Is Britain doomed (again)?

Pity the poor Brits.  They just can’t catch a break.

After years of reporting of lying Boris Johnson, a change to a less colourful PM in Rishi Sunak has resulted in a smooth media pivot to an end-of-empire narrative.  The New York Times, no less, amplifies suggestions that Blighty will soon fall behind Poland or even – get your atlas ready – Slovenia.  So dire is the situation we are told that even a reversal of Brexit may not be enough to save a once-proud nation.

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Who says Britain’s Conservative MPs are not future oriented?  

In fact, they are acutely focused on what job they might be able to get after the next general election, due in 2024.

Prospects looked worse after new Chancellor Jeremy Hunt delivered his mini-budget on Thursday.  His programme: rolling tax increases for the next six years.  And because tax thresholds are not being raised in line with rising prices and wages, persistent inflation (which also seems more likely) will make it more painful.

Have a smidgen of sympathy for the poor multi-millionaire.  Under the current bipartisan rules of the game, there is no alternative if the growth in debt is to be curbed.  Those who produce the most, must give the most.

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Supply chains are the least of it – labour markets signal change

It seems such a long time since our governments (well the left-wing ones anyway) were steering us deftly through the pandemic?

Sure – there were a few glitches – ‘transitory’ inflation for one.  But there was a catch-all explanation – supply chain disruption. And normal service would be resumed shortly.

But like most comfortable explanations, there seems to be a little more to it than that.

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Just don’t call it creative destruction, Rishi

The MPs of Britain’s ruling Conservative party don’t lack confidence.

Having defenestrated PM Liz Truss, the choice of the non-Parliamentary party as leader, they decided to take no more silly risks, and installed their own choice, former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, without troubling to consult the membership.

Time will tell if the members thank them.

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Courtesy is so important in politics

It is perhaps unfortunate that the UK’s Conservative party MPs have never thanked the party members for saving them from the disaster of Theresa May’s premiership.

Perhaps they weren’t even grateful, seeing how quickly they recoiled at the members’ choice of Liz Truss.  Truss – who announced on Thursday she would step down – wasn’t even given enough time to dig a shallow grave, in contrast to May, who was indulgently permitted to erect an elaborate mausoleum and find out that no-one else would join her there.

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Losing isn’t fun. But it can be easier than winning

As the contest between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak for the leadership of Britain’s Conservative party draws to a close, the last hustings meeting was held in London.

If you were looking for uplift, this was not the place to be.

Frontrunner Truss played it solid, safe and not terribly inspiring.  Sure there were clear signals towards better policy – a preference for tax cutting over directed expenditure, a desire to bring more market signals into energy policy, better post-Brexit regulatory policy, and so forth – but then Boris wavered when the heat was on.

So her supporters need a dose of hope or trust to see her as a PM for tough times.  Although as Lord Frost, one of Boris’s disappointed backers, says, hopefully:

“… as we have discovered, it’s hard to know who is really up to the job of prime minister until they actually do it”.

Slick Rishi – with his miniscule chance of taking the job – took the opportunity to steal the show.  Who else could make a dozen thank yous during opening applause sound humble – and then kick off with “I want to start by saying – thank you”.

He spoke with sincerity of public service and fiscal responsibility.  The changes he will bring to government will be competence, seriousness, decency and integrity (did you get that Boris?).  

There could be no doubt about his confidence in his evident talents: “I can steer us through”.

As one of Keith Holyoake’s political opponents was said to have said “Christ, I could almost vote for the old bastard”.

But it seems they won’t.  

When the policy of letting Conservative party members choose the leader was introduced, few would have imagined a situation where they would be choosing a fourth PM in less than six years. Fewer still would have foreseen the extent that it would bring party principles and policy into the process.

But it doesn’t seem to made it easier for the parliamentary party to unite.  Even before the Truss coronation, former heavy-hitter and Sunak promotor Michael Gove declined the opportunity to confirm he would support her first budget, while Boris showed his old form with a rousing demand to build, build and build nuclear power stations, while warning Truss not to expand UK natural gas production.

(As an aside to this, it was impressive to see Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey piously adding that “energy bills are a lot higher now than they ought to have been because of the Conservative’s failure” when he knowingly baked high prices into policy as climate change minister in an earlier coalition government).

But brutal personal differences in unhappy political conditions hardly make for unity.  Rishi made it sound possible by not addressing the most pressing issues.

Lord Frost put it better than most when he focused on the need to recognise policy trade-offs and then make the right (i.e., the hard and unpopular) choices, on Covid, energy security, health system capacity and housebuilding: 

“The best way to deal with these dilemmas is not to pretend they don’t exist or there is some magic way out, but set them out and explain why the government has chosen as it has. Be open with people. Explain we can’t have everything. If even the Conservative Party seems to suggest that magic solutions work, the risk is the electorate turns to the authentic purveyor of illusions, the Labour Party.”

That task brought down Boris.  Rishi would say trust my brilliance.  Perhaps Liz’s lack of magic will leave her no alternative.

Climate change has Boris wilting

Winter by-elections are rarely kind to governments.  But Boris Johnson’s Conservative party held on to a south London stronghold on a low turnout with a tolerably-reduced majority.

More worrying was that 1,400 voters got out of bed (one presumes) on a bitterly cold day to vote for the relatively anonymous candidate of a rebranded populist Reform party.  That’s about as many as the Greens and Liberals could manage between them.

After two years of setting the agenda, the talk now is of Boris losing his grip. But might it be the change in his agenda?

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Boris’s budget tests limits to destruction

Gosh, politics is a rum game.  Britain’s PM, Boris Johnson, took some big risks and triumphantly shattered Britain’s political status quo during the Brexit turmoil.  But last week’s budget statement set the country’s economic parameters in anything but a Thatcherite way.

The difficulty is less in the government’s post-Covid financial tidying up, and more in its approach to long-term problems.  And these look like they might become more urgent – and sooner.

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