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.

A vindication for Ed Davey and Keir Starmer

The Liberal Democrat victory in North Shropshire is astonishing. It is the second stunning victory for the party in a year – Chesham & Amersham could be explained away by it being a Remainer seat and affected by NIMBY issues on house building and railways. No such excuses are on offer here, and the swing was even larger. In fact the last time there was such a large by-election swing between the parties (Christchurch in 1993) it was a prelude to the Tory meltdown in 1997. The Lib Dems have reestablished themselves as the protest party of choice in the Tory heartlands.

The first thing to say about this is that it is a vindication of the leadership of Sir Ed Davey. He has come in for much criticism, from inside and outside the party, since being elected last year. He wasn’t being radical enough, it was said, and in particular he should have spent more energy banging on about the failure of Brexit to deliver its promises. But that would have limited the party’s appeal to a rather well-off and well-educated elite, and probably failed even there with the party lacking wider credibility. He has been proved correct that the public mainly wants to move on. Instead he has revived the party’s focus on local issues, used to highlight the message that Westminster is out of touch. Importantly they were able to convince many Labour voters (the party was a comfortable second in 2019) that they had a better chance of winning in this seat – but the victory was founded mainly on scooping up doubting Conservative voters, and persuading others to stay at home..

Labour failed to do quite so well in the by-election two weeks previously in Bexley, in the London suburbs, in spite of the Lib Dems keeping their heads down there. We can’t read too much into the contrast, since evidently what proved fatal for the Conservatives in Shropshire were their evasions over Christmas parties in December 2020 in Downing Street and elsewhere – and that blew up largely after Bexley.

In fact the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, should feel vindicated too. He too has avoided stoking up told-you-so on Brexit; he has also avoided saying anything radical at all, notwithstanding his promises to Labour members before they selected him. Instead he has chosen to major on competence and “leadership”. In his early months he always stood in front of a backdrop with the word “leadership” in it. This was a failure at first. Criticism of Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, seemed to be a Westminster village thing that didn’t “cut through” to the general public, in the village’s terminology. Not long ago I was urging Sir Keir to be be more radical by advocating reform of the House of Lords and the electoral system, allying himself with the Lib Dems and Greens, and capitalising on disillusion with the political system. That has proved unnecessary – it would always have been a risky strategy, but playing it safe can be paradoxically risky too in politics. But now the government’s credibility is shot in the nation at large, and voters are not as frightened of him as they were of his predecessor. That Lib Dem by-election victory in 1993 (in fact there were two that year, like this) heralded a Labour victory after all. Labour is now leading in the national opinion polls.

For the Conservatives this defeat points to two big problems. The first is Mr Johnson’s leadership, the subject of my previous blog. As I said then, I get very tired of the suggestion that Tories tolerate the incompetence because he is an election-winner. What on earth is the point of winning then? The public can and did suspend its judgement on Mr Johnson, but that happy period seems to be over. Many Tories hope that with a stronger team of advisers, his record can be turned around. Mr Johnson is certainly resilient. But is he able to manage his advisers? Personally I doubt it. The party would be better off changing leaders, and fast.

The second problem for the Conservatives is their discipline over covid policy. Covid policy scepticism is rife on the backbenches, and it shows. The most visible sign was the lack of mask-wearing in parliament, before the Omicron crisis put the wind up them. But there has been constant carping, leading both to a big backbench rebellion on the “Plan B” measures this week, and to confused messages from government ministers. Should or shouldn’t people reduce social contact in the run up to Christmas? Many on the right have disappeared down the rabbit-hole of extreme scepticism – stoked up in their social media bubbles, and egged on by increasingly vocal owners of hospitality and other affected businesses. This occasionally breaks the surface – such as with the complaint that the NHS has become the “National Covid Service” by excessively prioritising the disease, and as a result it is neglecting other conditions. I guess they want the covid patients to be left in the car park. While the sceptics make some pertinent criticism of policy – such as how we prioritise saving life over quality of life – their overall position descends quickly into incoherence. More to the point politically, it is an extreme position and incompatible with winning middle-ground voters. Covid is a deadly disease, if not for most people, then a significant minority, often including people we know. People are worried about it, and want to take precautions, and want to know that the NHS will be there for them if they or their loved ones fall seriously ill. They can’t see how that happens if they follow the wishes of the sceptics. As the FT’s Robert Shrimsley points out, Tory sceptics aren’t interested in learning to live with the virus, they just want things to go back to the way they were.

Now I am sure that most Conservative MPs are quite sensible on covid policy, but their sceptical colleagues are making the whole party look like nutters, and are clearly having an effect on government policy. They need to be stamped out just as the rump of Remainers were when Mr Johnson first took the leadership in 2019. But first that means Mr Johnson has to articulate a clear strategy for dealing with covid that takes on some of the points sceptics make – on finding a way to live with the virus, and on quality of life. Which brings this second problem back to the first.

For as long as the Conservatives fail to deal with their leadership and discipline issues, the strategies of Ed Davey and Keir Starmer look to be sound. Moreover their apparent pact to stay out of each other’s way in Tory seats, but not try any formal arrangement, also seems to be vindicated – and is another echo of that 1997 landslide. That still leaves two questions for them, and especially the Labour leader. What happens if the Conservatives change leader? And what do they do if they actually win power at the next election?

Eschewing radicalism will help persuade soft Tory voters to vote Labour or Lib Dem – but there must be a point to it all.

