The relentless rise of Liz Truss

Hardly for the first time in my life, I have got something wrong. In my recent post on the Conservative leadership contest I suggested that Rishi Sunak would prevail over Liz Truss. This was based on the thought that Conservative members were more sensible than they are usually portrayed to be, and that they would react against the apparent recklessness of Ms Truss – t and favour Mr Sunak’s better presentation skills. I have badly underestimated Ms Truss, as I now think she is unstoppable, but I’m hardly the first person to do so.

Monday night’s TV debate showed why. Mr Sunak badly needed to portray Ms Truss’s economic plans as reckless (an opinion which I share), and especially that they could send inflation and interest rates up. He got his point across pretty successfully. In the process we found him talking over his opponent repeatedly with the confident male assurance that far too many of us have seen senior men do with female colleagues. Would he have done that with a male opponent? You bet he would – he was desperate to convey his message. So it probably wasn’t sexism – it was the opposite, not making concessions to Ms Truss’s sex. But it was a very bad look, and looks matter. Ms Truss held her line firmly; the waves broke over a rock. She had ripostes prepared, and she used them. Mr Sunak’s plans were contractionary (er… that goes with taming inflation); it was all Project Fear (a clever reference to the Remain campaign’s warnings of the economic consequences of Brexit – which have largely been proved right, but which Mr Sunak could not point out); it was all Treasury conservatism and “bean-counting” (true enough – but not actually relevant in this context). She surely did enough to cast doubt in Conservative members’ minds about Mr Sunak’s plans. Meanwhile Mr Sunak’s behaviour neutralised his actually rather impressive confidence and command.

This is a race between the tortoise and the hare, that we have so often seen played out in politics. The patient plotter quietly and relentlessly pursuing their ambitions, while their flashier opponents fall apart one by one. John Major; Gordon Brown; Theresa May – (you can go back further – Jim Callaghan; Ted Heath; Clement Attlee). Like all of these, Ms Truss has endured massive amounts of sneering criticism on her journey upwards. Apart from Attlee, though, none of them were particularly successful once they achieved the summit of their ambitions.

I have in fact met Ms Truss. It was before she was an MP, when she was attending a Lib Dem conference in the later 2000s on behalf of Reform, a think thank devoted to new ideas for public services. We exchanged pleasantries, but I don’t remember much beyond that. Reform’s ideas were (and still are) definitely centre-right – and more to the right in those days of New Labour. They favoured the conversion of state schools to academies, for example – something of a red herring in policy terms. As I remember they had better ideas elsewhere – they had a god line of constructive criticism. This part of Ms Truss’s career tells us two things. First is that she is fluent in the world of think tanks and policy debate. She is repeatedly portrayed as being a bit dim: this is far from true – but it is harder to shake the accusation of shallowness. The second thing this tells is us is that she is a professional politician, and knows no other trade. She was in her late 20s at this stage – was elected to parliament in 2010 and quickly became a junior minister (in 2012), reaching the cabinet in 2014. To be fair, she did train as a management accountant (i.e. a qualified bean-counter, like me, though working in business rather than in the profession) – but she did not take up any serious professional or management role. Her whole life seems to have been political – with politically active parents, and active with the Liberal Democrats at university, before taking up with the Conservatives. She paints this as a political journey, rather than opportunism – and I’m happy to take her word on this. I’m told she was never a left-wing Lib Dem, and the Conservative Party is in the long run a happier place for economic liberals – though deeply out of fashion in the 1990s. But a political career was clearly always on her mind.

Where does this leave us? We have no reason to doubt her conviction to a particular political philosophy (unlike Boris Johnson, for example) – that of being an economic liberal. But her attachment to particular policies never seems to be very strong. She knows all about how to win power, but her ideas about how to exercise it have less “bottom”. This isn’t all bad – disaster can happen when a particular politician has an idée fixe, which they pursue obsessively regardless of evidence. A particular disaster was Andrew Lansley, the first Health Secretary in the coalition government of 2010, who implemented an over-engineered reform of the NHS when it was already suffering reform fatigue. Ms Truss might have the flexibility to change course when things go wrong. The danger is that her yardstick of success is less about actual achievement than the political mood. She is not a conviction politician like Margaret Thatcher. If she was, she would have been completely thrown by Brexit, which she energetically opposed, and now supports with equal energy.

