6 October 2022
Starmer by March?
By John Watson
“This is a listening government”. What arrant nonsense. It is a government which wholly misjudged the public reaction to its proposal to abolish the top rate of tax and then ran like a frightened rabbit when it saw the animosity it had caused. So here we are again with a PM out of touch with the public; not covid parties this time but something more important, the balance between the haves and the have nots, the contract at the heart of our society.
It isn’t good enough to say that lessons will be learnt. This sort of stuff is fundamental. Nor is it helpful to suggest that Mrs Thatcher would have done it. Sure, she got the economy going with successive reductions of taxes but that was because she rightly judged those measures as necessary in the then circumstances, an opening of business after years during which the marginal rate of income tax had stood at 83% on earned income and 98% on investment income. It does not follow that a tax reduction is a panacea for all economic ills any more than imodium, so effective against certain digestive difficulties, is a cure for a headache. Different problems call for different solutions and the art of politics is to identify what is needed to meet the challenges of the time. By this measure, the proposal to remove the 45% failed miserably because a policy which is unsustainable due to the public reaction to it is a bad policy; that is not because of some arcane argument concerning economic theory but because it is not practicable to carry it through.
Some of you will remember my opening sentences on 21 July. They ran like this:
“Jim, as fans of Hilaire Belloc will remember, was eaten by a lion so the circumstances are not quite identical. Nonetheless his father’s warning to “always keep a-hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse” must echo in the ears of MPs as they work to find a successor to Boris Johnson.”
Well, they seem to have gone and done it and we are now to be treated to the spectacle of yet another Tory leader struggling to reassert authority. Truss, Johnson, May, the line seems to go back to the crack of doom, but if things get worse (and they probably will) how is it to be dealt with this time? We really cannot have another of those ghastly leadership elections so a general election it has to be. How can it happen, though? A general election can only be called on the advice of the prime minister or following a vote of no confidence. The first is unlikely and the second bumps into some awkward parliamentary arithmetic. The government has a working majority of 71. That means that 36 Tory MPs would have to vote against the government to force an election; that is certainly a large number but not necessarily an impossible one if things get rough. What might one expect by way of mechanics?
First there would have to be a party split led by an authoritative figure, Michael Gove for example. Second, the new party would have to achieve a critical mass of 36 conservative members. That is difficult of course because an MP who follows a split would almost certainly lose his or her seat at the election which followed. Better hang on, perhaps, and hope for the government’s fortunes to revive. That certainly seems the obvious decision but what happens when there is no longer any hope of winning the next election and it becomes likely that others will rat anyway? Then the game changes and the question becomes whether it is better to go down in a blaze of principle and hope to come back later or to be seen clinging on to the rigging of the sinking ship as resentment to the government grows. It only takes 36, remember.
We are not there yet, of course, nor nearly there for that matter, but those who watched the decline and collapse of the Johnson ministry will remember how once things – relatively minor things – began to go wrong the avalanche began to slide away and became unstoppable. I hope for the country’s sake that a similar fate does not overtake Ms Truss but I have to say that I have a very bad feeling about it. We all have friends, long standing conservatives who are beginning to think that Starmer would be a better prime minister than anyone the Tories can put up and that feeling is showing in the polls. Governments can be panicked by polling data and this one does not seem to be particularly firm of purpose. Panic leads to mistakes which lead to more mistakes. It is far too late to go down to the bookies to bet on a Labour win next time round, but a Labour PM by March? You might get better odds on that.