Can the monarchy cope with modern politics?

Bonfire consumes Isfield’s Jubilee beacon, 2 June 2022

The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee has been a happy event in our East Sussex village. On Thursday evening we lit a beacon, and then, this being East Sussex, we burnt it in a bonfire. On Friday afternoon we had a lovely street party. Today it was the village fete, where I won a bottle of whisky in the raffle. There is also a treasure hunt and a scarecrow competition.Everybody was in the mood for a celebration.

But what are we celebrating? Nominally it is Queen Elizabeth II’s remarkable achievement of reigning as monarch for 70 years. And she certainly commands a lot of respect and affection among the villagers here. Most of the bunting features patriotic union jacks. But for many it more of a question of “any excuse for a party”, especially after two years when local events and activities have been badly disrupted. In the grim days of 2020 (when we moved into the village), it was a common sentiment that we should have a big party when it was all over. It isn’t really all over, but for many this is the party. The theme of a number of the scarecrows (which are meant to reflect aspects of the Queen’s reign) were the heroes of the pandemic. Other than that it is mainly pop stars; the Yellow Submarine won.

We haven’t been watching the national events on television, beyond summaries on the news. But that, and the BBC radio coverage, was bad enough. The thing I most hate about monarchy is the obsequiousness that surrounds it. And the BBC, along with many others, is laying it on by the shovel load. This is an ancient tradition, though. The obsequiousness doubtless goes back to our Anglo-Saxon kings of the Dark Ages, and perhaps the Celtic chieftains that preceded them, and it unites them with Persian and Chinese Emperors, Russian Tsars and Thai kings. The strange thing about our monarchy is that the tradition of obsequiousness has outlasted the political power that the institution wields. It makes me yearn for a republic – though that does not always solve that particular problem.

It is a moment to reflect on the institution. The British seem to be quite pragmatic about it. The reason usually offered in the monarchy’s defence, given that few accept that it is divine will, is that it works. Britain has a long-standing and functioning democracy. The monarchy has been part of the web of institutions that has upheld it. It is not obvious to most that republics manage these things any better; the country’s one attempt at being a republic in the 17th century is usually regarded as a failure. Meanwhile all the pomp adds a certain dignity to proceedings. It is surprising how often people justify it on the basis that it is a tourist attraction.

But does it work really? The overwhelming impression of the institution’s standing is one of political weakness. Its actions are dictated by a series of written and unwritten conventions which are designed to keep the institution away from any kind of political controversy. According to Netflix’s highly engaging drama The Crown, the institution has an enduring horror of Edward VIII, the uncrowned monarch of 1936, and Elizabeth’s uncle, who nearly destroyed it. Edward saw a more dynamic leadership role for the monarchy, which included a distinct sympathy for fascism. This drama does suggest that the Queen was a bulwark against any kind of undemocratic coup, even if led by aristocracy and institutionally embedded types. Just how close the country has ever been to such a coup I don’t know, though.

There is something to be said for a weak titular head of any institution. The French and American model of combining the role with that of chief executive is not obviously better, as the role becomes too strong, reminding us of what we dislike about the old political monarchies. Then the obsequiousness was driven by real fear, along with ambition. But if the titular head becomes too weak, there is too little check on the chief executive role – which politically in Britain is that of the prime minister.

This matters more than it might in Britain because the other checks on the prime minister are so weak. Nominally he or she is the creature of a democratically elected parliament. And this is true up to a point. Right now our prime minster is running scared of his Conservative Party backbenchers, who may even be able to oust him from power. But this drama reveals something rather worrying. Constitutional checks on the executive can depend on the internal rules of political parties – which lack proper democratic validation. And there are times when the prime minister has complete mastery over their party. And then there are very few other checks on their power at all.

We had a rather scary reminder about this in the period from 2017 to 2019 when the Conservatives did not have a parliamentary majority. At first Theresa May cobbled together an agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (the DUP), and secured a parliamentary majority – the country’s principal means of democratic validation. But, as relations with the DUP proved rocky, and rebellious factions emerged within the Conservatives, Mrs May’s government relied less and less on parliamentary validation. The parliamentary session was prolonged so as to avoid the necessity of a Queen’s Speech, and endorsement of the premiership. The government relied increasingly on executive powers without consulting parliament. Finally Mrs May’s position became untenable and she resigned as Conservative leader. She continued to be prime minister while the party chose a new leader, and then resigned from that office once Boris Johnson was chosen as her successor. She then advised the Queen to appoint Mr Johnson as prime minister, and the Queen complied. What is so wrong with that? Mr Johnson did not command a parliamentary majority, and he had only be chosen on the basis of his party’s internal leadership election process. Mr Johnson then assumed all the massive executive powers of the British state without ever asking parliament to validate his authority. In fact he went to extremes in order to avoid such a validation. In the end he asked for parliament to be suspended so that he could govern without democratic interference, based on the thinnest veneer of a pretext. It was not the Queen that stopped him. It was the Supreme Court. The Court has since been attacked for standing in the way of the will of the people – when its actions were actually based on the opposite notion – that of forcing the government to be accountable. And yet I have heard few people try to defend the Court. Mr Johnson’s version of history risks being accepted by default.

And then there is the elephant in the room. Parliament’s claim to represent the will of the people is a weak one. The electoral system means that governments are usually elected based on a minority of votes. Well perhaps what counts is whether the system used has broad popular consent, and people abide by the results. That is mostly true, with the important exception of Scotland. But how long will this continue? What puts the system at risk is political polarisation. Then parties want to win elections by any means necessary, and then use that power to implement an ideological programme – ignoring the idea of broad political consent, upon which a system such as Britain’s depends for democratic legitimacy. Once that happens there are few institutional checks on the executive – and certainly not the monarchy. And it does not even need a majority of voters to achieve such a result.

That is certainly true of the Conservatives under Mr Johnson. The party’s leaders actively seek “wedge issues” to divide the country and motivate its supporters. It was true of Labour too under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Its new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, is taking it in the opposite direction, of being an un-ideological party of broad consent. The party that he leads is less sure that this is the right course, having 9in their eyes) come so close to success under Mr Corbyn. Polarisation has already deeply infected the politics of America. France seems dangerously close to it too. An elected head of state, separate from the executive, might act as a check on an overly divisive executive. In 2019 tan elected president might have been able to insist that the prime minister secure a parliamentary mandate or see if somebody else could, and failing that, call an election. That would have been the democratically proper way to proceed.

But then a small voice suggests something else to me. Perhaps the monarchy is helping the country avoid polarisation. The Jubilee celebrations are striking for for the way they are bringing Britons together. Diversity is celebrated. Perhaps the country is stepping back from polarisation after the nightmare of the Brexit years. The Labour Party has become more popular with the country at large after Sir Keir’s change of direction, even if few have enthusiasm for it. Mr Johnson’s wedge issues are failing to get traction. If the monarchy has a single message, it is that we should all get along together as a country (and also to get on better with other countries too).