Getting the top job, if she succeeds, is going to be a big shock for her. You can’t get away with sleight of hand. If the economy goes seriously wrong, for example, she can’t simple vanish and blame somebody else. She may be comfortable with rapid changes of course, but she would then find it harder to persuade people to trust her. She is a poor public speaker, verging on disastrous. This was one reason that many people, including me, never took her chances of rising to the top seriously. She simply did not look the part.

As my readers will know, I think her ideas for tax cuts will be disastrous. They will hinder the fight against inflation, which will lead to increasing interest rates. They are a gamble that you can fight inflation without damaging economic growth. Given the obstacles the country is experiencing international trade and labour markets, not least by Brexit, this looks unrealistic. She may well be forced into austerity policies, including public service cuts just as an election looms.

So if I was a Conservative member I would choose Mr Sunak. But Ms Truss has been running this race for much longer than him. And it shows.

NHS failure is hurting the economy. Only higher taxes will break the cycle.

Last Friday I read a rather shocking article in the FT by John Burn-Murdoch pointing out that, uniquely amongst major economies, the number of inactive people of working age in Britain is still rising even as covid subsides. In the EU the number of inactive people has already returned to below the pre-pandemic trend line; in the US the number of inactive people is still above this trend line, but it is falling. About 300,000 people are missing from the UK workforce. The author draws a connection with NHS waiting lists, where a similar number of people have been waiting for more than a year for an NHS operation to deal with a chronic condition. You don’t have to accept the exact causal link between between these figures to understand that a poorly functioning health system affects the size of the economy. The scale of pain implied by the backlogs in NHS care, and the difficulty people have in accessing it, including primary care and mental health services, should make this enough of political priority. But even those who say the economy trumps all else should be taking notice.

Two important insights about the current British economy seem to elude many commentators. The first is that the dominant factor affecting the size of the economy, and hence economic growth, is the number of people that are in work. As I discussed in my recent post on Dietrich Wallrath’s book Fully Grown, this factor trumps all others, and in particularlar changes in productivity. It follows that anybody who cares about growth should focus on this factor above all else. It is why childcare policies are so important, to say nothing of immigration and retirement. It follows that the persistent shrinkage in the UK workforce through the covid pandemic must be an important contributor to the country’s lack of economic performance. The second insight is that Britain is facing a supply side crunch, which is why unemployment is low at the same time as inflation is becoming widespread through the economy, and not just focused on things like energy costs. And following Brexit, international trade (and migration) is much less of a safety valve for imbalances between supply and demand. This means that anything reducing the size of the workforce really matters. And that makes the state of the nation’s health doubly important.

It is evident that Britain is experiencing a health crisis. The NHS is failing to deal with the pressures it is under, and as for policies to stop people getting ill in the first place, that gets scarcely any attention at all. The surge in demand, combined with pressure on supply, arising from the pandemic has broken a system that was already under stress. The direct effect of the pandemic – in terms people getting ill – does not seem to differ all that much from many other countries. The issue is that other country’s health systems seem to be more resilient.

Why should this be the case? The main reason is surely that the country does not spend as much on health care as other developed countries. In an ONS study on comparative health spending based on 2017 data, only Italy spent less per head among the G7 countries. This study also pointed out that the proportion of the spend that was publicly financed (about 80%) was amongst the highest – though in the Nordic countries and Japan it was higher. The two countries in the OECD with the highest overall health spend per capita, Switzerland (about 40% higher than the UK) and the US (about double) had amongst the lowest public contributions. This points to the central paradox of the NHS: the arrangement of care being free at the point of use, combined with an effective monopoly of state provision, causes the country to spend less on health rather than more – because it makes private contribution harder. Why would you pay for treatment that you can get free? You aren’t allowed to top up NHS care with your own money to get better treatment or priority. But if people are driven to use private care because the NHS is inadequate, private care infrastructure starts to undermine the public one – and the universal consent that is the basis of the NHS starts to break down. This has already happened to dentistry and optometry. A recent BBC study has shown that more and more people are going private out of frustration with NHS waiting times, in many cases causing significant financial hardship. So this is a growing threat.

