It’s Time For Conservative Party Donors, Members And Activists To Go On Strike

Conservative Party email bulletin - Brandon Lewis Chairman - Weve Changed

The Conservative Party: “Trust us, we’ve changed! It will be different this time, we swear. We love you, please don’t leave us.”

Apparently my incessant complaining for the past five years has finally paid off, because the Conservative Party has changed.

How do I know that the Conservative Party has changed? Because they tell me so. The following email pinged into the inboxes of everybody on the Tories’ distribution list this afternoon. Authored by new party chairman Brandon Lewis MP, the subject heading has all the grovelling obsequiousness of a husband who forgot to buy his wife flowers on Valentine’s Day while the main body offers no evidence of said change and rounds off with a petulant demand for cash.

Lewis writes:

With your support, we’re shaping the future of Britain. But Labour and Momentum want to stop our progress.

That’s why we’re hiring new campaign managers. So if you want to help us fight Labour on the ground, sign up to donate monthly to our Campaign Manager Fund.

These new Campaign Managers will help us win elections – so we can continue our progress.

With the lowest level of unemployment since 1971, with more people buying homes of their own, and with less government borrowing – we’re building a Britain fit for the future.

We’re making sure our children have a brighter future – and won’t have to pay off our debts.

Help us continue our progress. Sign up to donate monthly and support our Campaign Managers today.

The remarkable thing about this email is that every single sentence is either false or egregiously offensive to conservatives, and often both at the same time.

The lies begin at the top, with the risible notion that the current government is “shaping the future of Britain”. No, it most definitely is not. Theresa May’s government has not proactively shaped Britain or dictated the course of Britain’s fortunes or political discourse since the decision to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and set in motion our departure from the European Union. And even that was a colossal mistake, given the fact that the government had given precisely zero thought to what kind of future relationship it wanted with the EU, or what kind of relationship was politically, economically or logistically feasible. In other words, the one time that this government has come anything close to “shaping the future of Britain”, it punched itself (and the rest of us) in the face.

We then learn that the Tories want to hire a bunch of new campaign managers, presumably in the hope of staunching some of the inevitable massive bleeding in the upcoming local elections. But what message will these campaign managers be tasked with propagating? What vision for the future of Britain are they to devise a strategy to articulate? We still don’t know, and haven’t known since the moment Theresa May crossed the threshold of 10 Downing Street as prime minister.

In last year’s self-inflicted calamity of a general election, the whole pitch was “strong and stable”. Any idiot could have told CCHQ and Theresa May’s inner circle that “strong and stable” is a state of being, not a destination, and that people want clarity, purpose and vision in uncertain political and economic times. And this particular idiot did tell the Tories as much, repeatedly:

May’s risible pitch in the 2017 general election was strength and stability, but these are states of being, not a direction of travel. People jetting off in an aeroplane together would generally prefer less turbulence to a more bumpy flight, but more than anything they care about arriving at the correct destination. Jeremy Corbyn made his flight plan crystal clear to the British electorate. Theresa May didn’t even bother to produce one, preferring to pander to the Politics of Me Me Me.

But the political geniuses in CCHQ and Downing Street chose not to listen, and built their entire campaign around the visionary, inspirational leadership of the most wooden, uninspiring and unpersonable senior British politician in recent history. “Who needs ideas when we have Theresa May’s Kennedy-like charisma?”, CCHQ muttered to themselves as they drove the party into oblivion.

One might have hoped for some introspection since that calamity, a rethinking of the uninspiring, technocratic approach which the Tories have long embraced, but of course we saw no such thing. Despite mounting panic among the backbenches and a few gallant attempts at ideological defibrillation from forward-thinking MPs like George Freeman and Nick Boles, the Cabinet and party leadership are too busy undermining one another, messing up Brexit and positioning themselves to succeed Theresa May to actually stop and think about what Britain should look like in 2020, 2025 or 2030, let alone devise a vision for government to get us there. And they have the gall to ask for donations to fund campaign managers to help “win elections” and continue nonexistent progress (the third lie).

The fourth line brings us the Tories’ zippy new slogan, “Building a Britain Fit for the Future”. I initially had some hope that this new slogan might presage some new ideas from the Conservative Party, given its correct suggestion that the Britain of today is not fit for the future. But those hopes were quickly dashed. After having been given three months to take that statement of intent and flesh it out into something more than a slogan, Theresa May utterly failed to do so, instead producing seven bland and entirely forgettable pseudo-aspirations which could just as easily be the credo of the Labour Party or Liberal Democrats.