In that perhaps the institution is a beacon of hope. Let us hope it is not consumed by the bonfire of party politics.

Tackling the inflation crisis will require a change in the political narrative

The picture shows my rubbish bin last Thursday, our normal collection day. It had four weeks of rubbish in it, and was put out more in hope than expectation that it would be collected by the limited service in operation. It wasn’t. Our bin men have been on strike for a month, with no sign of a settlement in sight. It is just one facet of the inflation crisis that is engulfing Britain, and much of the rest of the world too. It has now reached the top of the political agenda. But just what can, and should, politicians do?

When I last posted on this, I contrasted two forms of inflation. One is a degradation in the value of the currency – the process of the prices of things generally going up, without relative prices between different things changing (and especially between consumer prices and wages). The other is a process of the economy reaching a new reality, typically because supply difficulties are reducing the standard of living. If the supply of oil, for example, is substantially reduced, and its price rises as a result, we have to consume less. Assuming that there are no cheap substitutes, then there is nothing that will stop society being poorer. How society should respond to either sort of inflation is different. In principle, the first can be stopped by processes of economic management (though whether it should be, or at what level, is another matter). Responding to the second sort is a question of distributing the pain – nothing will stop us being poorer, in the short term at least. Of course the second sort of inflation often leads to the first – if people respond by trying to avoid pain altogether by raising wages and benefits across the board. That is how the inflation crisis of the 1970s got going.

The inflation that is hitting Britain is mainly the second sort – prices rising as a matter of economic adjustment. This is driven mainly by three things: increased trading and labour costs as a result of Brexit (counting changed immigration patterns as part of that process, and the reduced availability of cheap labour – though some of that may well have happened without Brexit); the disruption of supply chains following the covid pandemic; and the war in Ukraine, and especially its impact on hydrocarbons, to be followed by its impact on foodstuffs. In the short term the question for public policy is how the pain can be shared equitably. Trying to escape the pain through increased wages and government handouts will simply stoke up the second sort of inflation.

This is not easy territory to pick through for public policy. The first question is whether inflation is an evil at all, or when. Many economists don’t feel that it should be, up to a point. Inflation makes it easier to make adjustments to relative prices (and especially reducing wages compared to consumer prices), and it also allows the possibility of negative real interest rates, reducing the possibility of a zero-bound trap. This idea weighs heavily on theoretical macroeconomists – the idea being that the lower limit on nominal interest rates is zero – which means that it is possible that interest rates can’t be eased when they should be – causing a recession. When I was an economics student in the mid-noughties I read lengthy discussions led by liberal economists such as Paul Krugman suggesting that Japan was caught in just such a trap and that it should implement radical policies to raise its inflation rate (some of mr Krugman’s ideas on how to do this were quite barmy). I have never been comfortable with this. The public does not share this equanimity with regard to inflation. To them the currency is a sacred bond of trust between the citizen and the government. The citizen trusts their savings to the financial system so that they can be used for investment; the government ensures that the currency maintains its value so that the citizen can spend the money later. Inflation is theft by complacent ruling elites – a transfer of wealth from honest savers to devious borrowers. Liberal economists tend to completely underestimate this sentiment, and the idea that inflation corrodes trust in the system of government. The popularity of the euro, for example, in France and Italy is reflection of this. Populist politicians who seek to take their countries out of the euro find that it is a sort of political third rail. Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini have both been frazzled on this. Liberal economists tend to think that the euro is an affront to sensible economic management, but to many it has restored their faith in money and civic governance.

So politicians need to take inflation seriously. But that leaves a conundrum. The two main methods of squeezing it out of the system are also unpopular. The first is holding back wages. That stops prices spiralling, allowing inflationary shocks to work their way through quickly. The second is raising interest rates. This should reduce borrowing and investment, deflating the economy and reducing the pressure on both consumer prices and wages. Raising interest rates can be popular with a certain class of conservative savers – but it also tends to dent property prices and cause unemployment, which give a sense of economic mismanagement. A third method of dealing with inflation is less talked of: increasing taxes to reduce the level of consumption. This faces some fairly obvious problems when used on consumption taxes such as VAT – as it just raises prices further; income taxes are more equitable, but hardly a popular alternative.

The British government has some things going for it when it comes to overcoming the inflation surge. The first is that wages are so far lagging consumer prices: by 7% compared to 9%. Moreover a lot of the 7% reflects one-off bonuses. The second thing is that tax rises are crimping people on middle and higher incomes, which in principle should reduce demand. National Insurance rates have gone up and the threshold for higher rate tax has been frozen, creating a fiscal drag effect. This should give the government some scope for alleviating hardship without raising demand excessively. There are three things the government needs to think about doing.

The first is raising benefits for the least well off. The inflation adjustments made to benefits was based on numbers prior to the main surge, and so are inadequate to meed the increased energy and food costs, never mind all the other costs that are going up. The most obvious thing to do is to raise Universal Credit, for which there is a precedent during the covid crisis. This would be costly, but it would also be the best targeted measure that they could devise. There are other benefits complementary to UC, which, apparently, are technically harder to increase. But it is hard to take this seriously as a reason not to act. The basic state pension is also another place to look. The government, however, is very reluctant to commit to serious increases here. The reason may be political – the recipients of these benefits are unlikely to be Conservative supporters (except the state pension). Instead the government has been looking at other benefits, and committing much less money than these measures would require. The rumours are that something is in the works.

The second issue is public sector pay. According to the ONS this has been increasing at the rate of only 1.2%. The government has raised the minimum wage by 6.6%, but otherwise is wants to keep public sector wages down. This would certainly serve to keep demand pegged – but just how realistic is it? My bin men aren’t the first to go on strike – and neighbouring local authorities have been forced to pay a lot more than they had planned. And they are still on strike after being offered an increase this year of “up to 17%” and parity with workers from neighbouring councils. Rail strikes are threatened. There is a staffing crisis in the NHS. If private sector pay is allowed to shoot ahead of that in public sector, there will be recruitment and retention issues. It is not hard to see serious trouble ahead.

The third issue is levying a windfall tax on oil and gas producers, who are making massive profits, and maybe other energy providers too. Economically this is something of a sideshow. A tax would not affect levels of consumption in the economy by much at all. Still, it is useful political theatre and reduces the pressure on national debt – though just how important this is remains hotly debated. The government is reluctant to do this, though the reasons offered look pretty weak – at least as far as the major public companies are concerned. Apparently the government is now trying to link such a tax to levels of investment. That is a theoretically sensible approach, but hard in practice.

Meanwhile the government, and many of its MPs, hope that they can cut income tax before the next general election, likely to in the autumn of 2023, or the following spring. This looks like a neoliberal delusion – a failure to understand the inevitable rise in the scale of government spending in the face of demographic and other pressures. Still, that delusion still seems to have powerful followers.

