problem with devolution is, and always has been, that devolving power within a unitary state whose constitution is based on the belief that God invested all power in the monarch who merely allows parliament to exercise it on a temporary basis means that power is only ever loaned and can always be taken back, something which the Johnson government is doing ever more frequently. No form of words in any Act of Parliament can ever be depended on as long as such Acts are based on the absolute right of the legislature to reverse them and the sacred doctrine that no parliament can ever bind its successors. It’s a constitutional principle in which Labour are as heavily invested as the Tories. The UK could be saved (leaving aside whether that is desirable or not) as a political entity, but it depends on reform on a scale which Labour are incapable of even imagining, let alone implementing. A written constitution, an acknowledgement that it is the people not the monarch who are sovereign, switching to full proportional representation – these are the minimum guarantees which can allow the degree of effective autonomy which might be enough to deter some from seeking independence.

Labour is not only offering none of those things, it is instead declaring that it will form a minority government and dare the SNP and other non-Tory parties to bring it down by opposing any of its policies. And that’s another half-baked plan in itself. Whilst it’s true that voters in England might be mightily annoyed if the SNP brought down a Labour government in a way which led to a return of the Tories, the assumption that the same would be true in Scotland is a very shaky one. It assumes that SNP voters will accept a Labour government for which they did not vote imposing its will on them because the alternative is a Tory government for which they also didn’t vote imposing its will upon them. Threatening to be as dictatorial as the Tories they hope to replace doesn’t immediately strike me as the smartest of moves. But then, it wasn’t being smart which led to Labour losing almost all its support in Scotland. At least they’re consistent.

Friday 1 July 2022

More of a Norse saga than a Greek tragedy


According to the old saying, ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’, and Boris Johnson is a man who thinks that he has indeed come to save the world from itself, even if (according to some recent allegations) he may be interpreting at least one of the words in a way which is not quite what one might expect. In ancient Grecian theatre, when the first god fouls up as badly as Johnson has done, another would appear, in traditional deus ex machina fashion, to save us from the god who has deviated from the path set for him by fate. Sadly, on this occasion, instead of conjuring up the expected righting of all wrongs the gods have chosen to display their sense of humour, and have sent us ‘Keith’ Starmer. It’s more of a Norse saga than a Greek tragedy; more Loki than Zeus.

Loki has whispered in Keith’s ear that the Tories and the media will portray any discussions or agreements between his party and the SNP as a Faustian pact, which will so upset the English nationalist voters who are keeping the Tory Party in power that they will continue to vote Tory; whereas, if he can only convince them that he is as committed to English domination over the rest of the UK as the Tories are, then they will vote for him instead. Like all good tricks, the inherent truth of the first part diverts attention from the utter illogic of the second. That Loki – what is he like, eh? Being more than a little gullible, and easily misled, Keith has done as Loki suggested and announced that he will never talk to the SNP about any sort of governing arrangements, and will certainly never allow a new referendum to be held. He will, instead, attempt to struggle through as a minority government, turning his back on any arrangements which might make his job easier, with his consequent tribulations, upsets and defeats forming the main thread of the drama, while the followers of the fallen god attempt to recover their position.

We don’t yet know how the play will end. Tradition says that the hero should somehow win through and emerge triumphant, but it’s far from clear who Loki thinks the hero is. It might not be Keith at all. It’s much more likely that the trickster god has Keith’s downfall in mind, perhaps when he finds himself forced, as a result of all the decisions he’s taken previously, to explain how and why Scotland can never be given a second vote on independence even if all the country’s MPs are pro-Indy and even if every voter in Scotland supports them. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether Loki – known for being a shape-shifter – might actually be in Scottish guise this week, and an independence supporter at that.