In reality, of course, the Tories are not building any kind of Britain at all. Thanks to the total lack of leadership from Downing Street and the dearth of policy vision from CCHQ, Britain is not shaping events but rather being shaped by events, in much the same way that large glaciers scour the land, creating valleys and ravines as they flow down a gradient.

Our Foreign Office is vastly underfunded and led by an imbecile who rightly commands zero respect on the world stage. The Ministry of Defence seems to be led by somebody vaguely competent and willing to stand up for the Armed Forces, but the Tories continue to allow our defence capabilities to wither rather than giving them the aggressive investment that they need. And last but not least, the Tories are an incoherent mess when it comes to Brexit, with the prime minister lacking the political authority to impose any kind of decision on her squabbling ministers, meaning that we drift toward whatever Brexit agreement the EU ends up imposing on us rather than having proactively staked out our own position.

And to close off the whole insulting exercise we get the standard Tory boilerplate about giving our children a brighter future by paying off the nation’s debts. In reality, of course, the Tories – much like Donald Trump and Paul Ryan’s debased Republican Party in the United States – wouldn’t know fiscal responsibility if it hit them over the head. Still happy to whine about the economy and deficit they inherited from Labour in 2010, the Conservatives remain curiously silent about how exactly we will pay off the national debt when all deficit reduction targets have been abandoned and the debt continues to grow by the day. They continue to lie and falsely conflate deficit reduction with national debt reduction, and only get away with it because Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is congenitally incapable of seizing the political initiative while half of our overpaid political media stars are themselves also too dim to understand or articulate the difference between the debt and the deficit.

In short, every single line of Brandon Lewis’s fundraising email is an insult to thinking conservatives, or anybody who simply wants the government of the day to have some kind of vague purpose beyond trying to cling on to power as it slips away.

So how might a more honest version of the Conservative Party’s fundraising email read? Perhaps it would go something like this:

We haven’t changed. And much like a drug addict who insists to family and friends that they have quit the habit and turned their lives around, if you give us any more money we will simply fritter it away on the same destructive pursuits which have occupied us for the better part of a decade.

But give us a bit of cash anyway. We’ll pretend to you that we are going to use it to buy healthy food and get a new suit for job interviews, and that just £50 will really help us get back on our feet. But you know as well as us that we’re straight off to the crack house down the road as soon as you indulge us, where we will use your charity to inch ourselves ever-closer to death.

The time has come for Conservative Party members (those handful of brave souls who are left) and donors to take a stand. They should go on strike, and refuse to deliver one more leaflet or part with another penny in donations so long as the cash is flowing to the same failed, mediocre individuals who brought us Theresa May and then outdid themselves by squandering her majority in a spectacularly ill-advised general election.

Ideally this strike should take place immediately – after all, the Tories are going to bomb at the local elections and there’s no point throwing away good money after bad. But in reality, it will probably take the dismal result that we all know this government is capable of delivering for Theresa May’s enablers to wake up and realise that they are funding a clown show.

These are serious times for Britain. We face a period of discontinuity, in which we are confronted by new and unprecedented challenges while the same old policy prescriptions used in the past increasingly fail to either work or command popular support. Issues from globalisation and automation to Brexit and the future of the nation state to the housing and migration crisis require a bold vision for government and a set of coherent, mutually-supporting policies designed to resolve or at least ameliorate these issues without making anything else worse.

Theresa May can’t deliver that, and neither can anybody else in senior positions in her Cabinet. And deep down, everyone knows it. You know it, I know it, Conservative Party members who aren’t trying to suck up to the powers that be know it and Tory donors (who didn’t acquire all their money by being stupid) must also now know it.

In order that the Conservative Party might live again, somebody first needs to pull the plug on the life-support machine keeping Theresa May’s necrocracy technically alive (though certainly brain-dead). And since nobody within the Cabinet will wield the knife, it falls to the people who hold the purse strings and deliver the leaflets to act when nobody else will do so.

Any conservative, anyone with any lingering sentiment for the Conservative Party and what it once represented and accomplished, now needs to join a general strike against CCHQ and withhold their money and their campaigning efforts until they force a change. The party has been overrun by mediocrities for far too long, and the time has come to starve them out.

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Building A Britain Fit For The Future: Theresa May’s Dismal New Agenda

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Building a Britain fit for the future requires a detailed vision of the desired end state as well as a plausible policy roadmap to reach the promised land. But three months after coining their new slogan, all the Tories have are seven bland and unremarkable aspirations.