But the real hot potato is wages. Inflation the moment is primarily caused by supply disruptions that make us poorer. The more we try to keep levels of pay rising at the same pace as consumer prices, the longer the inflation crisis will persist. The biggest headache is in the private sector. The government has little influence over this, but the more pay rises there, the worse the pressure will be on the public sector. This is shaped by the zeitgeist. And here the narrative from the government – and other politicians – is muddled. There are no grave messages that the country is being hit hard by a number of things outside its control, and that we must grit our teeth to get through it. Instead the government wants to portray the economy as in fine fettle, and also that we should expect wages to rise as we move to high-wage high-productivity post-Brexit economy. Government politicians don’t want to admit that the economy is in fact in trouble. The opposition wants to suggest that it is all the result of incompetence that can be put right quickly with a transfer of power. They doubtless hope that the pressures will have eased by the time this transfer takes place.

So my guess is that inflation will persist. Public sector strikes will multiply, and interest rates will start to rise much more rapidly that the mainly token changes we have seen so far. Avoiding this will require strong political leadership of the type we are unlikely to get from anywhere.

An economic storm is coming – could this favour the Lib Dems?

Image: Whoisjohngalt, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A bull market ends when the last bear has been beaten into submission. It felt that way last autumn. In 2020 I was astonished when, after an initial fall in response to the emerging covid crisis, financial markets bounced back and then became positively buoyant. How was this a rational response to the the catastrophe enveloping the world? But the bull market just went on.

Then last autumn I started to read articles suggesting that investors must fundamentally re-evaluate asset prices upwards. The argument was based on the idea that interest rates were fundamentally lower than historically, so we shouldn’t be using historical comparisons of yield and other such ratios, which were pointing to over-valuation. This felt a lot like the last bear caving in. There was certainly something crazy about financial markets at the time – shown not least by the craze for crypto-currencies. All this was reminiscent of the insane world of the tech bubble at the end of the 1990s. Loss is the new profit, and so on.

There is something very odd about the way the interest rate argument is used to justify high valuations. The logic is superficially soound. Anybody with a training in finance is familiar with valuation models based on a discount rate – which is the rate you should receive by investing your money in a zero-risk alternative. The lower the discount rate, the higher the valuation. But lower interest rates also suggest low rates of return on investing your money. So how is that investors get richer when returns fall? Common sense would suggest that a world in which the risk-free rate of return on investment is near zero (or negative after inflation) is one that is going to hell in a handcart. Something, somewhere is not making sense. In fact we should be expecting profits and rental incomes to stagnate or fall, and this should undermine valuations.

But asset prices are not set by the use of logically rigorous financial models. They are set by the laws of supply and demand. The modern economy is generating a lot of funds for investment, but there is an unwillingness for investors to use this for good old-fashioned projects that might generate a cash surplus at a future date. That leaves too much money sloshing around in bank accounts or low risk assets such as government bonds. That keeps low-risk returns down, and it also means that banks are willing to loan money at low rates of return. This generates demand for assets that might generate a return at expense of risk (though still not those boring real-economy projects, apparently). This does not necessarily lead to an asset-price bubble: investors could just be more patient. But it clearly has.

Central banks can do something to restore order by pushing commercial banks to raise interest rates, in their role as their regulator and the banker’s banker. For the last three decades they have chosen not to, using various arguments either to deny that there is a bubble, or to say that it isn’t their job to act against it – instead focusing on consumer price inflation and unemployment. It is difficult theoretical terrain, but it is hard not to see politics and the vested interests of the finance industry behind this.

What bursts bubbles? It is when the funds dry up and more people want to sell riskier assets than buy them, while demand often exceeds supply of less risky assets, causing a scramble. This is usually the result of chickens coming home to roost – high risk investments carry a high risk, after all. The great financial crisis (GFC) of 2007-09 was started by defaults in the US property market. It doesn’t help that in the modern world “funds” is a fluid thing and not the movement of fixed quantities of money as we might intuitively expect. This gives scope for chain reactions that can be global in reach. In the GFC this was truly spectacular and served to expand a minor crisis in US sub-prime real estate into a global banking catastrophe. That was the result of uncontrolled financial engineering across developed economies in the previous decade. There was something of a Ponzi scheme collapsing – but to this day supporters of Britain’s Labour government, which was an active supporter of the country’s role in building the Ponzi scheme (aka world-class financial innovation), insist it was nothing to do with them because it was all about US real estate.

The asset price bubble is clearly bursting now. The proximate cause is inflation, causde by widespread disruption to the supply side of the economy – which I discussed last week. Amongst other effects this is causing central banks to radically change course. Interest rates are starting to go up – though not by very much so far, given the levels of inflation. Perhaps more immediately threatening to markets is that Quantitive Easing (the central banks buying up bonds to keep long term interest rates low) is now moving into reverse. This upsets the balance of supply and demand in asset markets. Meanwhile the convergence of disasters affecting economic supply, from the war in Ukraine to covid in China, are clearly destined to make the world poorer, and this affects how people value assets.

The burning question is just how big will this financial crisis get, and what will its consequences be? I will focus on the UK – as we may find that things unfold quite differently in different countries. On the one hand the financial system is not as dangerously wound up on itself as it was during the GFC, limiting the chain reaction. The world banking system does not look in imminent danger. On the other hand, the outbreak of inflation knocks away one of the props upon which the financial system has been based for 30 years or so – the prospect of ever-lower nominal interest rates. This suggests that the crisis will be slower but longer-lasting. The most sensitive part of this is house prices. In the GFC prices dived rapidly as the financial system froze over and it became very hard to arrange mortgage finance. But conditions quickly eased, and prices bounded back. This time it looks as if nominal interest rates will rise steadily and may well stay up. This will impact new mortgages rather than existing ones, as most mortgages these days are fixed rate. So prices are likely to decline more slowly, but the effect could last longer. It is hard to tell about the wider economy. It depends n the state of business finances. If a harsher financial environment causes widespread bankruptcies, we could experience a significant recession. Otherwise things will be much slower moving and the economy will experience a long period of doldrums.

What will the political impact of these be? The accepted story of politics since the GFC is that the crisis provoked a backlash against metropolitan elites, which were seen as having caused the crisis and escaped its worst impact. It was the political right which managed to exploit this the best, with the rise of populist policies. In Britain this focused on Brexit. The Conservatives were the ultimate beneficiaries. Politically the old liberal elites have taken a pounding, though, and they are not such an obvious target for a backlash. An obvious culprit for the trouble is Brexit but the main opposition parties, Labour and the Lib Dems, are reluctant to invoke the B-word. Their sense is that Britons (especially the English) are reluctant to re-enter the polarisation and political warfare set off by the referendum in 2016. They were accused of trying to overturn a democratically fair decision, and many politicians in these parties have taken this message on board. Anyway, both parties want to win back voters who supported Brexit, as well as those who do not want to reopen the wounds.

