Boris Johnson promised us that we could have our cake and eat it. So we ate the cake. When his successor, Liz Truss, went to the cupboard to look for it, she found that it was all gone. The transition from the bounty of tax cuts and energy subsidies promised by Ms Truss when she took charge to the austerity being promised just a few weeks later is one the most dramatic policy reversals I have ever seen in Britain.
During her selection campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party, Ms Truss railed against “Treasury orthodoxy”. This, she said, was responsible for the country’s strangled growth since the financial crash of 2007-09. She knew what she was talking about since she had served as Chief Secretary at the Treasury for a stint in 2017-19. This was a widespread complaint. I heard it made by Lib Dems during the coalition years, especially as many ideas for long-term investment were shut down. The complaint was much more virulent from Labour supporters, for whom “Austerity” was the root of all evil. It is interesting to see these usual suspects being joined by the libertarian right, who have elevated high tax levels to the same heights of evil that the left has for austerity.
It is important to distinguish Treasury orthodoxy from economic orthodoxy – though most people seem to do just this. Treasury types are steeped in economic orthodoxy: you won’t get away with the “lump of labour fallacy” (the idea immigrants, for example, take away people’s jobs) if you talk to one of them. But it is tempered by an older belief, dating back to Gladstone and beyond, in “sound money”. They do not like to see high levels of government borrowing, leading to creditors being able to dictate policy. The divergence between Treasury and economic orthodoxy was especially evident in the coalition government of 2010-15. Many orthodox economists argued that austerity policies were at best overdone, or at worst completely wrong-headed. They suggested that there was significant slack in the economy, and that policies that reduced demand were a self-inflicted wound (whether there was as much slack in the economy as they thought, and whether the austerity policies were as destructive, are questions for economic historians). They produced as evidence more generous US policies at the time, leading to less economic hardship. The Treasury thought otherwise. In 2010 coalition ministers were scared witless by warnings of dire consequences in financial markets if austerity programmes weren’t followed. Both Tory and Lib Dem ministers accepted this basic premise, while quibbling with the details. The previous Labour government under Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling had as well. Almost all serious economic commentators now suggest that this was a serious mistake – and that the market position was not nearly as precarious as suggested.
Doubtless this is what gave Ms Truss the courage to take on the Treasury, though her central idea that tax cuts can be paid for through the growth they stimulate, especially when unemployment is at a record low and inflation on the rise, was a challenge to economic orthodoxy as well. She noted the substantial “headroom” in forecasts by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) earlier in the year – doubtless brought about by stealth tax rises through holding tax thresholds down. She also noted that government debt levels were not as high as other some other big developed economies. So she appointed her close ally Kwasi Kwateng as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and his first act was to sack the leading Treasury civil servant, with talk of replacing him with an outsider.
It fell apart with startling speed. In the popular telling the “Markets” struck back, causing mortgage rates to shoot up. This has wiped out any feelgood factor brought about by tax cuts and energy interventions amongst a key constituency of Conservative voters. The talk about the power of Markets is a convenient shorthand, but oversimplifies things a lot. Media coverage as been very muddled. At first a lot of attention was focused on the pound – which at one point nearly sank to parity with the US dollar. But it was the gilt (government debt) markets that caused the mortgage rate problems. I think this took a lot of people by surprise, including, perhaps, our political leaders. In the common understanding interest rates are determined by the Bank of England, which was not due to meet until early November – so people probably expected any crisis on the mortgage front to approach slowly. In fact Bank of England decisions are only one factor amongst many – and mortgage providers need to look forwards at potential future rises. Then a crisis blew up with the liability matching policies in certain pension funds. I have read two tellings of this crisis. In one the pension funds had been indulging in reckless speculation camouflaged as prudent management of future cash flows; in the other prudent management was caught short by a temporary liquidity crisis dictated by the way certain financial markets are structured. The Bank of England rode to the rescue, but a temporary tiding over of a technical crisis was presented by many as something much broader. The Bank’s attempts to communicate what it was doing and why didn’t really help. Neither did Mr Kwateng’s attempts to shrug the whole thing off.
The muddle made things worse. The pound recovered, but gilt markets have not made life for mortgage providers any easier. But what has now been revealed to the world is what the point of Treasury orthodoxy is. Financial markets are complicated things, and they can affect the public in a number of ways. As with any market, they are the meeting place of people with many different agendas. If mismatches occur they can be destabilised quite easily. The Treasury tries to manage things by making orderly, predictable demands, and not pushing its luck. It builds up a reservoir of confidence which means that it can respond to emergencies. The timing of Ms Truss’s attempted coup could hardly have been worse. Rising inflation, low unemployment (showing limited capacity to expand the economy) and the energy crisis, coming after the trauma of the pandemic and alongside the destabilising effects of the Ukraine war, all pointed to this being a particularly delicate moment. Ms Truss’s attempt to blame the demise of her strategy on the markets is a bit like the Captain of the Titanic blaming the iceberg for the loss of his ship. Except that this was no stray iceberg, the government was steaming full-steam ahead the middle of a known iceberg belt.
Now the government, having destabilised things, is having to work very hard to restore order. Treasury orthodoxy reigns triumphant. The new chief civil servant is an experienced insider; an experienced senior politician has replaced Mr Kwateng as Chancellor; most of the tax cuts have been withdrawn; public spending cuts are back on the agenda; the energy price intervention has been scaled back. There was even talk of not raising the level of the state pension in line with inflation – the Treasury has long hated the so-called “triple lock” on pensions.
The dust hasn’t settled, but the effect of this change is chilling. It isn’t just tax cuts that have been put on ice – but hopes by politicians on the left of raising spending on public services and benefits now look much harder to fulfil. Suddenly Britain looks like a lonely nation living beyond its means in a hostile world. Hard choices lie ahead.