Last year, we learned that the Tories had come up with a shiny new slogan – “Building a Britain Fit for the Future”.

Despite my deep cynicism that anything useful could ever emerge from Theresa May’s intellectually moribund leadership team, I said at the time that the slogan had potential because it at least acknowledged that the current state of Britain is in fact unfit for the future – that we have entered a period of discontinuity where old policy solutions neither work nor command popular support, and that new, hitherto unimagined solutions would be required to overcome the challenges now facing our country.

Unfortunately, three months later and it appears that the slogan was no more than window dressing. Having done nothing to flesh out the statement until another rash of negative headlines and outbursts from concerned ministers and MPs last week forced her hand, Theresa May finally revealed the next layer beneath the slogan – a set of seven principles and objectives for government so bland, vague and forgettable that they may as well have been generated by a computer, printed out and put straight in the waste paper bin.

The Times reports:

An internal statement laying out Theresa May’s political strategy has been attacked by ministers as “pathetic” and “anaemic”.

The seven-point summary, called Building a Britain Fit for the Future, was prepared by senior Downing Street aides for ministers and backbenchers to head off accusations of political drift and timidity. For some, however, it has simply deepened concerns that the prime minister lacks a coherent plan to take on Labour.

The document summarises the government’s mission as ensuring the best Brexit deal, balanced government spending, more jobs, more homes and improving educational standards. The two final points are entitled “backing the innovators” and “tackling the injustices”. The environment is not included in the main bullet points but is said to “underpin” all of them.

[..] One of those shown the document — in a presentation by Gavin Barwell, Mrs May’s chief of staff, and Robbie Gibb, the director of communications — was dismissive. “This is just a list of anaemic bromides. It doesn’t amount to a political strategy or a call to arms. If this is supposed to inspire us I despair. It’s pathetic.” Another said: “It’s hardly going to get you all fired up.”

This government does not understand the meaning of ambition, beyond the leadership’s narrow, selfish desire to cling to power and prevent anyone else from having a go. But worse than being cynically without purpose, the government is also incompetent and lacking a functional political radar.

Even a government of chancers and fakers, having been warned numerous times that their lack of a bold and clearly defined positive vision for Britain was alienating voters, would have concocted a plausible fake programme for government by this point, if for no other reason than to keep the newspaper editors of its back. But Theresa May’s rudderless government can’t even fake having an agenda, beyond producing a list of seven wishy-washy bullet points probably cooked up at 3AM by an overworked SpAd:

  1. Getting the best Brexit deal, guaranteeing the greatest possible access to European markets, boosting free trade across the world and delivering control over our borders, laws and money.
  2. Taking a balanced approach to spending, getting debt falling but investing in key public services, like the NHS, and keeping taxes low.
  3. Helping businesses to create better, higher-paying jobs with a modern industrial strategy that invests in the skills, industries and infrastructure of the future.
  4. Building the homes our country needs, so everyone can afford a place to call their own, restoring the dream of home ownership and helping people on to housing ladder.
  5. Improving standards in our schools and colleges, so our young people have the skills they need to get on in life.
  6. Backing the innovators who deliver growth, jobs, lower prices and greater choice for consumers — while stepping in when businesses don’t play by the rules.
  7. Tackling the injustices that hold people back from achieving their true potential.

This would be a worryingly vague list of aspirations if it were presented by the official Opposition, but coming from a government and party which has been in power for the better part of a decade it is unforgivable.

This isn’t the product of a government with a burning vision for Britain – it is the work of a terrified office junior trying to convince an overbearing boss that he is keeping a handle on his workload when in reality it is spinning out of control. Looking at these scattergun solutions to mentally compartmentalised crises, there is no sense that any thought has been put into how the various issues – housing, infrastructure, jobs, education etc. – are interlinked with one another, particularly the crucial link between jobs and education. There is no sense that formulating government policy for the sole purpose of avoiding negative headlines might not be an optimal strategy.

Worse, a number of vital issues are left off this list altogether. At a time when Britain’s armed forces chiefs are making unprecedented public interventions warning that our national defence – already cut to the bone – cannot take another round of cuts or spending freezes, the issue doesn’t even make Theresa May’s Top Seven. And again, this isn’t about having a certain type of armed forces for the sake of it – it is about deciding what we stand for as a country and what kind of footprint we want to have on the world stage, and then working forward to the kind of defence capabilities we need to meet current and anticipated future threats.

