Truss and Kwarteng will learn the hard way that sometimes we need the nanny state
Published by The i paper (26th September, 2022)
It is three weeks since Liz Truss became Prime Minister – and for much of that time, politics was postponed by national mourning for a deceased monarch. Yet within minutes of her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng concluding his mini-budget on Friday, I heard a BBC presenter ask a panel: “How long do you think Tory MPs will give this government?”
It seemed astonishing to suggest there might be talk of another leadership revolt, even for a mutinous party that seems to have descended into a state of permanent insurrection. But the question reflected both the instability of our political system and the speed with which the Tories have switched direction again.
Suddenly the party stands for sweeping tax cuts, soaring debt and supporting high earners in a frantic search for growth under a libertarian leadership that seeks to unchain Britannia despite the lack of any electoral mandate for its radical policies. This is the fourth change of course for the Conservatives in six years.
Previously they sought to control debt through spending cuts while talking of creating a big society and saving the planet under David Cameron. Then came the communitarian approach of Theresa May, followed by a proclaimed focus on levelling up poorer parts of the country under the big-spending pragmatic populism of Boris Johnson.
Each time, the new leader is cheered on in public by their MPs while they moan and plot behind the closed doors of Westminster. No wonder there is such lack of faith in party politics. Yet as I argued in this column last week, Truss may emerge as most intriguing of this quartet of Tory prime ministers since she seems driven by ideology and fuelled by fierce ambition to reshape the country based on her current convictions. Even critics admit her direction of travel is admirably clear while there is something fascinating – or frightening – in the scorched earth approach unveiled last week.
Truss and Kwarteng have made a big gamble, betting they can break our nation’s low-growth cycle and earn respect from voters for their political conviction. Robert Colvile, director of the Centre for Policy Studies, calls it the “Millwall Strategy” – no one likes them, and they don’t care. They are even proposing to loosen visa rules to attract more workers, a welcome move that underlines Brexit’s corrosive impact on our economy and public services.
There is logic behind some of their aims: cutting red tape, reforming planning laws and simplifying the tax system. Hopefully they will dare slash the ridiculous aid budget. Yet the slumping pound on Friday showed the damning verdict of free marketeer ultras in the financial world to their stance – and it was accompanied by accusations of reckless behaviour from many economists.
Politics is not a game, as Sir Winston Churchill once said. Yet this pair are such devoted ideologues there are suggestions they may scrap a sugar tax on soft drinks and ditch obesity reforms that ban sweets being sold by shop checkouts. They are reviewing gambling reforms, which for all their flaws are a much-needed attempt to rectify the damage caused by Tony Blair’s foolish unshackling of a toxic industry just as it was turbo-charged by the internet with lethal – and often deadly – consequences. And there is no clarity yet on how their programme of tax cuts funded by debt marries up to the desperate need to salvage struggling public services, let alone their visions of a smaller state beyond vague talk of growth.
The reality is that the state, like the private sector, can be benevolent or damaging. Former chancellor George Osborne called the banking crisis “a spectacular failure of capitalism”, yet his successor’s first move is to unshackle bonuses – and this is, bizarrely, intended to show the supposed benefits of Brexit.
Sajid Javid, a former home secretary, once pointed out state intervention ensured retailers could not “refuse me service because of the colour of my skin, as some did to my dad” yet his latest successor’s first move is to reprimand police for spending time on diversity schemes. Alternatively, ever wonder why so many Hollywood blockbusters began being made in Britain, creating thousands of jobs? Big tax breaks backed by both main parties played a key role in wooing the industry to places such as Pinewood.
There are valid arguments that the state has become too over-bearing. Yet it is hard to believe many parents are pleading for sweets to stay by shop checkouts, let alone to envisage abandonment of the sugar tax as the key to unleashing Britain’s vitality. The only beneficiaries of halting gambling reforms would be a handful of billionaires exploiting misery of addiction, their firms mostly based in tax havens.
Even the politics of the mini-budget measures are bizarre since they hand powerful weapons to foes by dismissing concerns over inequality with such brazenness and focusing tax cuts on high earners amid a cost of living crisis, especially given risks of boosting inflation. These are gifts for the Labour party as it meets for its annual conference, met with understandable dismay among red wall Tory backbenchers.
The duo’s argument is that combined impact of such measures demonstrate that Britain is back in business. But the real reason is simple: the pair put in charge of our country by their party are passionate libertarians, a simplistic creed beloved of idealistic students and think tanks on the right. It tends to clash with age or reality – as I discovered in my own political journey that saw youthful hostility to the state dissolve after the birth of a child with profound disabilities, then melt further when investigating the horrors of private mental health provision inside the national health service.
Sometimes we need the nanny state, whether in our personal lives or the nation’s economy, – and we need taxes from rich and poor alike to pay for it.