Tory MPs must ditch Boris Johnson

By common consent last week was terrible for the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. He failed to bluff his way through the story of a party a year ago in Downing Street, in apparent breach of covid regulations. More juicy details are leaked out whenever the story might be dying down. A video of a mock press conference held a few days after the party told us all we needed to know about this event: it happened; it was wrong; and they knew it. Meanwhile the Conservative Party was fined by the Electoral Commission or failing to disclose donations properly on the refurbishment of his flat – and it turns out that some of his statements on this affair have been less than complete. Then he has been forced to introduce “Plan B” of covid restrictions in the face of the Omicron variant – much to the consternation of many Tory MPs and lobbyists, who accuse him of doing this prematurely to divert attention from his other troubles. It says something about the trouble he is in that the birth this of his daughter failed to gain much attention at all.

It is possible to have some sympathy for Mr Johnson. The party in Downing Street was a long time ago, and doubtless many other similar events took place across the country, unpunished, even as many ordinary members of the public cancelled their plans, and were separated from their loved ones. I find the suggestion that the police should waste resources by investigating it a bit outrageous. There is clearly a malicious hand behind the way information is being leaked, and not least that video. The time for a fuss was a year ago; this is just political manoeuvres. Similarly on the flat, the bottom line is that the public were not asked to pay for it, and the fact that some external party donors might have been involved is, I’m afraid, just how many politicians run their lives. The Electoral Commission’s rules are often confusing, and they have the tendency of all regulators to pursue the minor infractions of the well-intentioned, rather than the serious stuff that is so much harder to pin down – a version of the proverb “Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves”, ending up as “Penny wise, pound foolish”. And as for the new covid regulations, these look sensible and well-timed. As usual sceptics fail to understand the dynamics of exponential phenomena, as well as the reasons why it is important to keep the flow of cases to our hospitals manageable. Days make a difference; this was a welcome departure from reacting far too late, which has been the government’s usual habit. That is being too kind, of course: the first two stories illustrates mr Johnson’s fondness of flouting rules designed for everybody else; the third invites he question of by he did not act more promptly in previous critical moments in the never-ending covid drama.

But there is a much deeper problem. We have been spun the story that Mr Johnson is a man of radical strategic vision, who does not get bogged down the detail – his supporters like to compare him to Winston Churchill in World War 2. But Mr Churchill had many years of experience in and around government by then, and knew the value of competent people. Mr Johnson has little governmental experience, and treats competent people as a threat. This week’s Economist bemoans the fact that all the radical promise of his takeover of government in 2019 has dissipated. But there is absolutely nothing surprising about any of this. It was always clear that Mr Johnson was a ducker and diver, with little of the grasp required of effective leaders. He was chosen by MPs and party members out of frustration with his predecessor, Theresa May, and then by the public, largely because his opponents lacked credibility. His majority is as much rejection of Corbynism as an endorsement of a new Conservative vision of levelling up, deregulation and the sweeping aside of complacent liberals.

As The Economist points out, Mr Johnson’s progress on the big issues is no better than his handling of the trivia. Covid has been a huge distraction, but the government gets stuck as soon as it hits anything difficult – such as liberalising planning policy, managing Brexit, investing in infrastructure, or many other things. The government’s handling of the pandemic is mixed at best. Mr Johnson often seems to be aiming for a middle way between lockdown advocates and sceptics that is the worst of both worlds. Ironically his recent handling of the Omicron variant has been very sound – it is an astute combination of short-term measures to buy time, and the promotion of a longer term solution through booster jabs; the public has clearly responded. And yet he cannot break free from the suggestion that he is using the issue to distract attention; the manner of his broadcast on Sunday night has few other convincing explanations.

The onus is now on Conservative MPs. They got themselves and us into this mess, and they need to get us out. Under Britain’s constitutional arrangements only they can remove the Prime Minister, outside an election, if he does not go of his own accord. They simply have submit no-confidence letters to the chairman of the 1922 Committee. And yet they seem reluctant. Some justify this on the grounds that he is an “election-winner”. But what is the use of somebody who wins elections but cannot govern? That is an unbelievably bleak view of the purpose of politics. Besides, the favourable circumstances of the last election will be hard to recreate. One problem is the lack of a challenger to wield the knife, as Margaret Thatcher did for Ted Heath in 1974 (as Matthew Parris points out). At least two cabinet ministers are on manoeuvres (Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, excoriated by Mr Parris). Clearly of greater stature is Jeremy Hunt, who lost out to Mr Johnson in the last leadership election. Surely one of these can break cover?

Maybe they are waiting for Thursday’s by election in North Shropshire. But Britain needs somebody, somewhere to make a stand, and soon.

The curious case of Owen Paterson

Last week was acutely embarrassing for the British Conservative government, led by Boris Johnson. After an excoriating report by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, the House of Commons was due to censure former Tory cabinet minister Owen Paterson for repeated paid lobbying. Mr Paterson was popular on Conservative benches, and was vociferously maintaining his innocence – so Mr Johnson thought he’d help him out and rewrite the standards system, which he heartily despises, in one fell swoop. Thanks to a three-line whip, and the decisive voting support of a number of MPs who had fallen foul of the system, he narrowly won the vote last Wednesday. This caused such a stink that he promptly reversed course the following day, and now Mr Paterson has resigned as MP. All those Tory MPs who loyally voted for the wrecking motion endured the stink for nothing. I find the whole affair a bit puzzling.