But as yet I do not see a clear alternative line of attack. What should the government be doing to face the crisis that it is not? It is not obvious to the public whether the answer is more or less austerity. Swing voters tend not to been drawing non-pension benefits, which look inadequate. As yet there does not seem to be a tide of anger about the failure of the state pension to keep up with inflation. Immigration has failed to present as a burning concern to most. The opposition has to content itself with complaining that the government is incompetent and out of touch. But the public has to be convinced that they would do a better job.

But the point is that public anger is likely to gather pace, and it will attach itself to something – but we don’t know what yet. Where will angry, property-owning former Tory supporters go? Labour has not been positioning themselves for these voters since the departure of Tony Blair in 2007; it may forgotten how to. This could yet be a propitious moment for Lib Dems, who are increasingly focusing on this demographic. They have been courting these voters in by elections and local elections, with some spectacular successes. It is early days. No clear national narrative is emerging from the party. But it is too early for that. They need to understand how resentment at failing house prices and a stagnant economy translates into specific demands. But for the first time in a long time, the period the party spent in coalition with the Conservatives in 2010-15 might be an asset. From the vantage point of 2022, with some selective memory, many Tory voters might remember this as a golden age.

Boris Johnson survives another disaster

Image Petr Kratochvil, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Boris Johnson, Britain’s Prime Minister, was nicknamed “the greased piglet” by his predecessor and Oxford contemporary David Cameron, for his ability to get out of tight situations. He has demonstrated those skills yet again after last week’s very poor local election results for the Conservatives. Instead the pressure is on his Labour counterpart, Sir Keir Starmer.

The Conservatives lost about 500 council seats across Britain, against the low base of when these seats were last fought in 2018, in the midst of the floundering of his predecessor, Theresa May. Many Tory MPs had supposedly been waiting for these results to decide whether they would ask for a vote of confidence. And yet Mr Johnson looks confident and there is little talk of unseating him. Those Tory MPs will put off their decision until the next event, such as the publication of Sue Gray’s report into lockdown shenanigans. But if these MPs were going to do the dirty, they would have done it long ago. There will always be a reason why today is not the day, and mr Johnson’s supporters are adept at providing them.

Mr Johnson’s confidence is not faked. The party’s disasters in London and Scotland were “priced in” in the popular expression. Not too many Tory MPs seats are at stake in these areas. Meanwhile in the “Red Wall” of former Labour seats taken by the Conservatives they fared better; there is no sign of an impending Tory collapse. The Conservatives also lost a lot of seats in their rural heartlands across southern England. But mostly they lost these to the Liberal Democrats, with some to the Greens, as well as a few to Labour. Mr Johnson seems a lot less worried about these than about the Red Wall. A general election is very different to these local elections, and mostly the parliamentary seats are held with very comfortable majorities. The party knows how to sow doubt into voters’ minds, enough to limit any Lib Dem rise to a small number of seats. Meanwhile his line of attack on Labour, as having been taken over by an evil alliance of out-of-touch metropolitan middle classes and urban lefties, remains intact. There is work to do, but the next election looks quite winnable for Mr Johnson, albeit with a reduced majority. All he has to do is communicate this to his wavering backbench MPS. They seem ready to be convinced.

Which is one reason why the pressure is on Sir Keir. His supporters claim that the results show Labour has turned the corner in the Red Wall. But pulling back a bit from the low point in 2019 is not good enough for Labour. The results show that these seats are still in play – and pose the question of what would happen to Labour in a full strength general election campaign. Sir Keir has devoted all his energy to slaying the ghost of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. This seems to be largely successful: Tory taunts that Labour is in the grip of extremists looks off the mark. That was a huge negative for the party in 2019, when many voters were put off by Mr Corbyn’s leadership. But Mr Corbyn’s leadership came with positives too – he was able to invoke enthusiasm amongst his supporters, and he managed to reach parts of the electorate that others did not. This was most evident in 2017 but was surely still there in 2019. But Sir Keir has lost this, and he isn’t able to rustle up much enthusiasm amongst people in the political centre either – in the way that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were able to. The local elections have done nothing to allay those doubts.

The second reason Sir Keir is under pressure is a police investigation into an alleged breach of lockdown rules in 2021 while campaigning in a by election. This follows a persistent campaign by a tabloid newspaper, in an attempt to deflect pressure from the Prime Minister’s apparent serial breaches in Downing Street. Because Sir Keir has pursued Mr Johnson so aggressively on this issue, he is accused of hypocrisy, in the time-honoured manner of British politics. The truth is that the lockdown rules were unclear, especially with regard to work meetings, and many people pushed the boundaries without being challenged. The police have also levied fines when they shouldn’t. Sir Keir’s lapse, if that is what it was, does not compare to the goings on in Downing Street under Mr Johnson’s supervision. But in order to keep the pressure up on Mr Johnson, Sir Keir has now said that he will resign if he is fined. Which puts the local police in a very difficult situation. It also puts Sir Keir’s leadership in limbo.

What of the Lib Dems? They had an excellent set of elections, and, alongside the two spectacular by election victories last year, they have fought their way back into political relevance. They only did well where they had local strength, and even then, struggled against Labour in places like London. But they have now built a platform from which they can substantially build on their parliamentary representation – provided the voters are not scared that they might let in a Labour government, as they were in 2019. Lib Dems were quite happy with Labour being led by Sir Keir, as he is unlikely to scare off their floating voters. All this is a vindication of the leadership of Sir Ed Davey, and especially his decision, criticised within the party, of not mentioning Brexit. The party has shown an ability to come back in Brexit-supporting parts of the country, such as Somerset. But will they be able to do enough to stop the Conservatives from gaining a majority?

Mr Johnson’s strengths in political survival and campaigning are not matched by skills in government. His avowed radicalism has dissipated into gesture politics. Meanwhile an economic storm is gathering pace. This would be a tricky challenge for any government, let alone the current hapless one. Can the greased piglet survive that too?

Politics trumps reality again in Britain

Maybe it’s one of those aging things, like the policemen getting younger – but to me our country’s political leaders seem to be becoming more overtly political. I thought that of Tony Blair’s New Labour in 1997, who set the trend for leaders since. And now our current prime minister, Boris Johnson, has taken it to a previously unthinkable extreme. This is evident in yesterday’s statement by Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor. The politics was blatant; a clear strategy for making the country a better place was not.

Mr Sunak was once a rising star in British politics, but now he look as if he will join the long list of politicians (and others) whose careers have been indelibly tarnished by association with Mr Johnson. Yesterday’s effort did not measure up to the difficult economic situation that so many people in the country face – and he instead focused on a number of core interest groups that the conservatives hope will secure them another general election victory, through their votes or donations. This was all too transparent, and not helped by Mr Sunak’s ridiculous claims, such as that he was a tax-cutting Chancellor.