And then there are those items such as housing, where the government outlines a bold intent only to underwhelm with the policies which follow the grandiose pledges. The £2bn for social housing pledged by Theresa May during her car crash of a party conference speech last year equates to just 5000 extra homes per year, a puny figure, almost worse than doing nothing at all. And even positive signs such as Housing Secretary Sajid Javid’s plan to encourage homeowners and developments to build upward rather than outward – absolutely the right thing to do – includes a massive sop to the Tory base of existing homeowners by leaving sufficient loopholes for councils and NIMBY protesters to thwart any such developments or at least tie them up in endless appeals.

But worst of all, there is no sense from looking at this wretched list of bullet points that these policies are remotely conservative, or flow from an authentically conservative vision for Britain’s future. There is nothing in this list which would not sound remotely abnormal coming from the mouth of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband or David Cameron. Even Jeremy Corbyn would feel comfortable reeling some of them off. And this is the real sign of Tory complacency – at a time when public dissatisfaction with and loss of faith in the frayed centrist consensus has never been greater, Theresa May and her acolytes are still stuck in a dated rhetorical world where bland platitudes about improving public services are all that is needed to win the hearts and minds of voters.

In her incompetence and desperation, Theresa May is trying to work backwards – coming up with a basket of reactive and ill-considered policies designed to placate various stakeholder groups who are causing her government political problems, and then working backwards from these disparate ideas to try to divine an overarching mission for her government. No successful, transformative government in history has succeeded by adopting that approach, and none ever will.

Both for reasons of policy effectiveness and political messaging, you need to start with the big picture. We all know what Labour’s big picture is under Jeremy Corbyn – “For The Many, Not The Few“. It is an explicit call for radical redistribution of wealth and for the full bearing of the state to be deployed in order to encourage equality of outcome. And from this mission statement flow a hundred policies, all in service of that aim, from plans to raise tax to the renationalisation of industry. These policies are alternately naive, coercive, authoritarian and just plain futile, but there are few politically engaged people in the country who could not briefly summarise what Jeremy Corbyn stands for and how he wants to achieve his vision.

Meanwhile, Theresa May offers nothing and remains the most boring enigma in British politics. She was elevated to the Tory leadership despite lacking any discernible vision for Britain besides her trademark authoritarianism, and twenty dismal months later not only are the public none the wiser, her own MPs and ministers lack any sense of real purpose or direction too. Any other Opposition would have wiped the floor with the Tories at this point and dispatched them for a richly deserved spell on the other benches, and right now the only question remaining is whether the Tories are so dismal precisely because they lack a stronger challenge.

This blog has already proposed an alternative approach – the writing and publication of a new Stepping Stones report based on the seminal 1977 report authored by John Hosykns and Norman Strauss during the last period of discontinuity to face this country. Stepping Stones summarised the various problems facing Britain together with their root causes and the ways in which they were interlinked, and then proposed a suite of cohesive, mutually-reinforcing policies to tackle those issues. It was more than a pathetic soundbite backed by a list of seven woolly aspirations – it was was the blueprint taken up and used by the 1979 Thatcher government to rescue Britain from seemingly irreversible national decline. And crucially, it relied on input from people outside the world of politics, people not beholden to existing institutions, centres of power or ways of thinking.

Who within the wider conservative movement will step up and provide the vision and leadership which this government so conspicuously lacks? Who will put this failed prime minister out of her misery, not simply to have her replaced with one of the various grey substitutes in the Cabinet but with someone whose charisma and leadership ability is remotely equal to the task at hand?

It took Theresa May three months to take a vague statement of purpose and flesh it out into a dismally unexciting list of seven banal, obvious and unambitious national aspirations, none of which her government appears remotely capable of delivering. Three whole months.

“Pathetic” is too kind a word.

 

UPDATE – 6 February 2018

If anybody who reads this article feels called to action and could contribute in any way to a potential Stepping Stones 2022 project, please do get in touch with me, either using the “contact” menu link at the top of the page, or directly at semipartisansam@gmail.com

Thanks.

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Sam Gyimah’s Great Conservative Roadshow

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It’s great that Universities Minister Sam Gyimah is embarking on a tour of university campuses to spread and defend the Conservative message in traditionally hostile territory. Now we just need the government to come up with a conservative platform that’s actually worth defending

Sam Gyimah appears to be on manoeuvres. Writing in the Times today, the Minister for Higher Education announces his intention to take part in a tour of higher education facilities and campuses, engaging in a dialogue with students, academics and administrators.

Gyimah writes:

In my new role as universities and science minister, I will continue to visit institutions across the country to meet with vice-chancellors, lecturers and researchers, but also, crucially, to speak directly to students. They are a key stakeholder in the success of our higher education sector – for universities to thrive, their students must flourish.

