'The fish rots from the head'

Breaking the manifesto tax promise is bad politics and bad policy, good news for Starmer, good news for those who want BJ gone...

[‘The Kaiser is like a balloon. If you do not hold fast to the string, you never know where he will be off to.’

The below blog was published on Friday for subscribers only.

I described a few weeks ago what ‘normal’ politics would be like and how No10 would sabotage its own attempted September ‘reset’. The golden rule of British politics, which we intended to change, and which neither MPs nor the political media can discuss, is that the government does not control the government and does not even want to. It was clear last week that the No10 ‘political operation’, now directly run by the PM himself, had not prepared the ground for breaking core manifesto pledges. No10 has shot itself in both feet on Day 1 of the new term.

The core reason is: he does not understand how his own power in Whitehall works and cannot do the job and cannot trust anyone else to do much of his job for him, last year his girlfriend persuaded him to sabotage his own government by ignoring advice then destroying his own operation, this year she’s persuaded him to sabotage himself further by destroying relations with his Chancellor. Boris-Self-Aware mode has been largely deleted and over-written.

When a PM a) sabotages their own grip over No10, the Cabinet Office and Treasury, b) promotes buffoons and flatterers to key positions, c) shifts from a culture of ‘face reality’ to a culture of ‘let’s take it offline’, chaos is inevitable. The only thing holding up the polls is Starmer’s uselessness and total lack of any positive message (I remain unable to think of a single non-trivial thing Starmer has said he would do).

All the work the No10/11 joint team did last year with HMT and other officials on growth — on deregulation, planning, procurement, tax reform, foreign investment, science and technology, IP and the university ecosystem, procurement, Whitehall HR etc — all this ceased to be a priority for No10 as the PM turned No10 into a media entertainment service that simply weighs up incoming pressure each day and issues statements with no underlying logic. Solving the constitutional crisis and getting a 80 seat majority created a rare opportunity for fundamental improvements to the economy, to Whitehall and the quality of government, and to the Conservative Party. The opportunity is being comprehensively blown.

In his Memoirs, Bismarck elaborated on the problems of dealing with king Frederick Wilhelm:

[It became clear to me] … the difficulties which a responsible minister of that master would have to overcome during his fits of autocracy, with his often abrupt changes of view, his irregularity in matters of business, and his accessibility to uninvited back-stairs influences on the part of political intriguers … pharmacopolae, balatrones, hoc genus omne [a reference to Horace — Ambubaiarum collegia, pharmacopolae, mendici, mimae, balatrones, hoc genus omne — The flute-girls’ guilds, quacks, beggars, actresses, buffoons, and all that breed.]

On Wilhelm II, he famously said, ‘The Kaiser is like a balloon. If you do not hold fast to the string, you never know where he will be off to.’ Tory MPs ought to be asking themselves: who now has their hands on the string, because it sure ain’t the Cabinet, nor anybody else who has a plan and can execute…? What usually happens when relations between a PM and Chancellor collapse?

Shuffling some spads and ministers will not solve anything. The fish rots from the head. If you want a government that controls the government, you need a leader who wants to do it and can build a team that can execute… If you want government-as-lobby-entertainment, that’s what you’ll see over the next few months — but while the lobby will enjoy it, few others will (including the PM who will get increasingly enraged and finally lash out, and make his position even worse)…

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Summary

IGNORE THIS POST UNLESS YOU CARE ABOUT PAROCHIAL UK POLITICS

The PM’s plan to break his election promise and raise taxes is a big policy and political blunder, if you value the Conservative Party winning the next few elections. Unable to grip Whitehall or change anything important all he can think to do is announce more spending. This is the easiest thing to do in No10 as it requires no plan, grip or discipline. If you’re a Cabinet minister you should insist on the Cabinet seeing the whole plan on Tuesday before you sign on to collective responsibility. When you see it you’ll be even more worried. If you’re a Tory MP you should call the Chief Whip and scream at him this weekend because the PM is so weak he might collapse and not do it. If you want the PM to be replaced ASAP, be happy he is undermining his own position and will do more of this.

The PM’s plan to raise taxes is a big blunder

Define a goal (G): improve the chances of winning elections over the next 20 years for the Conservative Party. NB. the goal is not ‘deliver social care’. (I’m not saying this should be your goal or is my goal, I’m just ensuring clarity.)

Given G, breaking an unambiguous promise not to raise tax, in order to ‘pay for social care’, is a big blunder. Raising NI compounds the blunder in terms of policy and politics.

Why?