To be fair, the government’s job in managing the economy is unusually difficult right now. Managing a modern economy is like riding a bronco – it is mostly about responding to collective decisions made by individuals and businesses, inside and outside the country, that can quickly overwhelm the tax and spending measures that are the government’s main tools of control. The government’s difficulties are not really of its own making on this occasion. The root causes are the covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the ongoing challenge of climate change. These have delivered a series of economic shocks of a type that policymakers are completely unused to dealing with. The pandemic delivered a major but temporary shock to demand – and the government won plaudits for its drastic policies, like the furlough scheme to underwrite jobs. But it also dealt a huge blow to world supply chains, and that is what policymakers were unready for. From the 1990s onwards new technologies and globalisation bequeathed a highly flexible system of global supply, which people have taken for granted. Even before the pandemic these changes were going into reverse. As demand recovered from the shock, supply did not recover as quickly – and inflation is the result. The problem emerged in 2021, but policymakers responded with denial – including the politically independent central bankers. Nobody seems to know what to do. The last time anything like this happened was in the 1970s, and that was a very different world.

The government is faced with three big and immediate problems: benefits, public sector pay and help for people on lower incomes. Costs for basics, such as food, fuel and heating are rising much faster than incomes and this is creating widespread hardship. The government’s response is to offer some help to working people on lower incomes (provided they are above the minimum tax threshold), and that is about it. Government services are not being given additional budgets to deal with additional pay demands; benefits are being uplifted by a wholly outdated figure for inflation. Most of the help being offered is in fact an offset to rises in National Insurance contributions (NICs) (by changing the rate of pay at which NICs kick in), rather than an actual cut – though at least this targets lower incomes better than deferring the rises altogether. A summer of hardship lies ahead. The country is facing a big squeeze on living standards, and poorer people will feel this the most.

There are two main constraints to the government using the public purse to alleviate hardship. The first is the balance of supply and demand. If the economy cannot deliver the goods and services paid for by government largesse, then inflation will result, with the potential for a wage-price spiral. That was not a problem in the early phase of the pandemic, when government support was very generous, as private demand plummeted even faster than capacity to supply. It is clearly a problem now, and tricky to offset with tax rises, as these tend to affect demand less if they target the better. The second constraint is on public finances – the government’s ability to raise funds if spending outstrips taxation. It is a lot less clear that this is in fact a problem, though levels of public debt are high, and the Bank of England cannot help out by buying bonds through Quantitive Easing, as it could until recently. Still, solutions have been suggested, such as a windfall tax on oil and gas producers operating in Britain’s North Sea. The case for such a tax is a very strong one, but it is completely contrary to Treasury orthodoxy. This holds that it undermines the climate for business investment. In fact investment in oil and gas production in the UK has been very low. The government may feel that it wants that to change, with businesses investing their windfall profits in increasing production to make up reduced supply from Russia. But the government is hardly waving a big stick in order to get such a response.

I can accept that these constraints, especially the inflation risk, are real. But the crisis on living standards demands the taking of bigger risks with the economy than the government is willing to contemplate. In particular bringing forward increases to benefits for inflation looked like a no-brainer. The government’s thinking on that seems to be guided by pure politics. People on benefits (apart from pensioners) don’t vote Conservative and aren’t likely to. Instead the government is focusing help on people in work, and especially those with some stake in property (it is temporarily reducing property taxes, announced before yesterday’s statement). Pensioners are being spared the increase in NICs (which they are exempt from), and doubtless their incomes will catch up later in the parliament, using the “triple-lock” system of increasing the state pension.

Most remarkable of the measures announced yesterday was Mr Sunak’s plan to cut the rate of income tax in two year’s time. Given the ever-growing pressure on public services, it is hard to see how this can possibly be justified, except as a short-term gimmick for electoral advantage. It leaves me feeling exasperated. I am retired and drawing a generous private-sector pension (I’m not old enough for the state one). I was never going to suffer the increase in NICs, but I’m still going to benefit from the Council tax rebate, the fuel duty rebate, and, if it comes, the reduced rate in income tax. I am not facing any kind of hardship. This just doesn’t seem fair.

Will Mr Johnson get away with it? Labour is better placed to capitalise on the unfairness than it was when led by Jeremy Corbyn, but it is still tricky for them. There a still a broad swathe of conservative voters out there ready to be persuaded that people on benefits have only themselves to blame. But I think that pressure on public services, which now includes demand to increase our armed forces, is going to be very hard for the government to manage. Eventually reality will strike.

But in the short-term I think it will be Mr Sunak who will pay the political price rather than his boss.

Levelling up from a government that won’t let go of centralised power

Last week Michael Gove, Britain’s cabinet minister for “levelling up”, published a white paper to set out government strategy, building on what had hitherto been not much more than a slogan. It attracted predictable howls of derision, not all of which were deserved. If it is disappointing it is because it presents no real sign of challenge to Britain’s highly centralised political culture.

The good points about the strategy are its ambition, and is aim to make levelling up, or equalising geographic opportunities, a central priority across all government departments. There are two main areas of public criticism. Firstly that there is not much public money attached to the transformation process. Secondly that it advances the idea of political devolution within England only a fraction. I have some sympathy with the government on the first count. It is clear that the problem of regional inequalities has deep causes, and it is not just a question spreading public investment more equally. And yet this all most people want to talk about. We need to move the conversation on. The second criticism is much more pertinent. The Economist suggests that the policy is reminiscent of the Labour government led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown from 1997 to 2010: the introduction of regional mayors to provide a new, more local focus for policy coordination, combined with a lot of centrally designed targets and centrally controlled pots of money for local bodies to bid for. Serious devolution would entail local revenue-raising powers, something that is clearly still as much anathema to Whitehall now as it was back then.

I will come back to why I think that matters. But first I want to take issue with the way that government policymakers, and many of those that critique them, like the journalists at The Economist, are thinking about regional development. And that centres around productivity. To them the central problem is low productivity in English regions outside the South East, and Wales – the picture is a bit more complicated in Scotland. By this they mean a concentration of better-paid jobs and profitable businesses in the South East. That is fine as far as it goes, but their suggestion is that this needs to be corrected by making regional businesses more efficient and productive. But what if the main problem is that more productive businesses (i.e. the most profitable ones, or those with best-paid employees) are attracted to the South East. If you improve the productivity of a business in Yorkshire, say, you may find that all that happens is that it moves to near London, or outside the UK altogether, or at least the more profitable elements of it. Often this happens through the business selling out, especially hi-tech businesses.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have huge reservations about the way most economists think about productivity. They are guilty of a fallacy of composition, by assuming that the way you manage an individual business is analogous to the way you run the whole productive side of an economy. This is ironic because economists love to complain that the public suffer from a similar fallacy about household budgets and the national budget. An economy contains a wide variety of businesses with different rates of productivity, as economists measure it. Some are more susceptible to productivity improvement than others. Some are positively inimical to productivity (consider status goods, for example). As productive businesses become yet more productive the resources released tend to move to less productive businesses. This is well-known to economists as the Baumol Effect (or Baumol’s Cost Disease), which doesn’t stop them from ignoring it.