Britain probably took a wrong turning with the design of its health system in the 1940s. Other countries have found a better balance between public and private finance, and deliver better health outcomes overall – though the US shows that you should not equate health spend with health outcomes. But that is a useless insight. It is inconceivable that the country moves to one of the public insurance-based systems (Netherlands and Australia are often spoken of as exemplars) that seem work better. There is only one way to solve the problem and that is to expand the public budget to take up a higher share of the national income. This was the solution hit upon by Tony Blair when he was prime minister in the early 2000s – which it must be said was one of his most successful insights, even though it went against political orthodoxy – he had to outmanoeuvre his chancellor Gordon Brown bring it about. The problem, of course, is how to fund it (or, if you are a follower of Modern Monetary Theory – how to prevent the policy being inflationary). When Mr Blair pushed the policy through, the country was going through a largely illusory period of economic growth, and no hard choices were required as tax revenues were buoyant. But a big problem arose when the bubble popped in the Great Financial Crisis, and much of the government’s tax revenues vanished. Since then governments have sought to protect the size of the NHS budget, but without letting it reflecting increased demand arising from the higher proportion of older people. Meanwhile other public services that affect demand for the NHS, like social care and public health, were squeezed. Meanwhile the country’s growth prospects were dented by those same demographics, to say nothing of the ending of cheap Chinese imports and Brexit, and various other headwinds. The inescapable conclusion is that core taxes (Income Tax, National Insurance, and VAT) must go up to provide health services with the resources they need to meet public demand.

Only shadows of this awkward political choice seem to be affecting the Conservative leadership debate. Rishi Sunak defends the recent rise in NI on the basis that it is needed to fund the NHS to help overcome its covid backlog, and then to improve social care. But this extra funding is inadequate. Liz Truss persists in suggesting that taxes should come down immediately, and stay down, as this will unleash growth and higher tax revenues overall. Though she doesn’t suggest cutting spending, it is not hard to see that this is where that path leads. Both place hope in productivity miracles in the health system to square the circle. Neither want to touch the idea of intrusive regulation to help the country avoid health hazards such as junk food. This position is not necessarily incoherent. Many conservatives think we should push health choices and their consequences out of the public realm and into that of individual responsibility. Such people would not be unhappy with the rise of a two-tier health system with the rise of private care increasingly dealing with the requirements of the better off. It is, of course, a policy that dare not speak its name.

And yet Labour, and the Lib Dems for that matter, are no better. They may accept the ethos of an effective and properly funded public health system, including preventative health interventions (though tastes for this vary) – but they will not say that this requires core taxes to go up. It is easy to blame devious politicians, right, left and centre for this failure to confront the hard choices about the national health. But the problem clearly goes deeper. Conservatives don’t talk about strangling the NHS in the name of individual agency, and Labour doesn’t talk about serious tax rises to boost health funding, because each of these policies would be politically suicidal. The political system crushes minority political views, which both of these are, in the all-or-nothing electoral system. The public has no apetite for political straight talking of this sort. It’s been hard enough to get people used to the idea that stopping climate change means changing our way of life. Health policy, or the awkward choices it entails, does not get anything like this attention. Initially leadership on this kind of issue is required from outside the main political parties. But I hear nothing.

And so we face the prospect of a vicious circle, with the health system and the economy bringing each other down.

No, tax cuts won’t deliver economic growth

Elizabeth Truss – UK Parliament official portraits 2017
Photo: Chris McAndrew, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been away on holiday for the last week, near Bakewell in the beautiful Peak District of Derbyshire. So I haven’t commented on the race to succeed Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party – which under the UK’s unwritten constitution means the automatic assumption of the office of Prime Minister. I did watch (most of) the two televised debates. You will have to take my word for it that I was predicting that the final two would be Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss even as Penny Maudaunt was the 58% betting favourite to win the whole thing.

As I write, Ms Maudaunt may yet make it to the final two, to be decided by party members, and even Mr Sunak’s place there is not guaranteed. But let’s assume that things turn out as I predicted. Which one is likely to win overall? This is hard to predict. YouGov have made a valiant attempt as polling Conservative members, but to get their sample they are fishing in a large lake for a rare fish. Their polling suggests that Ms Truss has a comfortable lead. This fits with most commentators’ prejudices of the Tory membership, as most think they will prefer Ms Truss’s more ideological pitch – or may even be worried by Mr Sunak’s ethnicity. Actually I’m not so sure, and I expect Mr Sunak to prevail in the end.