The first curiosity was why Mr Patterson resisted the Standards Committee’s report so vociferously. At the start of the week the BBC interviewed him, and he vehemently maintained his innocence. He claimed that the whole standards process was unfair, saying that 17 witnesses that he had put forward were not heard, and that he had no way of making a proper defence, and not even a right of appeal. He even claimed that the way he was being persecuted over the two years of the investigation led to his wife’s tragic suicide. This was pretty strong stuff, though I had heard this kind of thing before from senior Tories. I will never forget Jonathan Aitken and his claim of “the sword of truth”, before being found guilty. His alternative course would have been contrition, admitting what he had done was wrong, and throwing himself on the mercy of his fellow MPs. Given his popularity, and his personal tragedy, this might well have worked – he could have got away with no suspension or a short one, that would not have had the possibility of triggering a by-election. He may well have believed what he was saying – but, as Matthew Syed points out in The Sunday Times, the human capacity for self-deception is massive, especially when it is in our interests. He would not have got himself in so deep if he had thought what he was doing was dodgy, but he does not appear to have been well-advised.

The next puzzle is why the first initial media response to Mr Paterson’s claims were so muted. On the BBC there was only a formulaic rebuttal, saying that the standards process was independent; none of the specific issues that he raised was responded to; it wasn’t even very clear what he was being accused of; his interviewer certainly didn’t press him. It was not until the debate itself that it emerged just how flimsy Mr Paterson’s defence of was, both in his explanation of his behaviour, and his criticism of a parliamentary process that has been in place for decades. He behaviour was clearly and repeatedly in breach of standards; his 17 witnesses had submitted written statements; the process allowed Mr Paterson to make what amounted to an appeal; and so on. Given the Tory onslaught on the supposed bias of the BBC, I’m not surprised that they wouldn’t take it on, though it says much for the sad state of that institution. But nobody else did either, until that debate. My New Statesmen daily email wittered away about other things. There were no articles in my online Financial Times, nor in the email newsletters from The Times or the Guardian. Where they cowed by the threat of legal action until the parliamentary debate laid things bare? Did they not understand the importance of the story? Where they leaving a trap for the Conservatives to fall into? I’m too far away from the action to have much idea. Once the case against Mr Paterson was properly explained in the debate, though, the papers turned on him.

And then there is the puzzle of why Mr Johnson ordered a three-line whip on the rather bizarre wrecking motion, which basically suspended Mr Paterson’s case until the rules were rewritten by a committee with an inbuilt Conservative majority. This brought the whole thing back onto him and his government. Perhaps the initiailly muted press reaction lulled him into a false sense of security. But if sentiment in his party was strongly for Mr Paterson, and against the standards system, he surely did not need a three-line whip? And if it wasn’t, he was obviously taking a big risk. Mr Johnson certainly wants to dismantle the standards system, which he himself has run foul of, and which may well cause him trouble in future (the rather curious episode of the financing of the refurbishment of his flat is a case in point). Perhaps he was not aware of just how overwhelming the case against Mr Paterson was. It had ben a busy week and he has a distaste for detail. He also seems to have been badly advised by either or both of his Chief Whip and the Leader of the House.

It remains to be seen how much damage the affair will actually do. I suspect that the opposition’s aerated claims of corruption will not cut much ice in themselves, though attacks from fellow Conservatives, such as Sir John Major, might. It is still likely to be another dent in the government’s reputation, which will make support harder to rally in future. Perhaps more serious is that the prime minister will have lost credibility with his MPs; he will find them less willing to go into the lobbies to support any future dodgy business. There is no immediate threat to his leadership, though.

Still, this whole curious business shows that there is a level below which the government is not allowed to sink, much as it might want to. That is something.

New Labour was not about making hard choices

I have now finished watching Blair & Brown – the New Labour Revolution, a 5-part series from the BBC on the Labour government of 1997 to 2010. For politicos like me it was compulsive viewing, for all its flaws. Does it say anything to us about politics now?

One criticism of the series is that it was too long. Five episodes of one hour each is indeed a lot of time, but I was hooked, as were many of the reviewers. We learnt quite a few new things, and the tension between its two principal characters gives the subject a fascinating dynamic. In fact the main problem seemed to be on how much it left out. There was no coherent commentary from the left of the party, for example, and the causes of the Global Financial Crisis were not examined. This left two critical parts of the New Labour narrative (or myth in the word’s broader sense simplified story) unchallenged – that “Old Labour” was unelectable, and that the GFC was something that happened from out of the blue from the USA that the government neither contributed to, nor could do much about. Both warrant challenge, even if emotionally I am bought into the first of those myths, while strongly disagreeing with the second. But neither is a simple question to unpick, and the argument on the GFC is probably asking too much for most political journalists to be able to handle, alas. Instead they took a whole episode to dig into the Iraq War – an editorial decision that it is hard to gainsay. The first episode covered the period before they won power, and there was episode for each of the three terms – so there was a logical structure to the whole series. Quite a bit of time was spent on pregnant pauses within the interviews (which included both main protagonists amongst many other important figures), but the overall pace was not slow.