So many young people feel disengaged from politics and, although some students and I might not always agree, I want them to have a voice and be heard in the corridors of power. I’d like to be thought of as minister for students as much as minister for universities.

Politics should be a dialogue, not a monologue, so I’m looking forward to discussing tuition fees, safe-spaces, access to higher education and our potential post-Brexit, among many other topics, in a robust and honest fashion.

Displaying more gumption than most of Theresa May’s uninspiring Cabinet put together, Gyimah continues:

We must also get out there, outside Westminster, into what used to be ‘no-go’ areas and defend our record whilst showing how we want to do better. We must continue to call out Jeremy Corbyn and prevent him monopolising the student space.

I don’t have all the answers, but I am going into this tour in good faith, ready to discuss the challenges and opportunities in our higher education system. Together, with all those who work tirelessly in it, we will ensure our universities remain the envy of the world filled with students who have the best possible chance of success.

This should be interesting to watch. On the one hand, it is great that we finally have a Tory government minister seemingly willing to mount a bold and unapologetic defence of conservatism before a hostile audience – that much is excellent. But on the other hand, the continuing drift and incoherence of Theresa May’s government makes one wonder what Sam Gyimah can possibly say at these events, what stirring national plan of action or highlights reel of political accomplishments he can present that might make any significant difference to the perception of conservatism among young people.

It’s all very well having the Higher Education Minister inveigh against safe space culture in front of an audience of baying students (though to be honest the time to do that was five or ten years ago, not today) but it counts for relatively little when the government shows no sign of rolling back draconian anti-free speech laws which see people visited by the police in the middle of the night and carted off to custody for saying or writing “offensive” things on social media. What message could be drawn from a pro-Tory stump speech, in this context? “Stop creating your own safe spaces on campus, the government is already hard at work creating a national safe space on your behalf, backed by the awesome power of the law”? Hardly a ringing defence of liberal values.

These qualms aside, one wonders why Gyimah actually volunteered for this thankless mission at all, attempting to preach free speech and liberal enlightenment values to an academic world which increasingly rejects any such notion. No Tory government minister, however charismatic, stands any great chance of reversing the antipathy of many students toward conservatism – it will take determined peers and influencers their own age to do that. So why put oneself through the ordeal of being heckled and used as a foil for leftist establishment posturing when there is so little to be gained?

Perhaps it is expecting too much, but is this a glimmer of a new, muscular and unapologetic conservatism which has been so conspicuously missing under David Cameron and Theresa May? Is it the beginning of a slow motion, unofficial audition for the Tory leadership? And dare one hope that this might be a good thing? True, Sam Gyimah espoused the same kind of bland, reflexive, unthinking pro-EU stance in 2016 as most others within the parliamentary party, but the Tory bench is hardly brimming with sufficient talent that having been on the wrong side of the EU referendum can count as an automatic disqualifier. With the rising profile of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Moggmentum the only other sign that the Tories have an ideological pulse, beggars can’t be choosers.

When it comes to conservative policymaking, this blog has long argued that rather than running off in a million different directions and formulating a bunch of panicked quick fixes to the various slow-burning crises which ail Britain, a more analytical, holistic approach is required – a methodical study of how these national challenges and opportunities are interlinked so as to arrive at a suite of mutually-reinforcing policies which address them as a whole. But when it comes to conservative personalities, the same rule does not necessarily apply.

While it is true that there is much intellectual work to be done behind the scenes, it is also true that British conservatism desperately needs fresh new faces. For reasons both deserved and undeserved, Theresa May’s government has the pallor of death about it, pale and emaciated despite the recent reshuffle. And while throwing a hundred half-cooked policies at the wall to see what sticks (as Tory regeneration efforts risk degenerating into) is a suboptimal approach, throwing a handful of ambitious new Tory MPs at a crowd of sceptical students might be just the kind of proving ground the party needs as it searches for a new generation of leaders.

Let’s watch this space and give Sam Gyimah the opportunity to fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of conservative apologetics. It can’t do any harm, and maybe in the process of saving student souls from the clutches of Corbyn the lost Tories will finally begin to rediscover themselves.

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Dead In The Water

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Looking for positive signs in this most underwhelming of ‘major’ Cabinet reshuffles

What to make of Theresa May’s Cabinet reshuffle?