So the key question to me is not why regional businesses are relatively unproductive, but why well-paid jobs tend to gravitate to London and its environs. Political connections are surely part of the answer. Decisions over the allocation of vast public resources are made there, to say nothing of decisions on laws and regulations, and taxes. Physical proximity makes a big difference to the political influence you can wield. That is why countries with more devolved decision-making (my favourite example is Switzerland – but the same applies to Germany) have more equal regional productivity, and why small, independent countries often perform better than non-central regions in large countries. Yorkshire isn’t physically or culturally very far from Denmark or the Netherlands after all, but income per head does not bear comparison. The Irish Republic has overtaken the initially more developed Northern Ireland. The government’s proposed reforms will do very little to change London’s gravitational pull. Regional politicians still will have to travel there to bid for the new funds on offer, employing London consultants to hone their bids to match the fashionable ideas and buzz words that hold sway there.

Still, that can’t be everything. The British regions have suffered enormously from the collapse of old industries, devastated by the march of technology and globalisation. There may be interventions that can push back against this tide. Universities are amongst the few bright spots of regional development. The South East has very strong universities, especially if you include Oxford and Cambridge, which are on the edge of the Midlands, but no monopoly. Perhaps more regional centres can be established for medical research, surely a promising avenue for the country, based on these universities and local NHS institutions. Better intra-regional transport would surely help. Better transport links to London, on the other hand, are more ambiguous in their impact. But such initiatives would be easier to get off the ground if local leaders were not constantly having to appeal to London for permission to proceed, but something could still be done.

An interesting question is whether the green economy can be used to promote regional development. Renewable energy has a strong regional element, but its impact on jobs looks quite limited, especially compared to the old fossil fuel industries. Can a change in focus in agriculture, to turn the land into a carbon sink, generate a healthier rural economy? This must surely be a critical part of any zero carbon strategy. This is interesting because it might entail a reversal of agricultural productivity, as conventionally measured anyway, as some of the interventions could be more labour intensive. Agricultural productivity has always been a prime driver of economic development, as workers are released from the land to work in factories. But we are now appreciating its huge hidden costs. There would be a rather wonderful symmetry if the development of a more sustainable post-industrial economy involved reducing nominal agricultural productivity. It is not incompatible with improving wellbeing, though attitudes to the consumption of “stuff” and, indeed, meat, would have to change. It entails placing a financial value on environmental assets.

Such ideas seem far away from current government thinking, though some ideas on agricultural finance are starting to move in that direction, and have also been promoted by Mr Gove. It is one of the few positive possibilities arising from Brexit, as agricultural reform in the EU proceeds at a snail’s pace.

Meanwhile some good-old fashioned “levelling-down” should not be ruled out. This means taxing excess wealth and high incomes harder, and using this to make investments in regional infrastructure. That, at least, is something Britain’s highly centralised government infrastructure is well-designed for.

British policing needs to learn from the Army

At long last London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, forced out Dame Cressida Dick, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. I called on him to do so some time ago – but that doesn’t stop it looking like an act of political grandstanding.The important bit comes next.

My main criticism of the Met (and many other of Britain’s police forces) is bad management, which has led to the organisation being “institutionally stupid”, as I put it. In other words an organisation composed of perfectly intelligent people who somehow keep doing stupid things. Institutional stupidity is, of course, very common. It is marked by an over-emphasis on procedure over initiative, and a strong desire to protect the institution’s reputation at all costs. It often goes alongside a culture of bullying and excessive centralisation of decision-making. Examples of stupidity at the Met are legion. The two that stand out to me are the Operation Midland investigation into child sex abuse, and the Met’s response to the Morgan enquiry into the serial failures of an old murder investigation. In Operation Midland vast resources were expended following up the allegations of a very shaky witness, which damaged the reputations of several highly respectable people. A few simple enquiries could have ended the whole thing very quickly. The Morgan enquiry accused the Met of “institutional corruption” because of its continual obstruction right up to senior level. “Corruption” was probably the wrong word to use, but the obstructionism was no less shameful for that – and it remains unacknowledged by police management. Redolent as these episodes are of management failure, they were not enough to do for Dame Cressida: her term was extended last year.

In the end the shocking results of an enquiry into police behaviour at Charing Cross police station were too much. It revealed a flourishing culture of racist, homophobic and misogynistic banter that the more naive of us thought had been stamped on ages ago. Many were shocked that nine of the fourteen officers involved are still serving. Personally I wasn’t particularly upset by that – corrective action needs to focus first and foremost on management. Junior police officers landed in the middle of a rampant canteen culture tolerated by management are in a very difficult position, and it should not be up to them to bring it to a halt. While the incident itself may not be as serious as some of the other failures – on the basis that this could have been a rogue clique – I can appreciate its role as a last straw. Like the killing of George Floyd in America two years ago, the deeply shocking thing about it is how little attitudes have changed amongst many policemen even after decades of kerfuffle and reform. It serves to show just how ineffective our attempts to deal with the problem have been.

The Mayor has focused on police culture, and especially discriminatory attitudes. That is important, but, in my view, secondary to changing the management culture. The discrimination culture is much easier to fix if the management is respected and effective. If you focus too much on discrimination at the expense of proper management, the whole process can be discredited as the police fall down on the task of protecting people. Ordinary policemen will simply suggest that effectiveness is being sacrificed to political correctness. This seems to have happened in at least some places in America following the Floyd outrage.

Is it possible to change the culture of such a large organisation with such strong internal bonds among its members? It’s easy to see how policemen feel an “us against them” attitude. They are expected to deal with things the rest of society won’t touch; they put their lives in danger – and all they get for this is abuse, most often. Change is clearly difficult, but not impossible. An example where change has been successful is in the British Army. The Army used by notorious for institutional stupidity. Discipline and orders were considered more important than responding to situations intelligently. But the demands of modern warfare forced change. Army leaders were chastened to see how much more effective the German Army was at “middle management” level than their own in World War Two, especially in the early years – and they started to pick up on German doctrines that encouraged initiative at junior levels, and learning from mistakes. The Army is far from perfect – bullying remains a problem – but its transformation over the years has been dramatic.

A lot hangs on Dame Cressida’s replacement. The new leader has to understand the management problem – something I don’t think Dame Cressida ever did – but also inspire respect amongst members of the force. There is an enormous amount to be said for appointing an outsider – though there are risks to this. Somebody from outside the UK has been suggested – though problems of management in policing are hardly confined to Britain. My suggestion would be to look for an inspirational leader in the Army.

The choice rests with the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, in consultation with Mr Khan. Neither individual has shown much understanding of effective management and leadership. Ms Patel has been dogged by accusations of bullying, and makes promises that can’t be delivered. Mr Khan showed impressive focus in his political career, right up to his election as Mayor, but has practically sunk without trace once he got there. Still, they both have a strong incentive to get this right: let us hope they make a good choice.

Will Boris Johnson survive?

