The capacity of Conservative ministers to advocate and implement decisions that damage the UK forms a pattern that can be traced back to their original support for Brexit. A stream of self-destructive outcomes has followed ever since. The Kwarteng-Truss budget sunk the pound, almost crashed the economy and will have lasting negative effects. The most ideologically driven and destructive ministers have now taken over the Brexit asylum.
‘At last! A true Tory budget’ was the Daily Mail’s exultant front-page headline on Saturday 24 September. Less than 24 hours earlier Kwasi Kwarteng the chancellor of the exchequer, not yet three weeks into his new role, had presented his mini-budget or fiscal event – take your pick. Both terms belied the fact that it represented one of the biggest gambles with the economy ever taken by a British chancellor. It elevated Tory right-wing economic ideology, based on how it likes to believe economies work, despite repeated countervailing evidence. In one stroke, that ideology caused some of the most heinous self-inflicted damage ever seen to the economy. It’s the latest in a long list of adverse consequences traceable to Brexit.
Why evade scrutiny?
By not calling it a budget, Kwarteng evaded the usual scrutiny of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) that would otherwise have prepared a thorough analysis of his intentions as it does for routinely scheduled budgets. Kwarteng bypassed the OBR, with Truss’s agreement, because neither wished to be informed or constrained by the economic orthodoxy that Truss now complains about. Truss and Kwarteng had plenty of time as serving government ministers to confront their revulsion at economic orthodoxy, say, by resigning.
On 29 September 2022 the OBR wrote in response to Ian Blackford, the SNP leader in the House of Commons, saying it offered to advise Kwarteng on the measures that he was about to put forward on 23 September, well in time for that advice to be regarded as thoroughly researched and well supported, but they (the OBR) were ‘not commissioned’. Fast forward a week and Truss and Kwarteng are holding an emergency meeting with the OBR.
The recklessness of the plan and poverty of the thinking behind it is reinforced by Kwarteng saying he will reveal his fiscal plan on 22 November, eight weeks after the carnage he wrought on 23 September. Could he possibly need time to work out what the cunning fiscal plan is? If already supported by a credible analysis he would surely have shared it by last Monday afternoon by when the fallout of his budget was clear.
Ignorance allied to arrogance and incompetence
Truss’s recent election as PM had the backing from Conservative Party members, but not from Tory MPs nor from the UK electorate. She has nevertheless taken her election as a licence to gain credit for unpopular decisions. The Daily Mail’s triumphalist headline of 24 September was short-lived. Interestingly, it cannot now be found on the Mail’s online collection of front pages headlines for the day. It is available in the daily round of front-page coverage elsewhere.
Within 24 hours, financial institutions in the UK and globally, many Conservative MPs, swathes of the electorate and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) had responded to a “real Tory budget” with a very clear message that it qualified, yes, as a monumentally unpopular decision but, disappointingly for Truss, a disastrous one too.
Unpopularity alone is an intellectually barren and dangerously low bar to clear. The ideology doesn’t allow for Truss to extend her criteria for taking unpopular decisions to include well-researched, considered, scrutinised by experts or objectively evaluated. Instead we have ignorance allied to arrogance – and incompetence joined by inexperience. These are deadly combinations.
The government’s behaviour is familiar; claim mandates for actions that exceed anything subjected to the public endorsement, make unsupported claims about political answers they offer, deny the effects or deflect blame to other causes when theory meets reality. The evasion of scrutiny from Boris Johnson’s time is endemic.
What does Truss aim to ‘deliver’ and at what cost?
The carnage in Brexit’s wake is indisputable. Economic growth is stunted. Whole industries have been crippled: fishing, farming, hospitality. Many musicians and other performing artists are unable to tour in the EU due to post-Brexit cost burdens. Exports to the EU have declined. Businesses have stopped trading altogether with the EU.
The freedom water companies have to discharge raw sewage into our rivers and coastal waters exempt from EU water quality standards is Brexiting on ourselves writ large. The renewed granting of licenses for fracking won’t serve the economy short or long term and will trash the environment. The pursuit of carbon-based wealth creation threatens the social, physical and natural infrastructures on which our wellbeing depends. Meanwhile the levelling up agenda is conspicuously abandoned.
Truss’s claims she ‘delivers’. She also says repeatedly she will do what she ‘believes’ is right. Her need to deliver and her ideological conviction deny room for debate or reflection. As foreign minister she signed a trade deal with Australia that was so contrary to the interests of British farming she might as well have asked the Australian Government to draw it up and then signed the first draft. If casual financial harm is what Truss is going to ‘deliver’ to our households we need to tick the box that says ‘If no answer when you deliver please take to local incineration centre for further processing’.
The clock’s already ticking …
If government policy cripples our financial ability to support the NHS, social care, the education system, the welfare state, it drives the ideologues to a ‘justifiable’ fire sale of state assets and further shrinking of the state. Whether by incompetence or ideological intent, our futures and our way of life are threatened more by this government than any supposedly dangerous influences like the EU, foreigners, left-wing lawyers, interfering judges, idlers, or wokeness.
The honeymoon period is over. The electorate needs an immediate general election to assert its right to endorse the future policy of whichever government it elects.