I am struck by how deeply flawed the partnership was. The two leaders worked as a team before the 1997 election, but after that Gordon Brown jealously guarded the Treasury as his fiefdom and kept Tony Blair at arms length. I have no doubt that it was Mr Brown who was primarily at fault here. One of the most remarkable moments came when it dawned on Mr Blair that the government had to dramatically raise its spending on the NHS, to bring it into line with the average of health spending in Europe. This was a brilliant insight (which I have explained recently on one of my blogs) that very few people in the governing elite seem to understand – instead seeing the NHS as a spending black hole that needs to be contained somehow. But the only way Mr Blair could persuade Mr Brown to follow this line was by announcing it in a television interview. Mr Brown could not see the wood for the trees. It turned out to be one of New Labour’s best, and most popular, policies.

It would be tempting to characterise the partnership as Mr Blair being strong on vision, and Mr Brown being good on the detail. But Mr Blair was wrong about a lot of vision things too. He was wrong to push for joining the European currency (though at the time I was on Mr Blair’s side) – another disagreement resolved through the news media; he was wrong about joining the Americans in the Iraq war; he was wrong about trying to bring a private sector ethos into the public services, such as the NHS and schools. On all of these Mr Brown’s judgement seems to have been better, though he was and remains very unengaged on Iraq. But Mr Brown became complacent, especially with his hands-off approach to the financial sector. He put in place a tripartite system for managing national finance, between his Treasury, the Bank of England, and the Financial Services Authority (FSA). All well and good, but it was clearly his job to ensure that the system as a whole was working. He did not seem to grasp the seriousness of the situation until the collapse of Lehman in late 2008, by which time he was Prime Minister. His response then was magnificent – but more insight in 2007, when the risks were becoming obvious, would have helped. Instead he cut the rate of Income Tax, which left the country very vulnerable when the bubble burst. He was so blinkered by his success in “no more boom and bust” that he would not see the risks building up in the system.

Though it ended badly, New Labour has to be seen as a success overall, with three successive Labour general election victories, two of them landslides. Can it tell us anything about the future? The obvious parallel takes us back to Labour, which once again is back in the doldrums. The New Labour strategy was to win by courting the political middle ground and holding back on the party’s more left wing instincts; their most important insight was that the middle ground was a rather conservative place, and not the liberalism associated with centrist political parties, though it needed that too. The party needed a firm message on law and order, and a conservative stance on taxes and spending – as well as keeping union power at bay. This meant accepting that a lot of the legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s government had to stay. That itself was not enough, because John Major’s Conservatives were firmly anchored in that middle ground, and had used that strength to pull off a victory against the odds in 1992. Mr Blair and Mr Brown also had to exude confidence and competence. This was not too hard, as the Tories were beset by divisions, and their economic prestige suffered a fatal blow with the ERM fiasco in 1992, shortly after the election.

Can Labour follow the same strategy? Its leader, Sir Keir Starmer, clearly thought so after he took over in 2020, with the government floundering with its response to the covid-19 pandemic, and seemingly led by right-wing ideologues. Mr Starmer always appeared on television with the word “leadership” on his backdrop. But the Conservative leader, Boris Johnson, has a clear eye on that middle ground, which remains generally conservative. But he also understands that the middle ground has moved on – largely thanks to New Labour. Now it means a strong commitment to state-funded public services, such as the NHS. Unlike Mr Major (now Sir John), though, he has an iron grip on his party. He has recovered from his wobbles on the pandemic, and the public (or the floating voters anyway) appear to have forgiven him. Mr Johnson’s rhetoric on climate change and the environment also marks out his fight for the middle ground. He is not presenting anything like the target that Messrs Blair and Brown were able to destroy prior to 1997.

But the problem for Mr Johnson, and anybody hoping to win on the middle ground, is that it is a have-your-cake-and- eat-it sort of place. It wants well-funded public services but no more taxes; it wants action on climate change but no addition to heating or motoring costs, and so on. This is creating growing tensions within the Conservative Party. It does not create much of a direct opportunity for Labour – who are no more able to solve the contradictions of this middle ground than the Tories. But division amongst the Tories could allow Sir Keir to appear as a more competent alternative.

But a successful challenge is unlikely to look anything like New Labour. Perhaps Labour can try its own “cake” strategy by allying itself with the Lib Dems and the Greens, each of which can cement its appeal to different segments of the anti-Conservative market while leaving there contradictions unresolved. That alliance would need to be based on the promise of electoral reform. It would be a risky strategy, and it is too early to start playing the cards now. New Labour did create an informal alliance with the Lib Dems in the 1990s, as part of its strategy of leaving nothing to chance. But the Lib Dems are weaker now, while trust between the parties is low. Mr Blair was happy to hint at electoral reform then but in the end was “unpersuaded”. Something stronger would be needed now.

Britain, along with most of the rest of the world, is confronting some difficult choices. This is much more the case than in 1990s, when the opportunities for economic growth were much better. After an initial period of austerity, New Labour did not have to navigate such treacherous waters and was able to present voters with a “both/and” proposition. Alas hard choices do not make good politics – the revolution now would be to make taking those choices electorally appealing. The New Labour experience offers us no clue on how to pull off such a feat.

The government’s choice: higher taxes or higher interest rates?

Britain’s Conservative government is approaching two years in office. Depending on how it amends the legislation on fixed-term parliaments, it will seek re-election in as little as a year and half (May 2023), or, more likely, in two to two and half years (later in 2023 or May 2024). The endgame of this parliament’s existence is now in sight. Tory thoughts turn to the question of how to secure a further term in office.