I do not usually use this blog to indulge in short-term political speculation. I have access to no special inside sources – I simply make use of the information pumped out by sections of the mainstream media, being mainly the BBC and the Financial Times, supplemented by newsletters from The Guardian, The Times and the New Statesman. But I can’t resist it in the case of Boris Johnson’s future tenure as UK Prime Minister. There are some wider themes.

By last Friday Mr Johnson had hit a new low, as yet more revelations about parties in Downing Street emerged. Significantly these came through the Daily Telegraph, a paper that has been very supportive of Mr Johnson, with the angle that disrespect was being shown to the Queen, as these events occurred on the night before the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh. Conservative MPs were reported to be going to their constituencies over the weekend to “take soundings”. This process is often referred to, but it don’t actually know what it means. Clearly comments coming through to MPs through email and social media are highly unrepresentative. But what can you do over a weekend? We are meant to conjure up pictures of MPs going out to high streets and knocking on doors to talk to ordinary voters. But if they do this, the coverage is likely to be small and equally unrepresentative. And it doesn’t sound the sort of thing Tory MPs do on cold days in January. Instead, presumably what happens is that the MPs have a chat to a few usual suspects: party officers and donors, in their Conservative Association – people that they need to keep onside in the shenanigans of local internal party politics. This morning a BBC correspondent was suggesting that the feedback was not as terrible as the emails last week. But it is hard to say how reliable this feedback is. Mr Johnson has not acted out of character after all, and he has a huge stock of capital to deplete.

Meanwhile Mr Johnson has been working on a recovery strategy. The first step is to buy time by asking people to wait for an investigation by civil servant Sue Gray to be completed. Then there has been spin that these are trivial events compared to the great affairs of state that Mr Johnson has supposedly got right, and that anyway he has made a fulsome apology. This apology was made last Wednesday before Prime Minister’s Questions in parliament. This in fact covered only one of the events, and hid behind the lame idea that he thought it was a “work event” that was within the rules at the time. Mr Johnson did look abject on that occasion, but few think that this had anything to do with being genuinely sorry. Alas this dissembling on the apology is typical of how politicians operate, and it is a foretaste of how Ms Gary’s report is going to be spun. It will be presented as answering a question that was actually outside its terms of reference – whether the events were illegal.

The next part of the strategy is to have a clear-out of the staff at 10 Downing Street, whose culture appears to be so out of tune with the public zeitgeist. This supports Mr Johnson’s narrative (to insiders) that he has been badly let down by his staff. This is well-trodden territory for incompetent leaders, and personnel changes almost never work.

But the most curious part of Mr Johnson’s survival initiative has been a series of policy ideas presented to Tory backbenchers as “red meat”. These include putting the Royal Navy in charge of stopping the flow of migrants in small boats coming across the Channel, and ending the BBC licence fee. These invite the question of why, if they are such good ideas, they hadn’t been progressed already. Worse, they look like an invitation to a political quagmire. In the case of migrants, it is hardly clear how this is actually going to solve the problem – instead it looks like more over-promising. Priti Patel, The Home Secretary, has already seen her reputation amongst Conservative activists nosedive for being unable to deliver on fierce rhetoric. And as for the BBC – this could very easily be presented as a vindictive attack an all its works, from Strictly Come Dancing to the Green Planet, from excessively doctrinaire Tories who resent the BBC’s political coverage. The public may have cooled a bit on the BBC, but it is still a much-loved institution amongst the middle of the road voters that the Conservatives need to hold onto.

So this strategy might be called an alligator strategy, after the famous James Bond scene where he escapes from a trap by using the backs of alligators as stepping stones to cross a pool. Tory MPs who are frightened of taking such a drastic step as unseating the PM must be given a possible path to safety. The point is to weather the crisis, not to create a winning strategy for the next two years. And since I think that these MPs are genuinely frightened of making awkward choices, and yearn for the feel-good days of Mr Johnson’s past, I think it could well work.

Which surely leaves Mr Johnson in a similar position to John Major in 1992, when his credibility collapsed with the ERM crisis. He limped on for over four years before succumbing to the worst electoral defeat in the party’s history. Mr Major is the exact opposite personality to Mr Johnson, but that will not stop them from suffering the same fate.

If Mr Johnson survives, it will be a vindication for the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, whose strategy has always been to differentiate himself from the Conservatives mainly on competence. After two years when this approach seemed to be taking Labour backwards, it is at last paying dividends. It is unlikely to work if Mr Johnson is replaced by Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss or, especially, Jeremy Hunt. But a wounded Mr Johnson is the perfect target.

Boris Johnson’s political achievements are astonishing. His fall will be as spectacular as his rise. My guess is that this will occur at the next General Election – but it could be much sooner if Conservative MPs have any sense.

The Tories must choose between lower taxes or the NHS

Discontent in the British Conservative party goes beyond frustration with the erratic leadership style of Boris Johnson, and his low poll ratings. Many feel that the government is failing to deliver on a distinctly Tory vision of how to run the country – one that is business-friendly with light regulation and low taxes. Shadow leadership contenders, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are both trying to capitalise on this discontent. But there is no way out, which is why Mr Johnson may yet limp on until the next election.

Item One in this discontent is the government’s covid strategy. Many Tories feel that it is too heavy-handed and too beholden to cautious experts. Leave the public to make up its on mind on precautions and take the consequences, they suggest. Their thinking is plainly muddled, and out of touch with most voters, but at least as the virus morphs into something a bit less deadly, so policy can move on in their direction.

Item Two is Brexit. In Tory eyes this was meant to be a great liberation from bureaucracy, which would allow “buccaneering” British business to achieve its full potential. And yes, one prominent Tory did use that word, referring to licensed pirates on the high seas back in the 17th and 18th centuries, at whose modern equivalent the Russians’ advantage is surely unassailable. In fact businesses have been mired in even more form-filling, associated with imports and exports to the European Union, which surrounds the country, and is thus its readiest partner for both. Some remember that it was much simpler back in the 1960s before Britain entered the Common Market – failing to understand how the world has moved on. Meanwhile rolling back regulations has been happening at a snails’ pace, as the regulations were more than a bureaucratic whim, and aimed to achieve a public good – which has to be achieved in an alternative way. Downing Street has resorted to pointing to crowns printed on beer glasses and the changed colour of passports as among the main achievements of Brexit. And that is before the insoluble problem of Ireland is brought into the picture, ever capable of exploding with dire consequences. In fact most Brexit voters, including the former Labour-voting ones that Mr Johnson so successfully courted in the 2019 election, never much cared for deregulation as a reason for Brexit. They wanted to see more restrictive immigration policies – which the Tories have indeed delivered. But that has brought more bureaucracy, and snarl-ups due to labour shortages. Tory MPs’ business friends are not particularly happy, even as Tory voters are now a lot less worried about the issue.