Firstly, one cannot escape how incredibly underwhelming it is. If you are going to let the media run with the story that a “major” Cabinet reshuffle is imminent, better make darn sure that the extent of shuffling lives up to the hype. On this occasion the advertisement was significantly glitzier than the product, which together with the stunningly botched rollout only added to the impression that the Tories are a frightened, disorganised mess.

Following on from that, the limited extent of the reshuffle – with Education being the only really significant department seeing a change – is another depressing reminder that Britain is led by someone without the authority to stamp her will on a party which is crying out for firm direction, let alone on a fractious and divided country.

Thirdly, even if Theresa May had wanted to carry out a wider-ranging reshuffle, what could she possibly have done that would have made the slightest difference to the direction of her party, the ambitions of the government or the fortunes of the nation? Maybe tomorrow we will see some encouraging promotions to the junior ministerial ranks – one might hope that some solid backbenchers with a bit of vision and ideological gumption, people like Kwasi Kwarteng or Chris Philp, might finally be given some executive responsibility and a launchpad to bigger and better things.

But in terms of big-hitters whose appointment or shuffling might make an immediate impact on the overall tone of the government, there was precious little that could be done even if the prime minister had wanted to shake things up. The sickness within the Conservative Party is deep, pervading all the way up from the (dying) grassroots through the activists, prospective parliamentary candidates and much of the parliamentary party, and a reshuffle can only be as good as the cards you have to deal.

In terms of bright spots, one can summon a degree of enthusiasm for the fact that charismatic MP James Cleverly has been made Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party, but odds are that the centralising, micromanaging bureaucrats of CCHQ will chew him up and spit him out just as they did to Rob Halfon before him, nodding sagely while Cleverly reels off a litany of smart and worthwhile suggestions before ploughing on in exactly the same dismal direction as before, tacitly encouraged by Theresa May.

I do also reserve a spot of admiration for “beleaguered” Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (which Health Secretary of either party has ever not been described as beleaguered, and at this point shouldn’t that really tell us more about the anachronistic National Health Service for which they are responsible than the personal acumen of any given incumbent?).

Being a Tory Health Secretary is surely the most lethal of poisoned chalices when it comes to future career prospects. The role guarantees that one will be pilloried by the Left as a heartless monster who cackles as nurses are forced to food banks and patients die on trolleys, regardless of one’s actual record.

Yes yes, All Hail the NHS.

For some reason either involving masochism or great nobility, Jeremy Hunt has borne this burden stoically for six years, and for him to plead with Theresa May to not only keep his current brief but also assume responsibility for social care is quietly impressive, and shows character. I personally think that the Tories are far too timid when it comes to healthcare, but if we must set our sights low and keep Our Blessed NHS in more or less its current form, we at least need to merge it with social care – and hopefully this is an indication that the government is looking to do so.

The main problem with the reshuffle though, aside from its timidity, is that it gives no real indication of a likely change in the soul of this ideologically lost Tory government. All of the great offices of state, the main levers through which a government might seek to remake the country in its image, remain in the same uninspiring hands. Meanwhile, a bunch of junior ministers play musical chairs with one another in a frenetic pantomine apparently designed to distract us from the fact that the prime minister remains far too politically weak to move any of the people who most need moving.

But even if Theresa May did have any residual authority to undertake a real reshuffle, what difference would it make? The reshuffles that truly matter in historical or strategic terms are ones where you think “ooh, that person is going to take Department Y in a totally different direction because they are a strong believer in X”. One thinks of Margaret Thatcher’s reshuffle in 1981, in which she sought to purge some of the Tory Wets, remaining holdovers from the days of opposition who were still wedded to the failed post-war consensus.

Yet few MPs serving in Theresa May’s Cabinet, especially the most senior ones, are known for having strong ideological feelings about anything at all. Indeed, many of them seem to cultivate a deliberate sense of vagueness, giving speeches stuffed with meaningless platitudes to disguise the fact that they are chickening out from taking a bold position on anything remotely controversial (cough, Amber Rudd, cough).

Believing in things and daring to stake a bold position is dangerous in this day and age – unless you are Jeremy Corbyn or retiring from electoral politics. Far better to be blandly inoffensive, to keep everybody on side and be ambiguous about your intentions if you want to get ahead – only too often this leads to the gradual atrophy of any real policy intentions at all. Spend long enough trying to be all things to all people and soon enough you’ll forget what, if anything, you went into politics to do in the first place.

This uninspired, unambitious, managerial technocracy was the algae-asphyxiated pond in which Theresa May went to fish for new talent, and her near total lack of authority within her own party was the dismal climate in which she set off with her rod and tackle. Unsurprising, then, that she came back with little more than a few old boots to show for her efforts.