The 2019 election was fought largely on the question of “Getting Brexit done”, as the Conservatives successfully framed it. But they also set out a broader agenda: “levelling up” – tackling inequality by securing a better deal for the less well-off regions and groups rather than by punishing the better-off; improving public services – mainly the NHS and police; curbing immigration – the big dividend from Brexit; and keeping the country on the path to carbon neutrality. This is pretty popular and the government shows no sign of backing down on any of it. But with the possible exception of immigration, these aims aren’t notably different from the opposition’s. The Tories are further distinguished by putting more faith in the enterprise and initiative of private individuals and businesses, rather than a bossy government and government-sponsored mega-projects (even if Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has a weakness for the latter). To many observers this agenda looks impossible to reconcile – a question of “have your cake and eat it”, but it is not entirely vacuous. The left tends to underestimate the importance of setting the zeitgeist so that private initiative sets society on the right path.

Nevertheless the shallowness of most Conservative thinking is breathtaking. One example of this is the idea, popular in the party, of announcing a cut in income tax before the next election. The idea is that this would show the benefits of Tory stewardship of the economy, and drive a wedge between Labour and many of its potential supporters. It would also straighten up the record a bit after the party was forced to raise National Insurance, which it had promised not to do. It is a truly terrible idea. Basic Rate Income Tax, alongside VAT, is the the most broadly based tax the government raises, and it is therefore a valuable economic tool. And yet raising it has become a politically toxic idea, ever since Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown promised not to do so in the mid-1990s. They preferred to raise National Insurance instead, even though this tax is narrower, and the employer-levied version adds friction to job creation. One of Mr Brown’s biggest mistakes was cutting the tax to 20% in 2007. The Great Financial Crisis soon after showed how much the government was relying on volatile capital taxes, and the income tax cut contributed to a dire budget deficit that panicked the subsequent coalition government into drastic spending cuts. Cutting the Basic Rate adds a level of instability to the country’s economic management.

Still, that line of argument is unlikely to appeal to Tory MPs, who seem to have a blind faith in muddling through. The bigger problem for the party is that supply and demand is out of kilter in the UK economy, and cutting taxes will add fuel to the flames. As demand recovers from the shock of the Covid pandemic, it has revealed weaknesses in the supply side of the economy, which can’t keep up. Some of the problem is worldwide, with the global trading system put under stress by problems in container shipping, for example, or the production of microchips. But Brexit, or more precisely the country’s rapid departure from the Single Market and customs union, has made the problem much worse. On top of that there is the government’s hostile attitude to immigration, especially of people on lower rates of pay. Many immigrant workers have left the country, and don’t want to come back, even if the government would let them. These problems have hit the distribution of goods particularly hard, and imports especially. That matters a lot, because the usual way for the British economy to handle excess demand is to import more. With that option closed, unless the public starts to save more, the consequence is inflation. And sure enough, inflation has risen already. The government is even encouraging it by urging businesses to pay people more.

This is bad news for the government. Inflation is a corrosive economic disease that attacks savings, and usually hits the less well-off, and those reliant on pensions the worst. These are critical parts of the Conservative base (i.e. savers and pensioners). Under the widely accepted understanding of economic policy the way to counter inflation is to increase interest rates, preferably so that they exceed the rate of inflation itself. Right now official interest rates, which drive commercial rates, are very low, and less than inflation. This has enabled many people to afford very high levels of borrowing, usually to buy houses. It also means that the high level of government debt is not actually all that expensive to service (this may not impress followers of Modern Monetary Theory very much, but it matters to the government’s political credibility). Any rise to nominal interest rates will cause widespread pain, which will create a sense of economic crisis. One thing that tends to characterise Conservative voters is ownership of property. Rising property values gives them a sense of wellbeing (even if they have paid off the mortgage), and declining values makes them thing the world is going to pot. If mortgages become more expensive, property prices are bound to fall.

To head this off the government needs to reduce demand. The best way of doing this is to increase one of the broadly based taxes: Basic Rate Income Tax, Employee National Insurance or VAT. Taxes that hit the rich, such as Higher Rate Income Tax, are much less efficient for this purpose, as the rich save more – though they would help with the national debt. The government is, in fact, increasing Employee NI (as well as Employer NI), which will help. It also also trying to cut government spending. It has made a start by withdrawing Covid emergency measures, such as the furlough scheme and Universal Credit. But the politics of large additional spending cuts is awful. Maybe this will all be enough – but I doubt it.

Doubtless the Conservatives hope that within a year the inflation scare will have blown over, and that would give them the wriggle-room they need. And yet many of the supply-side problems that drive it will take years to solve, and may only be solved with a permanent cut to consumption levels. Responding to the problems with pay rises, as the government is encouraging, will also lengthen the time it takes for any settling down.

The chances are that there will be no room to cut income tax before the end of this parliament. Tory party managers should be thinking of other ways of trying to securing political advantage.

What is the meaning of the Chesham and Amersham by election?

What is the point of the Liberal Democrats? This question has been asked often since the party bet big on reversing the Brexit referendum result and lost. Languishing in single digit poll ratings, with only a handful of MPs, a weak brand and a leader who looks like just another white male middle-aged politician, the question was asked rhetorically. It was obvious that the answer was that there wasn’t any. The party would be replaced by some combination of a newly-moderate Labour Party and the Greens. On the eve of the by-election in the safe Conservative seat of Chesham and Amersham bookmakers were still offering odds of only 13-1 that the Lib Dems would win.