These two candidates were always the strongest in the field of seven candidates left after Jeremy Hunt was eliminated. They have both held one of the great offices of state (indeed Ms Truss is still Foreign Secretary), and they are both well grounded in the sorts of choices governments have to make. The other candidates have come up with interesting debating points but show little evidence of actual grasp. Meanwhile both Mr Sunak and Ms Truss have come closest to putting forward coherent policy positions – and they clash. Mr Sunak has taken the continuity position, of keeping taxes and spending much as they are, and defending the various measures put forward to relieve hardship as the cost of living crisis takes hold. This makes sense as he was Chancellor of the Exchequer until very recently. This has been heavily criticised by Ms Truss. She says that the tax rises (National Insurance is going up, alongside Corporation Tax rates) will cause recession. Instead tax should be cut in the short term, to generate economic growth. Inflation should be curbed by the Bank of England – whom she suggested were in large part responsible for inflation in the first place.

Three questions are posed by this challenge. First, will tax cuts generate growth? Second, can Britain afford more public debt? And third, is the fight against inflation best left to the central bank? The first question is in fact quite complex one – and politicians of left and right often try to hide in the complexity to justify populist policies of lower taxes or higher spending.

There are a number of ways that tax cuts can stimulate growth. The most direct is by allowing people to spend more (assuming that it isn’t accompanied by public spending cuts) – which helps take up economic slack. Donald Trump’s tax cuts worked like this, at least to some extent. But there is very little sign of slack in the UK economy. Indeed this is one of the causes of the inflation crisis. Tax cuts will either fuel inflation or suck in imports (and the country is running a current account deficit). A second mechanism for tax to affect growth is by drawing in more capital – fixed or human – by improving incentives. The case for this is strongest for Corporation Tax – as this is something multinational companies factor into their choice of where in the world to invest – but there is little evidence that it is a big factor in the UK. But Corporation Tax is a very efficient tax, and low interest rates are keeping costs of investment generally low. There is in any case a big time lag between any tax cut and any change to investment behaviour – it will have little effect on whether the country avoids recession this year or next. The question of incentives for income taxes is much less clear – it is a classic essay question for first-year economics students. Lower taxes make work more rewarding increasing the incentive to do more, but also the could reduce the need to work to fund your chosen standard of living. If tax rates are very high (for example, the top rate of 83% current when I was calculating payroll deductions in 1976) the chances are that the former predominates – but the case is much harder to make at current levels. Tax cuts won’t help growth, especially in the short to medium term.

Can Britain afford to borrow more, meaning that it is easier to cut taxes without cutting spending too? The Conservatives promised not to do this in their 2019 manifesto. But Ms Truss suggests that we can get round this by classifying a chunk of debt as “Covid debt” to be paid off over a longer time frame. Mr Sunak says this is nonsense. Running a budget deficit in a country that controls its own currency isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it does not work like a household budget. If there is slack in the rest of the economy it is almost a national duty. And there is the argument that if the markets can’t stomach it, you can simply create the shortfall as money. But this can be inflationary, and there comes a point when the providers of finance insist on lending in other currencies. Britain has not been in anything like this danger zone since the early 1980s, when deficits from nationalised industries caused havoc to government finances. Inflation has made the picture more complicated, and debt levels are historically high (in part thanks to the covid crisis). But Ms Truss is probably right on this one – if you can deal with the arguments on inflation.

And here Ms Truss says the Bank of England can take more of the strain in turning the tide. Indeed she has suggested that the bank is partly to blame for the inflation crisis in the first place. In one of the debates she suggested that the Bank’s mandate should be modelled on that of the Bank of Japan. It is hard to credit this. The only way that the bank can fight inflation is to raise interest rates. This restrains growth – indeed the policy makes no distinction between restraining growth and restraining inflation – it tackles one through the other. From somebody who is suggesting that the problem is a lack of growth this is an extraordinary line to take. Further, the inflation problem has largely been brought about by problems on the supply side of the economy (oil/gas problems, Brexit, covid and a spate of early retirements in the workforce). It is hard to see how higher interest rates would have helped. It is simply a shallow attempt at blame shifting.

But none of the leadership contenders have wanted to confront the economic reality of Britain’s position. Britain’s workforce relative to its total population is shrinking due to demographic changes. Those same changes are placing public services under greater pressure, especially in health and social care. There are no soft spots on public spending – squeezing local authorities and benefits merely puts other services, especially the NHS and police, under yet more pressure. We have cut too much on defence. There is no productivity bonanza that will make public spending more affordable – or to be more precise, improvements in productivity are affecting a shrinking share of the economy, and cannot be expected to provide a get-out-of-jail-free card. All that points to higher taxes, or taking the country down the route of high inflation and currency and debt crises. By suggesting that he will only look at tax cuts once inflation has been dealt with, at least Mr Sunak has one foot on the ground. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king.