And Item Three is taxes. They are going up, both corporate taxes and national insurance, levied on people in work and their employers. This is nominally to pay for grasping the nettle on the emerging social care crisis, but in fact the money will disappear into the National Health Service, which has been completely disrupted by the covid crisis, and now has massive backlogs for routine care. The Tory discontents say that above all they should be a party of lower taxes (especially on businesses and the rich, sotto voce) – and that this is a betrayal. Mr Sunak hints that if it was left to him, he would be cutting taxes soon. Most people outside the Conservative Party wonder if he can possibly be serious. With little room for manoeuvre on the budget deficit and national debt (and if you don’t think such things are relevant, high inflation suggests fiscal excess) the only way this vision can be delivered is by cutting government spending.

At the heart of this is rising spending on the NHS. Since the party regained power (in coalition) in 2010, the government has attempted to cap NHS spending so that it just about kept pace with inflation. But as the baby boomers age, and skew the ratio of older people, demand has been rising at a higher rate. The financial pressure has caused system resilience to be reduced, and this is one of the causes of the now alarming backlogs. Tory hopes that NHS costs are containable are based on two fallacies and a misconception. Fallacy One is that demand can be met through making the service more efficient. Any user of the service can point to inefficiencies in this massive, bureaucratic behemoth of an organisation. But that comes with the necessary scale and complexity of what the healthcare sector is trying to do – international comparisons show that Britain’s health services are amongst the world’s most efficient. But these same comparisons also show that in many areas Britain’s health services less effective. We are, to quote The Times columnist Matthew Parris, “getting a second-rate service for the cost of third-rate one.” This is not what the public wants, and further cost restraint is liable to mean the service becoming third-rate all round.

Fallacy Two is that faster economic growth can allow spending to keep up with demand. Alas the headwinds against growth in a modern, developed economy are many, and I have written about these many times. That demographic problem that is stoking up demand is not least among them. Besides there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the wealthier people become the more demand there is for health services. Which leads me to the misconception: which is that excess demand for the NHS arises because it is free. That suggests that there should be ways of persuading the public to make do. But the problem is that the effective NHS monopoly on health care limits supply. Other systems are much better at mobilising private money – and where they do, demand is higher, not lower. A large and growing healthcare sector is one of the features of any modern, developed economy, however it is financed. Resisting it will breed discontent.

That points to an answer. If Britain could move healthcare to a public insurance model, such as the Netherlands or Australia have, the public would both get a guarantee that their basic needs will be met, and the mobilisation of private money to pay for a world-class service. I have been to Australia quite a bit over the years – and one thing I hear very little of is discontent with its health system. And Aussies know how to be discontented. But such a shift, as surely almost all Tories know, is an impossibility. For all its faults, the public has become attached to the system. And trying to mix more private money into it would be seen as a betrayal of its ethos. Doing this as a open public policy is clearly suicidal. But doing so by stealth, by restraining the public service while allowing the private sector to grow, is problematic too – although exactly this has happened to dentistry and optometry already. If wealthier people are paying big taxes for a service they don’t use, it will create discontent, and reducing their taxes will starve the public service, making it even worse. Neglect of the NHS under the Conservative governments of 1979 to 1997 was one of the reasons that support for the party collapsed in the 1990s. And one of the reasons that Mr Johnson did so well in 2019 was by promising to invest a lot of public money in the NHS, amongst other public services.

But people can pay more tax. Taxation in Britain is not especially high by European standards. If the system is well-designed the harms can be limited. Tories will have to embrace this, unless they want to challenge the public shibboleth of the NHS. Instinctively many Conservative MPs understand this, and they may realise that Mr Johnson represents the best way of postponing this awkward choice, and they may well let him muddle on.

What Conservatives should be doing is developing a new vision for the 21st Century that embraces higher taxes and a well-funded NHS at the heart of a flourishing health economy, based on world-leading health research and development. This is perfectly credible, unlike world leadership in buccaneering.

Boris Johnson’s Covid gamble

Understanding the latest wave of infections of Covid-19 in Britain is very hard. Data collection has been messed up by the holiday season, and anyway this wave, driven by the Omicron variant, is presenting in a different way to earlier ones, meaning the statistics don’t quite mean the same thing as before. Politically the most interesting thing, though, is the “don’t panic” attitude of the government’s policy in England, compared to what has been happening in Scotland and Wales. It is a gamble.

This gamblers based on a number of ideas. First is that the Omicron variant causes less serious harm than earlier ones, and that this is reinforced by more widespread vaccination, including third jabs, or “boosters”. The thought seems to be that scary infection rates won’t cause hospitals and other health services to be overwhelmed, and that the wave will burn out quickly and subside rapidly, reducing its impact on daily life. However this assessment seems to be as much driven by politics within the Conservative Party, as a sober assessment of what is known about the virus. For reasons that aren’t very clear to me, the Brexit awkward squad has decided that scepticism of the conventional, cautious approach to fighting the virus is the next Big Idea. Many business lobbies seem to have joined in, especially those in the hospitality and travel, after a frustrating two years, with recovery repeatedly postponed. The evidence and logic backing up these sceptics is weak at best – it is mainly a question of clutching at straws and finding out flaws in the logic of the advocates of caution. Funnily enough, though this scepticism is very prominent, even dominant, in the ruling party, it does not seem to be widely shared by the public, who usually find the government scientists more convincing. It is significant that the Scottish and Welsh governments (respectively led by the SNP and Labour) are taking a more cautious line.

So far it is very hard to tell who is right. Hospital admissions of people with Covid are going up, but not as fast as infections. Moreover it is not clear how many of these admissions are of people seriously ill with Covid, as opposed to being ill with something else, and also happening to be infected. A bigger source of stress seems to be staff being infected and having to stay away from work in isolation. Are things better in Scotland and Wales than in England? The statistics are very patchy; they do seem to be doing better, but that may be because Omicron hit them later (especially Wales). But if the government has got it wrong in England, it is too late to do anything about it. We could be in for two or three weeks of stories of overloaded hospitals and ambulances waiting outside unable to discharge their patients – and extra deaths, from Covid or not, as a result.

I find the sceptics generally unconvincing, and yet they aren’t wholly wrong. Stopping the virus is an impossibility – we have to have an end-game which involves us living with the virus, as we do with the common cold and flu. Vaccination is clearly part of that; other public health precautions may also have to become a permanent feature of life. We might need to adopt East Asian attitudes to the wearing of face masks. Ventilation standards need attention. Something else probably has a role too: waiting for the virus to evolve so that it comes less virulent, even as it becomes more infectious. Omicron seems to be a major step in that direction – which is why the government’s gamble may yet pay off.

And if it does, that will be a personal triumph for the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, which will bolster his position within his party, if not the country at large. Another possibility is that things go badly, but turn out to be no better in Scotland and Wales, in spite of their extra precautions. That would prove the contention made by lobbyists that hospitality venues present minimal risk, and that restrictions are simply rounding up the usual suspects for appearances sake.

But most likely is that the evidence will be muddled, without proving either side right until many months later, when the debate has moved on. Such is life in the era of Covid. Happy New Year!