And so to abandon the fishing metaphor for another, we have ended up with a reshuffle that most closely resembles a particularly dissatisfying game of Scrabble (or Words with Friends, for the smartphone-owning crowd). One swaps out a number of pesky and useless letter tiles in the hope of getting something better in exchange, but ends up with virtually the same tiles back again, only arranged in a slightly different sequence. All that effort and a missed turn, and still you are unable to spell anything meaningful or score more than a handful of points, be it on the Scrabble board or the statute books.

So far as I can tell, virtually nothing has changed. Good luck and God speed to James Cleverly as he goes off to bash heads together (or more likely have his own caved in) at CCHQ, and may angels minister to Jeremy Hunt as he continues his lonely mission to serve as Chief Cartoon Villain to every leftist in the land. But besides that, who seriously expects a shockingly new bold policy to emerge from this cohort?

I hope I’m wrong. But more than ever I think it is going to take external events – potentially very disruptive and unwelcome ones – to shock any kind of life back into the moribund Conservative Party, the kind of political shock therapy which also tends to land the patient back in Opposition for a time.

 

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Heathrow Airport Expansion And Decision Paralysis, A Symbol Of British Political Failure

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Government indecision and cowardice over the expansion of Heathrow Airport is just one tangible, high profile manifestation of the British political disease

There is no better analogy for the broken, dysfunctional nature of British politics and strategic government planning than the ongoing saga over whether and how to expand London’s Heathrow Airport, an undertaking which most serious people concede needs to happen yet generations of Cabinet ministers seem quite unable to make a reality.

A year after it finally appeared that the decades-long decision process had at long last produced a result, we now learn that plans for a new terminal are being scaled back and the timeline further extended.

From the Times:

Heathrow is planning to build a mini version of Terminal 5 as part of slimmed-down proposals to expand Europe’s biggest airport.

The airport is considering building a new terminal a few hundred metres west of T5 to handle 25 million passengers a year as part of updated plans for a third runway, The Times has learnt.

Heathrow is also planning to phase all building work over as many as 15 years to reduce the cost of expansion by about £2.5 billion. The plan will be one of a series of options put to public consultation in mid-January.

Heathrow says that the proposals would bring the total cost down to about £14 billion, allowing the airport to keep passenger landing charges close to current levels.

Airlines have been concerned that Heathrow’s private owners would increase charges to pay for the project, potentially pricing out many passengers. At present fees add £21.75 to the price of each ticket. Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, has indicated that keeping landing charges flat would be a condition of building a third runway. The proposals have to pass a parliamentary vote early next year and be approved by planners in the 2020s.

In other words, the original plans for a new full-size terminal located next to the planned new runway have been downgraded to plans for what amounts to little more than a satellite terminal adjacent to Terminal 5.

And even this reduced ambition has to be justified to the grey mass of naysayers who would sooner go their whole lives without ever making a consequential decision, with Heathrow Airport’s owner now deliberately emphasising what a small, puny and inadequate solution this new micro-terminal would actually be, as though mediocrity and lack of ambition were a selling point (which in today’s Britain they are):

Any comparison with T5, which cost £4.2 billion and was delayed by a four-year planning inquiry, could cause major concerns. However, Heathrow insists that the new terminal would be smaller, catering for 25 million passengers compared with 35.5 million at T5. It would be built in two blocks, creating an initial facility for 15 million.

Wait! We can make this development worse and ensure that it fails even more to keep up with capacity demand by the time it gets built! Give Heathrow Airport another year and they will be proposing little more than a wedding marquee tent and a few folding tables.

The government understandably does not want air passengers to pay an unbearably steep cost to finance the expansion, yet it does not occur to them that adequate relief could easily be provided to passengers by cutting the ludicrously high Air Passenger Duty, an exercise in environmental virtue-signalling which makes Britain one of the most expensive and unattractive countries to fly from, and which is close to being a national embarrassment.

A real Conservative government might see the ideal opportunity and justification for a tax cut in this case, but sadly we do not have a real Conservative government at present – we have Theresa May’s strong and stable government, limping from day to day by offering as many concessions to the Left as is humanly possible without changing the Tory party logo from a tree to a hammer and sickle.

Of course there are some very specific reasons why countries like China and the United Arab Emirates can complete vast civil engineering projects in the same time it takes Britain to convene a planning committee – an authoritarian government, the absence of inconvenient democracy, few planning regulations, lax health and safety standards, cheap labour and/or a tolerance for slave labour being among the chief distinguishing factors.