But the result showed a different answer to that question. It wasn’t even close. The Conservative vote crashed by 20%; Labour’s by 10% (they only had 11%); the Lib Dems ended up with a big majority. This shows that only the Lib Dems amongst “progressive” parties have a chance of challenging the Tories in their heartlands. Labour is still paying the price for its flirtation with radicalism under Jeremy Corbyn; the Greens do not have the strength and depth of ground organisation, and many Conservative voters find their brand offputting. It is now clear that if the Conservatives’ grip on the Westminster parliament is to be broken, the Lib Dems will have to play their part.

Why did the Conservatives do so badly, when nationally their stock is still riding high? The obvious answer is that the party is focusing on consolidating its hold on its newly won voters in northern England, the Midlands and Wales – the old “red wall”; this leaves the party’s traditional heartlands feeling neglected. By itslef this explanation doesn’t work. Under Boris Johnson’s leadership the party has a sunny “Have your cake and eat it” stance: doing well by the new voters is not meant to be at the expense of the old. After all that is what “levelling up”, the stated aim of their policy, is meant to mean. Something else is annoying the heartlands.

The first, I think, is resentment about Brexit. To old Remain supporters, many of whom were in this consituency, this is not going well, and the arguments made about the damage it would do, dismissed by Brexit supporters like Mr Johnson as “Project Fear”, are turning into facts. Combine this with the many missteps of the government’s response to covid, and there is little love and trust in the government.

There were to more specific issues that the Lib Dems hammered on, once they found they were resonnating. The first was the government’s new planning law proposals, designed to make it easier to build on greenbelt land. Suburban voters such as those in this constituency have a fear of development spoiling their green and pleasant environment. The Lib Dems also want more houses to be built, but suggest that the government’s plans will be a developers’ charter to build poor quality housing (in terms of environmental standards at least) where it is not needed, instead of “community-led” initiatives to build more good-quality affordable and social housing. The second issue was the new HS2 railway from London to Birmingham, which is being built through the area. The Lib Dems support HS2, so once again some political finesse was required. The candidate promised to uphold constituents’ interests in opposing what is seen as a brutal juggernaut not listening to local concerns.

Doubtless Tories will feel that this is more chicanery from the Lib Dems – but it is not as if their party does not delight in chicanery itself. If the roles were reversed they would have had no hesitation in doing the same. That is politics; there are no prizes for holding the high ground. For the Lib Dems a weak brand has its disadvantages: it doesn’t rile floating voters so much and gives more room for manoeuvre. Still the party is only a threat to the Conservatives if it has a local foothold, and that is only patchy. Besides its appeal is now largely restricted to better-educated voters, and the result does not provide evidence of a broadening of their appeal. But where the party already has a foothold, it will be re-energised. The party should also get more attention in the media for a while – after the embarassment of most outlets failing to spot what was happening here, in spite of ample evidence, while giving extensive coverage to the Batley and Spen by election, due on 1 July. The party now needs to make good use of this brief window of opportunity.

For the Conservatives it is a clear sign of danger, though their politcal position remains formidable. Success in British politcs depends to some extent on taking core support for granted while reaching out to more marginal voters. But this is a dangerous exercise, as Mr Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, found in the 2017 election, when she tried to do just that far too blatently. The main point of worry for the government must be those planning reforms. They are going to need far more political skill on housing than they have shown hithertoo if they are to avoid further damage.

Labour’s predicament deserves a post of its own, but for them there is good and bad news. The collapse of their vote shows that their brand is now very weak – after a period when they had often done relatively well in Lib Dem strongholds. The Greens got more than twice as many votes. But there is no evidence that resurgent Lib Dems will undermine them in critical battleground seats, and it also shows that the Conservatives can be put on the defensive. An optimist might suggest that a weakening of the brand is a necessary precursor to de-toxification. The party still needs to be able to fire up its supporters, of course. Talk of a “progressive alliance” of non-Tory parties is premature, however. But Labour strategists will need to let the Lib Dems undermine the Conservative vote somehow.

For now though the Lib Dems can bask in the glory a bit. Their new MP, Sarah Green, is a strong addition to their parliamentary ranks. Remarkably, 8 of the party’s 12 MPs are now female. Quite a reversal from a party that used to be much derided for its failure to get female MPs elected.

All the main parties have opportunities and challenges

We now have nearly a complete body, so the post-mortem is more convincing. What the elections show is that politics has been changed decisively by Brexit and the takeover of the Conservatives by Boris Johnson and his supporters. This new world offers challenges and opportunities for each of the five main political parties – the Conservatives, Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Greens.

One comment I am reading a lot of is how much these elections have been favourable to those in power, at least down to regional level. The Conservatives have done well in England, and in the Teesside and West Midlands mayoralties. Labour did well in Wales, Manchester and other big city mayoralties. The SNP did well in Scotland. Perhaps that is the influence of the covid-19 crisis. Perhaps that means that the winners are not as secure as some suggest. One aspect of this incumbency bonus is the naked way the Conservatives are using power in recently won seats in England to bring in local government spending. The voters have got the message, it appears, and don’t object; Labour complaints only draw attention to it.

