It is not easy for a party to run the country for twelve years, so have some pity on the Conservative Party. Perhaps it was in response to the absolute dearth of ideas ranging from “getting a better paid job” to shopping “own-brand products” that Rishi Sunak finally capitulated and delivered a mini-budget last week in response to the cost of living crisis. Every household will now get £400 off their energy bills.
Instead of a windfall tax, there will be a “temporary targeted energy profits levy”, which sounds almost identical to what Labour had been proposing for months. To give it a name longer than some sentences, was an act of genius from the communications department in the Treasury.
I’m no defender of this administration, but the truth is that in a pinch, making policy is difficult. The current strategy of no, no, no and then yes, however, belies a deeper problem.
Safely in opposition, for months Labour had pushed for a windfall tax on the oil majors. However, the government was hesitant on that policy up until this point as they feared it would endanger inward investment. Perhaps more frankly, it didn’t want to concede that some good ideas might originate on the other side of the aisle. The truth is, that as George Eustice encourages us to scour the supermarket aisles for bargains, the government itself ought to reconsider its own brand loyalty.
The Chancellor, in particular, often seems intent on traditional Tory solutions – prioritising deficit reduction and tax cuts over extra public spending. Sunak remains determined to position himself as a defender of the free market.
But last week’s introduction of the windfall tax in all but name highlighted the need to exercise a degree of ideological flexibility in this current crisis. While levies on excess profits aren’t exactly from the Thatcher playbook, the Iron Lady herself was able to pinch good ideas when she saw them. Right to Buy, a totemic Tory policy, in fact originated in Labour’s (losing) 1959 General Election manifesto.
In the marketplace of ideas, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor need to look around a bit more; not just to the Opposition but also to the rest of Whitehall. While Ukraine, Partygate and devastating local election results have been occupying the centre of government, other departments have been busy developing policy and churning out consultations.
There have been suggestions from some that the government’s reluctance to deviate from the 1980s script is due to an influential aide in Number 10. The PM’s deputy chief of staff, David Canzini, is said to have been instrumental in trimming this month’s Queen’s Speech much to the annoyance of many ministers. According to reports, his interventions saw the government dumping audit reform and much of the long-awaited anti-obesity strategy.
Both audit reform and the anti-obesity strategy weren’t merely dreamt up by civil servants but had widespread backing from the businesses directly impacted by the policy changes. While the PM’s aversion to listening to business is well known, the idea that long-standing strands of policy work can be dumped because they’re not seen as politically expedient is deeply worrying.
Across the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis, the government has shown signs it is willing to be flexible on its traditional Conservative principles on spending when the going gets really tough.
But moving forward they need to be on the front foot when it comes to spending – especially with the energy price cap set to rise once again ahead of the winter. In times of crisis ideology alone is not enough; what we need are solutions.