And indeed one of the key factors which sets Britain apart from certain other countries is the importance we place on our preserving our heritage, our built environment and taking local concerns into account when giving the green light to major new projects. Any government can quickly see to the construction of a giant, soulless mega-mall in the desert, or a dubious national ego-boosting skyscraper in a locale where there is no real need to build upward. It takes far more inspiration and resourcefulness to create and expand critical national infrastructure or important new commercial developments in sympathy with natural surroundings which have often existed for many centuries.

But still, Britain is too hesitant when it comes to authorising critical new infrastructure projects of national importance, and our failure holds us back as a country. Whether it is central government failing to bite the bullet and commit to a decision for fear of political fallout, NIMBY campaigns effectively trumping the national interest with the local or ill-considered privatisations or public-private partnerships allowing responsibility for key decisions to slip through the cracks, decisions which should be made at a local level in a healthy democracy are instead commandeered by central government, and strategic decisions which should take two years instead take twenty.

One of the very first pieces written on this blog nearly six years ago lambasted the Tory-LibDem coalition government for kicking the can down the road on Heathrow airport expansion. It is a subject I have returned to again and again in subsequent years – and yet we are no closer to striking ground on a project which is essential to maintaining the pre-eminence of Heathrow as a key European hub. At this point, even if one of the alternative schemes (such as Gatwick expansion or a new airport in the Thames estuary) is chosen instead of a third runway and new terminals at Heathrow, we are rapidly reaching the point where any decision is better than no decision.

And as it is with Heathrow Airport expansion, so it is with nearly everything else in British politics. There are an array of slow-burning, pressing issues facing this country which successive governments have either tackled half-heartedly or ignored altogether. It is wrong to call them “crises” as there will be no sudden national implosion if they are not all fixed within six months, but our continued failure to tackle the housing shortage, low worker productivity, education reform, healthcare reform and immigration leads to a slow and steady erosion of trust in politics and our democratic institutions, as well as making Britain a less attractive place to live, work or invest.

The retrenchment of British ambition and capability is not emblemised by Brexit, as many tremulous Remainers like to claim. The symptoms have been all around us for years, decades even, and we have been too lazy or calculating to subordinate the short-term political interest to the long-term strategic need. Look at the big issues facing the West and the world in general in 2017 – global migration flows, Islamist terror, globalisation, outsourcing, automation and more – and there is not one of these complex problems which we as a country have failed to comprehensively sweep under the rug or otherwise avoid meeting the challenge.

Even on those occasions when the people have recognised burning problems and the need for bold new solutions, public opinion (such as on Brexit and immigration) has been repeatedly slapped down over the years by a cohort of politicians who think it is their job to explain and defend the current status quo to the citizenry rather than change the status quo according to the demands of the citizenry.

The managerialist, consensus politics which has characterised Britain since the end of the Thatcher and Major governments is partially justifiable when the economy, society and the world are operating in something like steady-state, and governments have but to tweak a few dials here or there to keep the system running smoothly. But this brand of aloof technocracy is lethal to national prosperity and security in times of discontinuity such as the period in which we find ourselves today, when the prevailing political consensus is conspicuously broken and the worn-out old policy prescriptions no longer command sufficient confidence or support.

As this blog has been warning repeatedly, and will continue to warn – even if nobody listens – the time for denial and evasions is over. But so too is the time for cosmetic, superficial pseudo-reforms or scattergun crisis management. Rather, we need to develop a set of mutually supporting new policies based on a clear analysis and understanding of the challenges facing modern Britain and the various ways in which they are interlinked. This is what the CPS did in 1977 with their “Stepping Stones” report, paving the way for Margaret Thatcher’s transformative government, and that is what we must do again today.

And until such time as we demand political solutions and visionary government equal to the challenges of the stormy present, every aspect of future Britain will soon come to resemble the cautionary tale of Heathrow Airport – dilapidated, twenty years behind the curve, fatally stymied by strategic indecision and increasingly avoided by anyone with the means to do so.

 

UPDATE – 19 December

Based on positive reader feedback to this and other articles, I am actually now trying to do something to turn this idea (the need to respond to discontinuity with radical but coordinated new policies) from a mere blog post to an actual project or initiative in the real world. We clearly can’t leave it to the usual inhabitants of Westminster to do this on their own – new ideas and fresh faces will be needed, just as they were in 1977.

If anyone who reads this article feels called to action, please do get in touch with me, either using the “contact” menu link at the top of the page, or directly at semipartisansam@gmail.com

Thanks.

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