The biggest winners are the Conservatives, who have consolidated their hold on formerly Labour areas in northern England and the Midlands, but not Wales. I have already written about this. It places the party in a formidable electoral position. The challenge has been well put by Matthew Parris in The Times. The party has been garnering support among people who see themselves as the rejected, society’s losers. Important though these people are, the policies they favour are not those that will be good for the country’s prosperity and wellbeing. They favour continuity and stability, if not pushing the clock back. Sooner or later this is going to create unbearable pressure at government level. They will either be unable to deliver on their promises to improve local conditions, in which case their voters will move on, or they succeed, in which case the politics of victimhood will play less well, and other parties will find the going easier. The two pronged attack that did for the Conservatives at the Euro elections in 2019 can do for them again – as both professionals and populists close in on either flank. For now the Prime Minister looks likely to bluff his way through this challenge, delivering cheery words but little in the way of substantive results. But the vulnerability remains. Meanwhile Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens were all able to chip away at the Tory hold in their southern heartlands where well-led locally.

One of the rituals of election post-mortems is commentators to have a go at the Labour Party, criticising it for not listening to its core supporters. Take this piece from Janice Turner in The Times again. And yes, I often join this chorus myself. But when most of these people accuse Labour of looking down on traditional supporters, they themselves look down on Labour’s core support, especially amongst “woke” public service professionals. It needs to be taken with salt. More interesting is the variation on the theme by John Harris in the Guardian, who accuses Labour of too often ignoring local community groups, to rebuild the civic infrastructure it lost when old industries went into decline. This is something that the party seemed to understand under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and certainly was important to his effective deputy, John McDonnell, but it is being abandoned by the current leadership.

Labour finds itself in a tricky position. It must extend its base beyond those public-sector professionals and the “new” urban working classes, without abandoning core ideas, like multiculturalism, that are central to its hold on that existing base. I’m sure that Mr Harris is right and that local community politics is part of the answer. But it isn’t easy, and in places they will find that the Lib Dems or Greens will have got there first. Tricky strategic decisions lie ahead, but their position is far from hopeless. The results are not as bad as many are making but, but they do show that the Tory hold on the old “Red Wall” remains tight, in England at least.

The SNP are the other big winners. The challenge for them is clear: navigating the drive towards independence for Scotland. The idea of independence is popular in Scotland, but the hard reality is likely to be less so. Perhaps the UK government’s best strategy is to move the debate onto the nitty gritty and let the SNP get bogged down; but to do that it has to concede a referendum, though not perhaps the referendum that the SNP want. See this interesting article by David Herdson on political betting.com. Losing the last referendum was the best thing to happen to the SNP; that will not be the case for another one. But if the government refuses to concede a referendum, then the SNP will continue to control the agenda.

For the Lib Dems the elections produced mixed results, but hopeful signs outweighed the discouraging ones. The party is making headway against the Conservatives where it has local strength. The Tory drive for the old Labour heartlands increases its vulnerability in its own backyard. But no earthquakes. It is not yet clear how the party breaks through into national scene. The party does not have a sharp brand; this can help in Britain’s electoral system, as a sharp brand deters as well as attracts voters. In Scotland the party held onto all its first-past-the-post seats, and challenged hard for a further one. But it won no seats on the proportional list system. This is ironic for a party that is so keen on proportional representation.

The advantages of a clear brand are shown by the Greens, who generally did well. If Labour starts to dilute its appeal to younger and environmentally conscious voters, the Greens are more likely to benefit now than the Lib Dems. The Greens easily beat the Lib Dems in London, as well as Scotland (where they contested no first-past-the post seats). Still, their claim to be the third party of national politics is overdone. Their predicament is the opposite to that of the Lib Dems – trying to turn a strong national brand into something that wins them councils and parliamentary seats.

Should the non-Tory parties work together to challenge the Conservatives, outside Scotland at least? This can only be on the basis of changes to the electoral system and perhaps other constitutional changes. This has been done in New Zealand. But for that to be viable there needs to be a broad understanding in the public that the system is broken and needs to be changed. For all the whinging I see little evidence of this. Beyond a little sotto voce staying out of each others’ way at the next general election I don’t think this idea will get anywhere.

So the landscaper has changed, but we are only beginning to see where this is leading.

What is the significance of “Tory sleaze”?

A series of incidents have made the news where Conservative party officials, and especially their leader, Boris Johnson, have had a questionable regard for compliance with rules. Labour think they are on to something by raising the spectre of “Tory sleaze”. Are they?

Well yes if the audience is liberal professional types. They equate cronyism and nepotism with corruption and inefficiency, and understand that their own careers can be badly damaged by a disregard for compliance, and assume that politicians should play to the same rules. But do things look quite the same way to everybody else? Are the rules just there as a means to an end, and shouldn’t we look to the results first and foremost?

This was brought home to me when I read a history of the Royal Navy. Back in the 18th Century and into the Napoleonic Wars and the era of Horatio Nelson, it was one of the most effective large organisations on the planet – a considerable feat since command and control was often very dispersed. This was founded on a system of rewarding effective performance. The key to this was the prize system, whereby the money made from captured ships (“prizes”) was divided between the ship’s captain, officers and crew. (As an aside this was not dissimilar to the other highly effective institution of the era: Napoleon’s French army). The captain had control over the recruitment of his ship’s complement. And nepotism and cronyism was rife. How to reconcile this? Captains still recruited highly effective crew – but nepotism and cronyism was the simplest way of hiring people they knew and could trust. But if your cousin or other contact wasn’t up to the job, they would be moved on at the first opportunity. For many that is still true. The key is whether the organisation’s leaders are truly and directly accountable for the success of their organisation. The reason why cronyism is lethal in public service is because there is no equivalent system of direct, financial accountability, such as with the old Navy’s prize system, or with profits in a small or medium-sized business – where nepotism and cronyism is also widely practised.

