The comedian, Tommy Cooper, used to do a sketch where he played two characters at the same time. He did this by either wearing two different hats, or by wearing a suit divided into two different styles. The performance would soon dissolve into a farce, when Tommy apparently forgot which character he was meant to play. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tries to achieve the same effect by wearing two faces.
The Prime Minister’s performance in Manchester, at the Tory party conference, was in a similar vein, though not as funny, but farcical for all that. Tommy Cooper was in fact a skilled magician, and a member of the magic circle. Rishi Sunak is not as skilled in prestidigitation, and he has no magic circle able to perform miracles. His routine sounded half baked and badly planned.
Not Liz Truss
Twelve months ago, Rishi Sunak, took over, as the fifth prime minister in 12 years of Conservative party control of Parliament. His chief selling points as prime ministerial candidate, consisted of not being Liz Truss, and that he represented the mainstream of Conservative policy making. The problem with that proposition is while he stood under a stability ticket, there is no Conservative mainstream anymore, only factions that insist on constant appeasement, and this is a destabilising situation with no obvious solution.
In Manchester, expectations were overturned. Not only was Liz Truss feted by a faction of the Conservative party, as if nothing had happened during the calamitous mini budget of 2022, but also Rishi Sunak, was no longer Mr Stability, as he was now Mr Change!
His changes were as follows:
- HS2 was truncated and will no longer run from London to Manchester. It will now terminate in Birmingham, and instead the North will benefit from the network-north plan, which the PM says will be a lot better for levelling up the North.
- A-levels will be subject to reforms and may include a new Baccalaureate qualification.
- Ending-cigarette-sales to 14-year-olds and therefore the sale of cigarettes will cease entirely by default in the future.
The BBC reported that the PM stated that when the facts had changed he changed his opinion, which was a paraphrase of something the economist John Maynard Keynes is alleged to have said, though there is some doubt about this. I heard the PM and several of his ministers parroting that very phrase several times.
The difficulty of escaping old ideas
What Keynes did say however was “the difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas, as escaping from old ones.”
The cancelling of HS2, and reform of post-16 examinations was part of a policy that suggested that the past 30 years of government policy had failed.
According to this narrative, promises were made and not kept by previous administrations dating back to 1993. Why 30 years? What is so significant about that period? The answer is nothing. By quoting the period of 30 years, Sunak conveniently throws the reputations of his recent predecessors under a bus, but leaves that of Margaret Thatcher untouched. Thatcher of course is the secular saint of the conservative party, and to sully her reputation in some way would be to ignite additional disquiet within the Conservative party.
Social historians are fond of describing epochs by such terms as Victorian, Edwardian, Interwar and Post war etc. The first three periods were characterised by economics based on free trade, low taxation, minimal spending on what we now call the welfare state, and reliance on the invisible hand of commerce to balance the economy. The second world war put an end to this adherence to Adam Smith and his invisible hand of commerce. From now on, Keynesian demand management and planning was the way forward because of Britain’s economic performance in the war, and the lack of an effective economic remedy during the Great Depression. This planned market economic system lasted until 1979, when Keynesian economics was replaced by a new reliance on competition, lower taxation and lower government expenditure, under Mrs Thatcher. This could be funded by the largesse of North Sea Oil revenue, which came on stream during that time.
Unfortunately, the oil after three decades is now running out, and various economic shocks such as the 2008 banking crisis and the covid pandemic have occurred. So Britain has again to adopt Keynesian deficit budgeting to avoid extreme economic disruption.
Why is Sunak proposing changing policies?
Sunak is advocating change which means scaling down mission zero, the war on motorists, truncating HS2, reforming A levels and banning the sale of cigarettes to some social groups. This mixture appears to consist of responding to grievance politics and the need to manage factions within the conservative party.
The Institute of Fiscal studies (IFS) has commented on these big changes by saying “Too many announcements, not enough evident strategy.”
The Conservative party has a number of libertarians, so will the smoking ban be seen by them as being nanny-statism and the opportunity for smuggling and the equivalent of county lines, with cigarettes as their basis? The reform of A-levels is on more solid ground, but will it excite the voters? Is not being green a vote-winner, with Tory voters?
It appears that the Ruislip and Uxbridge by-election result might have given the wrong message to the PM, as Labour overturned large Conservative majorities at Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth. The BBC’s pet psephologist, Professor John Curtice, suggested that it was “one of worst nights any government has endured.” There are still 12 to 14 months before a general election must be called, and things might change; but if things have gone from bad to worse in the last 12 months for the Conservatives, are these the magic policies that will retrieve a downward spiral of electoral performance?
Rishi Sunak is not as skilled as Tommy Cooper in performing with two faces. The electorate may not like the new face.