Funnily enough I have more sympathy with the Tory position than most on the left. Public spending (and taxes) should be subject to continual challenge. It is lazy to shrug our shoulders and suggest that nothing can be done. it is better for people to make their own choices n expenditure. There is a huge challenge in making public services more effective and accountable. But fantasy economics does not help.

Why do people still support Boris Johnson?

Readers of this blog will know that I have never admired Boris Johnson, Britain’s outgoing prime Minister. There are many layers to my dislike. His embrace of Brexit is, of course, a starting point. But his laziness, undermining of trust, indifference to truth and the incoherence of his governing agenda can all be added to this, amongst many other things. He is everything I dislike in a leader. He is not nearly as evil as Vladimir Putin (Mr Johnson was careless with human life in the pandemic, but he did not set out to destroy it in the pursuit of imperialism), and somewhat less evil than Donald Trump (Mr Johnson is not a climate change denier or a racist – and he never quite got as far as wanting to subvert elections) – and there are worse people in British politics, such as Nigel Farage, and one or two of Mr Johnson’s choices for ministers: but nobody worse has made it to British Prime Minister before. And yet a sizeable number of people in Britain regret his passing. This phenomenon needs to be understood.

It is hard to tell how many people remain Johnson supporters. The BBC has taken to the use of vox pop as a journalistic technique – going to different parts of the country to assess how people are reacting to events. As journalism it is quite effective – but as a way of judging what people are really thinking it has little value. The samples of interviewees are not random, and those televised are subject to heavy editing. An opinion poll or focus group it is not. Still the BBC seem to have had little difficulty in finding Boris supporters wherever they go. They seem to be older, middle class and predominantly female (which may reflect who they could find on a high street in office hours…). Some newspapers, like the Daily Mail, think there are enough of them to provide material to bolster their views. But opinion polls and by elections (notably the one in the Tory heartland of Tiverton & Honiton in Devon) demonstrate that Boris supporters are heavily outnumbered by people that share at least some of my views of the man.

All commentators have a tendency to paint caricatures, or archetypes, of types of voter to simplify a complicated picture and provide narrative fluency. I am going to try the the same thing by painting a picture of the sort of person who took to Mr Johnson in 2019, and now feels let down after his ejection from power. It is the lower middle class voter. This person is much despised, by both those from the upper middle classes (like me) and working classes. But they are numerical substantial and often electorally critical. This was clearly understood by Margaret Thatcher and also by Tony Blair – the two most electorally successful politicians of the postwar era – although they used this insight in different ways.

What are the characteristics of this group? Middling educational attainment and a degree of financial security; self-employed in small businesses, or employed in supervisory or middle-management roles. They are important users of universal state services and benefits, and especially the NHS and the state pension – but not targeted interventions to help the more needy. They are anxious to maintain their social status, and worried that their limited financial security could be undermined by inflation, higher taxes or a collapsing property market. There is something of a paradox here: they are quite secure, but their political attitudes are dominated by insecurity. This naturally leads them to conservative views, but not the sort that seeks to cut back universal entitlements. Immigration and ethnic minorities are often a touchstone, though many of them belong to ethnic minorities and have immigrant heritage. They are deeply suspicious of smooth-talking liberal types – but very happy to follow higher class people who seem to share their values. The description “radical” is not rated as a recommendation, as it is for those on the political left.

This, of course, is an oversimplification. There are no hard edges with this group, which includes people who most would regard as working class and upper middle class. Many many who fit the socio-economic description have more liberal attitudes. But the shorthand suits my purpose.

This group was successfully brought on board by the Brexit campaign, though in truth they did not need much convincing. Theresa May saw the group as critical, both to secure heartland Conservative seats in better-off areas, and to switch a lot of Labour seats in the Midlands, north England, and Wales – the “Red Wall”. She failed in 2017, but the strategy was vindicated by Mr Johnson in 2019. Quite how the Red Wall seats switched is open to debate. The normal narrative is that conservative Labour supporters switched. An alternative narrative is that the working class voters stayed at home, giving the opportunity for more motivated middle class voters to carry the day. Another factor was that Mr Johnson did a better job of sweeping in Nigel Farage supporters from fringe parties, such as Ukip, who successfully exploited lower middle class voters.