So what to make of the current Conservative government’s difficulties over cronyism, especially amongst the urgencies of dealing with covid-19? They claim that in the crisis government ministers were making shortcuts to get things done. And if some of the the bureaucrats were uncomfortable, that just shows how ill-equipped thy are for emergencies. The Conservatives under Boris Johnson are not starting with a great of credibility on this however. Before the pandemic, the actions of minister Robert Jenrick on a property development after lobbying from a party donor shocked many, including me, but were simply shrugged off by the Prime Minister. Still, we should try to focus on the facts, not simply what we expect.

In fact enough the most recent row, over WhatsApp exchanges between Mr Johnson and entrepreneur James Dyson, is capable of being interpreted as “getting thing done”. Mr Dyson has a formidable reputation as a practical engineer; there was a genuine panic at the time (actually misplaced in hindsight) about the lack of ventilators, so there would have been nothing wrong if the government had called Mr Dyson for help, or if they had responded positively to an offer for help from him. The situation of Mr Dyson’s enterprise being based overseas is relatively unusual for a British company, so helping out with tax paperwork could be fine. The prior relationship between the two men doubtless helped, but I find it hard to see this as the government doing a favour for a friend. Labour has to do what it does, by trying to make the most of it, as that is how politics is done. The Tories would hardly be different if the roles were reversed. But this is either faux outrage or a failure to understand what was actually going on.

But what about the “VIP list” of businesses bidding for urgent contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE) early in the emergency? The urgency was real, and the need to simplify procurement procedures was doubtless justified. But did the VIP list help? This time the circumstantial evidence looks negative. The VIP list seems to be based purely on businesses being well-connected; there is no sense that they were being selected on the basis of any relevant competence. I had my reservations at the time about government procurement, and I still do. The process looks to have been too centralised and too detached from the people who actually needed the PPE. But this really needs to be picked apart by the sort of enquiry the government keeps putting off until the day after tomorrow. The point here is that is not that delegated procurement and streamlined procedures would have reduced cronyism. Indeed cronyism is the dark side of localism, and one that its advocates often neglect, myself included. But local cronyism in the circumstances of crisis, when results are short-term and obvious, is not necessarily all that harmful, as in the Royal Navy in the 18th Century. In some circumstances, if driven by the right sort of leadership, it can even be the best thing to do. The problem with the government’s procurement was that those taking the decisions, and pushing forward their proteges, were too distant from the outcomes to have an incentive to do the job well. Anyway, the VIP list was apparently far too long; it isn’t hard to imagine the feeding frenzy of businesses who could claim even a vague connection, and the lack of an incentive, or criteria, for the gatekeepers to say “not you”. The result is certainly that some inappropriate suppliers were picked; it is also probable that some people who could have helped out more effectively never got the call.

The next thing to consider is the lobbying by former Prime Minister David Cameron on behalf of Greensill Capital. On the face of it there is not much to be excited about: the lobbying failed to get extra financial support for Greensill. It is hardly surprising that Mr Cameron had privileged access. The more important question is how far Greensill had got into government procurement before the pandemic. It’s hard to understand what need the government had for a finance provider. More needs to be dug up about the relationship – but the issue isn’t just cronyism, it’s the degree of grasp of government ministers and civil servants of administrative processes. The former tend to have little commercial or organisation experience; the latter draw a false distinction between high status “policy” and lowly “implementation”. Greensill seems to have been inserting itself into the “implementation” side of things, which senior civil servants don’t feel they need to dirty their hands with.

The other issue doing the rounds on the general subject of “sleaze” is how the Prime Minister financed improvements to the Downing Street apartment, which wasn’t posh enough for his tastes. The careful wording of his spokespeople suggests that there is something to hide. But it does not appear as if public money, or much of it, was wasted here, though. The main issue is whether the Prime Minister broke rules on disclosure. I find it hard to get excited about it.

So far it doesn’t seem to be cutting through to the public. The attitude seems to be that, “They are all at it, so it doesn’t influence my vote.” They aren’t all at it in fact – but it doesn’t cut cleanly across party lines. You couldn’t get more prim and proper than Mr Johnson’s Tory predecessor, Theresa May. And Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair was quite comfortable with cosy relationships with business leaders, and the Labour Mayor of Liverpool is in deep do-do. Then again, the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer looks very straight, but that doesn’t seem to be doing him much good. I suspect that most people bend the rules a bit themselves, and don’t mind so much if others do too. Liberal professionals are in a small minority.

What could cause the public to get more angry? Personal enrichment, as happened with the MPs expenses saga in 2009, is more likely to inflame. Alas poor judgement and incompetence seem to get people less excited, as expectations appear to be low. The last time “Tory sleaze” got traction was in the mid-1990s, when the Conservative administration under John Major appeared tired and out of ideas. The expenses scandal, which engulfed all parties, was also at a time of perceived government failure, after the financial crash. The current government has some disasters to its name, but the news for it isn’t all bad. Success on vaccinations, and better judgement in 2021 on lockdown management, may erase memories of the Christmas, and earlier, disasters. Brexit is “done”, as promised, with teething problems not so far in excess of expectations – if you brush over Northern Ireland and the food export industry, which most people can.

What will be toxic for Mr Johnson is if his government starts to take on a general air of incompetence and failure. It clearly has that potential, as we saw in 2020, but it is not a foregone conclusion.