As Sunak tries to relaunch the Conservatives for an election, the party needs to stop looking at fractured public services and delayed infrastructure projects as if they have no control over them, writes Will Cooling
From A-levels, to green policies and the much-rumoured disdain within No10 for HS2, Rishi Sunak has tried, in earnest, to reboot his stagnating premiership ahead of Conservative Party Conference next week.
All of this has provided much for politicos and Tory members to chew over as they assess the current crop of Cabinet leaders. But it was Liz Truss’s attempt at a reboot which taught us more about the current woes in Westminster politics. She cited the 1997 general election as the date the “anti-growth coalition” took over. It’s an odd date to choose; there was a fair degree of continuity between John Major and Tony Blair’s governments, arguably more than between those of Gordon Brown and David Cameron.
After all Cameron abandoned Brown’s spending plans, whereas New Labour kept to those set by their Tory predecessors. But watching Truss’s successor stagnate where she had flamed out, I realised that the true point of departure was even earlier
There is a tendency to see politics as a constant, with people in the past engaging in similar debates to those that occupy us today. But if you were to go back to the days of William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli you would quickly see that while they were often fighting fiercely on the public finances, they treated the broader economy as something outside the government’s control.
The rise of socialism meant that laissez-faire was no longer sustainable. If capitalism inevitably led to overproduction followed by mass unemployment, then capitalism would have to be managed to avoid both. This evolved into governments acting to ensure workers had the skills to thrive in the modern economy, and that families weren’t mired in poverty. Faced with the enormity of these responsibilities, governments became preoccupied with how to secure the prosperity necessary to give the British people the standard of living they had been promised.
Far from ending the post-war consensus, Margaret Thatcher’s first two terms in office won it. She accepted that her mission was securing economic growth by tackling inflation and increasing productivity, and just like her predecessors, she staked her reputation on achieving it through her chosen policies. The difference was that unlike her predecessors, she succeeded.
In fact this is where our current political consensus emerged.
Satisfied that she secured greater economic growth, Thatcher focused on bringing the revolution to public services during her third term in office. She placed her most energetic ministers in key public service roles, tasking them with providing greater ministerial direction to public sector professionals whose autonomy had once been sacrosanct, something that all subsequent Prime Ministers have built upon. Since 1987, British politics has been focused on how to extract maximum efficiency and performance from public services through endless rounds of reforms, while the economy is largely left to its own devices.
This approach has reached the end of its road. Every possible reform has been tried twice, and in any case, most of our public services are doing fine. They just need funding to go back to where it was in the early 2000s.
But that raises the question of if we can afford such largesse? Well, we must, unless we want to dismantle the public sector as we know it. Therefore, we have to secure the economic growth so that we are a prosperous enough country to afford the public services we want. That will require transformative reform in planning laws to build new houses, delivery of infrastructure projects in transport and energy, and investment in emergent technologies. It’s therefore alarming that Sunak has led the Tories backwards on all these areas in the past week, let alone the past year.
As a country we must demand that our politicians take the lead on rewiring our economy. Never again should major initiatives like HS2 be at risk of ripping a hole in our budgets due to endless delays, nor should projects like Sizewell C hit regulatory barrier after barrier. Every time, we hear politicians meekly treat such setbacks as if they were complaining about the weather, failing to admit their mistakes and acting as if they, despite being the ones in charge, had nothing to do with it in the first place.
Nor should we indulge delusional flights of fancy, such as the Prime Minister pondering overhauling educational qualifications as school buildings fall down or banning tobacco while the streets are awash with drugs that were criminalised long ago. The time for such tinkering has long since past. He should have better things to do with his time.