24 November 2022
And the autumn statement.
By Robert KiIconner
Old Macdonald would have loved the autumn statement. Indeed it could have formed a new chorus for his song:
With a clip clip here
And a clip clip there
Here a clip, there a clip
Everywhere a clip-clip…
Because that is exactly how it works. A bit off everyone except the pensioners and those on benefits, the dosage made less painful by the fact that most of it was done by freezing thresholds and letting inflation do the dirty work, but a definite increase in real taxation all the same, that increase accompanied by a clipping of the public sector, and all of it against the background of a forthcoming slump. There is no evidence of visionary economic thinking here. Just the shoulder to the wheel and ploughing through the gloom, and from a political viewpoint too the package is a sea change: no cakeist theories, no bombast, just graft and determination.
Hunt and Sunak are well suited to the delivery of such a package. Although both have establishment backgrounds – each a onetime head boy at a major public school (Sunak at Winchester, Hunt at Charterhouse), each with a first in PPE from Oxford – neither of them comes across as arrogant or entitled. Neither is “flash”. And that will help them sell their measures to the public. Modest men doing their best to be fair. There is something very English about it and that may help draw some of the poison which has been injected into British politics by the attitude of previous administrations, rather important when so much of the public sector is threatening strike action.
It also makes it difficult for Labour. Not only are they deprived of ogres at whom they can pitch their custard pies but, having accepted the OBR forecasts, they would probably go for much the same medicine as the Government. Not entirely the same, of course. No doubt they would be tempted to chase trophy targets, a 50% top rate and the abolition of non-domiciled status perhaps. But here they need to be careful. Unless changes deliver economic benefits rather than just implementing political dogma, the public are unlikely to be attracted to them. No one is in the mood to take risks with growth at the moment and that will probably still be the case in 2024. Now is the time for serious politicians of both parties to produce programs of reform which are well thought through and properly costed and to do so with a decent analysis of the benefits so that the electorate can choose between them in due course.
If this sounds boring, that is because it is (I don’t suppose that listening to Gladstone’s four hour speeches was entirely jolly either) but as Sunak and Starmer compete for the central ground they will each have to watch their flanks. The right wing of the Tory party has just demonstrated its ability to put half-arsed political theory above common sense and I have no doubt that had Corbyn won the last election Labour’s left would have shown equal destructive ability. At the moment neither group would capture the public mood but public moods do not go on forever. As soon as the present storm is weathered, and let’s hope it will be, the populists of both parties will come out of their closets and peddle, peddle, peddle their snake oil to the voters. A government and opposition commitment to slow, centre ground, day-to day management politics would leave fertile ground for them and that is why it is essential that by the next election both parties have done their thinking and have well-constructed and attractive programs to lay before the public. Forward-thinking proposals produce a form of political Teflon. They stop ugly things from sticking to the body politic. Give the impression that the mainstream politicians lack vision and the populist sharks will begin to circle. We really don’t want to go back there again so let’s build up some political momentum but definitely without a capital letter at the front.