Wednesday, 3 August 2022

Contagion of the political system


 

Citizens of the UK have in recent weeks watched in amazement as the current candidates for leadership of the Conservative party debate their policies. Whoever wins will replace Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, with the decision made by a few thousand members of the Conservative Party. All options were bad, and we are now down to the last two: Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.

 

For those of us who are not Conservatives, and for many who are, there was immense joy at the ousting of Boris Johnson. The man seemed like a limpet, impossible to dislodge. Every week brought a new scandal that would have been more than sufficient to lead to resignation 10 years ago, yet he hung on and on. Many people thought that, after a vote of no confidence in his leadership, he would step down so that a caretaker PM could run the country while the debate over his successor took place, but the limpet is still clinging on. He’s not doing much running of the country, but that’s normal, and perhaps for the best. He’s much better at running parties than leading the Conservative party.

 

I have to say I had not expected much from Truss and Sunak, but even my low expectations have not been met. The country is facing immense challenges, from climate change, from coronavirus, and from escalating energy prices. These are barely mentioned: instead the focus is on reducing taxes, with the candidates now competing for just how much tax they can cut. As far as I can see, these policies will do nothing to help the poorest in society, whose benefits will shrink to pay for tax cuts; the richer you are the more tax you pay and so this is a rich person’s policy.

 

What has surprised me is just how ill-informed the two candidates are. The strategy seems to be to pick a niche topic of interest to Conservative voters, make up a new policy overnight and announce it the next day. So we have Rishi Sunak proposing that the solution to the crisis in the NHS is to charge people who miss doctor’s appointments. Has he thought this through? Think of the paperwork. Think of the debt collectors tasked with collecting £10 from a person with dementia. Think of the cost of all of this.  And on Education, his idea is to reintroduce selective (grammar) schools: presumably because he thinks that our regular schools are inadequate to educate intelligent children.

 

On Education, Liz Truss is even worse. Her idea is that all children who score top marks in their final year school examinations should get an interview to go to Oxford or Cambridge University. This is such a crazy idea that others have written at length to point out its flaws (e.g. this cogent analysis by Sam Freedman). Suffice it to say that it has a similar vibe to the Sunak grammar schools plan: it implies that only two British universities have any value. Conservatives do seem obsessed with creating divisions between haves and have-nots, but only if they can ensure their children are among the haves.

 

Another confused statement from Truss is that, as far as Scotland goes, she plans to ignore Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party. At a time when relationships between Scotland and England are particularly fraught, this insensitive statement is reminiscent of the gaffes of Boris Johnson.

 

Oh, and yesterday she also announced – and then quickly U-turned – an idea that would limit the pay of public sector workers in the North of England, because it was cheaper to live there.

 

What I find so odd about both Sunak and Truss is that they keep scoring own goals. Nobody requires them to keep coming up with new policies in niche areas.  Why don’t they just hold on to their original positions, and if asked about anything else, just agree to ‘look at’ it when in power? Johnson was always very good at promising to ‘look at’ things: when he’s not being a limpet, he’s a basilisk. The more you probe Sunak and Truss, the more their shallowness and lack of expertise show through. They’d do well to keep schtum. Or, better still, show some indication that they could, for instance, get a grip on the crisis in the NHS.

 

What all this demonstrates is how an incompetent and self-promoting leader causes damage far beyond their own term. Johnson’s cabinet was selected purely on one criterion: loyalty to him. The first requirement was to “believe in Brexit” – reminiscent of the historical wars between Protestants and Catholics, where the first thing you ask of a candidate is what their religion is. Among Conservative politicians, it seems that an accusation of not really being a Brexiteer is the worst thing you can say about a candidate. Indeed, that is exactly the charge that her opponents level against Truss, who made cogent arguments for remaining in the EU before the referendum. Like a Protestant required to recant their beliefs or face the flames, she is now reduced to defending Brexit in the strongest possible terms, saying that “predictions of doom have not come true”, as farmers, fishermen, and exporters go out of business, academics leave in droves, and holidaymakers sit in queues at Dover.

 

It's known that Johnson does not want to give up the top job. I’m starting to wonder if behind all of this is a cunning plan. The people he’s appointed to cabinet are so incompetent that maybe he hopes that, when confronted with a choice between them, the Conservative Party will decide that he looks better than either of them.

 

 

 

 

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