Mr Johnson has not been universally popular with lower middle class voters since the 2019 election. By and large they were not covid lockdown sceptics, and many were scared of the disease – so the government’s often lacadaisical handling of the pandemic upset many. The misbehaviour of the prime minister’s office during the lockdown will also have been upsetting. On the other hand Mr Johnson has taken care to stay true to these voters – more care than with most things. He has delivered tougher immigration controls. It does not seem to matter that immigration numbers have stayed high – it is clear that tougher controls are inflicting pain on both travellers and businesses – and this shows that the government is serious. The Rwanda deportation scheme was tailor-made to appeal to these voters. Indeed, pretty much all government policies described as “divisive” by government critics are seen by them as their voice being heard for once. They are untroubled by Mr Johnson’s violation of conventions and legalities – which tend to be seen as a conspiracy to keep the liberal elite on top. And unlike Conservative MPs they do not have to live in close proximity to the Prime Minister, so they can be more indulgent of his misbehaviour, and more believing of the lies and denials.

Of course the problem for the Conservatives is that there are not enough Johnson loyalists left. They were never enough of them to win based on their votes alone, and Mr Johnson has badly alienated pretty much everybody else. Mr Johnson’s successor will have the tricky job of reassembling the electoral coalition. But if these lower middle class voters stay at home in numbers, or are tempted to vote for fringe parties again, the Conservative Party stands little chance of winning the next general election. Which is why liberal voters can expect little relief from the new regime.

Are the Russians winning the war in Ukraine?

By Viewsridge – Own work, derivate of Russo-Ukraine Conflict (2014-2021).svg by Rr016Missile attacks source:BNO NewsTerritorial control sources:Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed map / Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed relief mapISW, CC BY-SA 4.0,

As I was drafting this article, British politics went through an extraordinary period of turmoil, and Boris Johnson’s government started to collapse. The dust still hasn’t settled. I will not attempt to comment on developments just yet, though. The war in Ukraine grinds on, and this article is as relevant as ever.

BBC reporting on Ukraine is a faithful representation of the zeitgeist in journalistic circles. It reflects mood swings and momentum rather than a sober reflection of the facts. That mood has recently swung to pessimism (on Ukraine’s behalf) as Russia has completed its conquest of the Luhansk oblast. Is this a fair assessment of the facts?

Beyond the mainstream media reporting, I have found two sources particularly useful to try and get an understanding of what is happening. The first is The Economist (which manages to be both mainstream and fringe at the same time), and especially the weekly summaries in its print edition. The paper tries to get behind the headlines a bit – though it can repeat some silly tropes put about by military experts. One was that the fighting in the Donbas would start to resemble battles fought over the same area in the Second World War, with the use of mass tank formations across open country in particular (this one was repeated by a BBC correspondent). That was always going to be nonsense: the scale of the conflict is dramatically smaller, and modern technology has transformed warfare – not just in weapons, but in logistics. Instead we have seen battles with incremental gains based around towns and highways – with artillery playing a dominant role. Another trope was the repetition of the idea that “in theory” an attacker should have a 3:1 numerical superiority over the defender to succeed. Repetition of this idea (which dates back the General Montgomery in WW2) is sure sign of somebody talking well beyond their expertise. The odds needed by an attacker are completely dependent on context: sometimes 3:1 is not nearly enough, at others 1:3 is perfectly adequate. Still there is a lot of value in The Economist‘s reporting. This week it has a very good assessment of the two sides – concluding that it is too early to tell who is winning, and it will take a long time to tell.

My second source are the daily bulletins from the American think tank the Institute for the Study of War. This body is by no means impartial – littering its references to Russian activity with such adjectives as “illegal”. It has been quite dependent on briefings from the Ukrainian military – and it tends to talk up the idea of “false flag” attacks by the Russians. Its daily reports are a bit formulaic as well. But it tries to give a sober assessment of what is happening. It has improved its coverage significantly by reporting on what it calls Russian “milbloggers” – Russians with military connections reporting on their own assessments of what is going on. These are often very critical of the Russian leadership, while supporting the “Special Military Operation” overall. These sources are often the first to report Russian successes – and they help give the ISW reporting better balance.

So what do I glean from all this? Russian tactics have switched to something that plays much better to their strengths – with the use of heavy artillery bombardments and incremental territorial advances, trying to surround and then reduce Ukrainian strongpoints, tempting the enemy to reinforce a “cauldron” of partially surrounded troops into a killing field. This approach accounts for their recent success in Luhansk. But how successful have they actually been? Some suggest (including from the Russian side) that Ukraine has been playing a cleverer game here – forcing the Russian side to expend copious resources for marginal gains, and then retreating before it is too late. Well, maybe – but Ukrainian casualties have been heavy too. Most people expect the Russian military efforts to pause while they rebuild their forces after suffering heavy losses. Building new cauldrons will be harder as they push into Donetsk.

A second point to make, which you won’t hear on on the mainstream reporting, is that there has been significant action outside Donbas. In particular Ukraine has made some successful counterattacks in the south. It is very hard to know what is actually going on here. The Economist has an online article on this (which I haven’t read – you can get too obsessive…I wait for the weekly printed edition). The ISW reports are patchy. It seems that the Ukrainian military don’t particularly want to draw attention to it, and Russia’s milbloggers aren’t very interested.

Looking deeper, there two aspects on the battlefield that will prove critical. First is logistics. The Russians are burning through an enormous amount of materiel. This is clearly limiting when it comes to the more advanced equipment – precision munitions in particular – but they seem to have deep stocks of less advanced equipment, and plentiful supplies of of low-tech ammunition. I have speculated that China might be helping them with this. On the other hand the Ukrainians have used up most of their Warsaw Pact era supplies, and are now dependent on supplies from their Western allies. And here they are being supplied faster than the materiel is being manufactured. This means that the Ukrainians cannot copy Russian tactics of mass bombardment. They need to use the more sophisticated capabilities of this weaponry to their best effect. To listen to some Ukrainian officials appealing for more firepower, focusing on the disparity of quantity, is not reassuring. But The Economist suggests that Ukrainians do understand this dynamic and are not trying to match the Russians for volume of fire.

The second critical aspect is morale. Here it is the Russians who have the disadvantage. The quality of Russian troops and training was always exaggerated by Western experts (and their own, it seems) – but heavy casualties have made things worse, as well as a neglect for the welfare of frontline soldiers that goes back centuries in Russian military tradition. This could come to matter a lot if Russians are put on the defensive. Strong physical defences are all very well, but defence requires grit. If Ukraine can find tactics that exploit this weakness, while not burning up too much ammunition, they may be able to see the initiative, especially away from Donbas.

A further aspect to think about is support for the war both within Russia and amongst Ukraine’s Western allies. At first sight things seem to be going Russia’s way here. The Russian economy is apparently holding up well, and the government’s has a strong grip on the narrative. Support for the war remains widespread and dissent rare. The most conspicuous sign of Russian economic success is a trade surplus, and a Rouble that has recovered from its earlier troubles. And yet this is not the success it seems. Clearly Russia is having success at exporting raw materials. But a surplus (and even a high Rouble) is a sign that it is struggling to import it needs. Sanctions are clearly hurting. And the Russian regime is worried enough about the Russian public not to declare a proper war, which would unlock mobilisation. This is something that puzzles the milbloggers.

On the Western side, Russia’s stranglehold on natural gas looks scary, and high petrol prices are causing widespread hardship. Problems with a liquid natural gas terminal in Texas, amongst other mishaps, mean that plans to substitute for Russian gas are behind. Western leaders are staring at a bleak winter. Pro-Putin populists in some countries are recovering their poise. It is no wonder that the thoughts of some leaders remains on how to bring the war to an end. Russians, Chinese, jihadi terrorists and others sneer at the ability of Western democracies to withstand pain – but this is always a mistake. It helps that many of the panful adjustments required are this that are needed to combat climate change.

What next? We may soon be moving into a new phase of the conflict. Ukraine is likely to move onto the attack. But in order to turn the tide properly they will have to cause something of a panic amongst the Russian troops. That is possible. But come the winter exhaustion will set in – and thoughts will turn to a ceasefire. Before then the Ukrainians are not ready to contemplate such a thing, while advanced Western weapons flood in. Neither will Russia, who doubtless think that logistics are on their side, and that Western patience will not last. A grim summer awaits.