First, the Party and PM promised not to. A core problem with modern parties is they are (rightly IMO) seen as fundamentally dishonest, incompetent, and out of touch. A core reason is they constantly make clear promises then break them. Remember how bad breaking ‘read my lips’ was for Bush1? Look up how Carville kept smashing and smashing and smashing with this in 1992 (see bottom). It destroyed the GOP attack on Clinton’s spending plans and the credibility of other promises. A core question at the next election would have been: what are the implications for taxes of Labour’s spending plans? The PM’s decision destroys this attack and removes a major fear that could stop people voting Labour — if ‘they’re all the same’ applies to both parties on tax, this is very bad for the Conservative Party. And if Labour are smart enough to VOTE AGAINST the PM’s plan, Starmer will be able to shove this down Tory throats even more powerfully. (NB. part of the overall Vote Leave plan for this Parliament was to cut taxes for those on average incomes thus making Labour’s problem even harder at the next election.)

Second, breaking such core promises leaks into other issues. ‘You can’t believe X, remember they promised read my lips no new taxes then raised them’ etc.

Third, breaking a promise on tax cannot really be ‘solved’ without a) time passing and/or b) a future Tory government actually cutting taxes, thus attoning for the sin. This could be an issue not just in the next election but the next few, as Major’s tax rises were not just in 1997 but after (and polluted Cameron’s thinking about political strategy).

Fourth, you can’t use the covid excuse. Labour will be able to argue rightly — this is a choice, the government spends hundreds of billions and wastes a huge amount, it chose to spend £35 billion just this Parliament on HS2 for example, we could pay for social care without tax rises if the government were capable of prioritising.

Fifth, even if you conclude ‘there’s no alternative to raising taxes’, raising NI is a terrible way to do it and will compound the political problem. Why should young people on average and below average incomes lose disposable income to pay for another subsidy for the older middle classes? This is bad policy and bad politics. Labour will have lots of support not just from economists but from Tory voters who don’t want to see those working for average incomes — crushed already by a decade of feckless Tory rule — pay for another middle class subsidy. ‘Don’t raise taxes at all, save money elsewhere and stop subsidising your rich mates, but, if you have to, impose them on the wealthiest one percent not those on average and below average incomes’ is what Labour should say. Many Tory voters will agree.

Sixth, this is a classic issue where politicians blunder over long-term strategy by misreading polls. It will be easy to get some polls to sort of look like the public isn’t that bothered. I won’t go into the details of this but remember: polls show lots of things are apparently popular which are also strategic traps and an art in politics is understanding when polls are useful and when they are helping you fool yourself. If I were a Tory MP I would not believe No10 claims that ‘our polls show it’s OK'. This blunder is driven not by trying to do what the public wants but by the fact that the PM doesn’t control the government and has boxed himself in. This is a BJ tactical wriggle out of endless frustrating meetings, not an actual plan.

Seventh, there is an important asymmetry: not making a big deal of social care and being accused of ‘ignoring it/failing to act’ is a problem but it is a small problem relative to *making a huge deal of it then screwing it up*. The Tory party will own everything that goes wrong with social care for years to come if they let the PM bounce them next week. (For those with short memories of how this issue can blow up, and why VL was so careful in 2019, ‘2017 election’.)

Eighth, the No10 political-communication ‘operation’ is bad, despite some able people, because the PM now runs it. It will not have a serious plan and couldn’t execute such a plan. The PM will trolley in response to pressure because he has not thought out what will happen. He unarguably has not prepared the ground for what is a very big decision. He is rushing it out because relations between No10/11 have collapsed, which is exactly how so many big political crashes happen.

Meetings now are constructed ‘to avoid annoying the PM’, not to figure out answers to hard questions. This means that normal political types have ‘easier’ meetings than when I was there. They think this is good. It is bad. It means there is not serious scrutiny of PM whims/decisions. It is a sign that the usual Tory frivolity is ascendant — like shifting meetings from Friday evening to morning so everyone can ‘get away to the country’. Normal Tory world, normal outcome.

The best case scenario is simply that Starmer is so bad it’s possible that this, like many previous blunders, won’t matter much. But tax is so fundamental an issue that gambling on this is a big gamble. Plus opposing the tax rise is such an open goal even I would be a bit surprised if Starmer kicks it over the bar.

What should happen instead, if you assume a competent and serious ‘conservative’ government?

A) There should be a policy on social care that encourages personal responsibility, such as the Singapore CPF approach. If you think you’re ‘conservative’, and you give those speeches about ‘enterprise’ and ‘responsibility’, why would you support making many more dependent on state money and bureaucracy?

B) The government should control spending instead of raising tax and stick to its promises thus preserving credibility in other areas and the potent question for Labour: how will you pay…?

Neither can, obviously, happen when you have this PM.

He could never figure out the right policy nor sell it. All he can do is take something that’s been sitting on a shelf for a decade and apply some topspin.

He cannot control spending because he cannot stick to anything with discipline in the face of pressure — with the single exception of ‘no comment’ on his private life.

He has no grip of Whitehall so he can’t implement anything difficult.

The more he talks about ‘levelling up’ the more he reminds everyone his slogan is as empty as ‘Global Britain’, another rubbish slogan.

All he can do is spend more because that’s something Whitehall is good at and it requires no plan, grip or discipline.

All this has contributed to the collapse of his relations with the Chancellor. When Vote Leave was there we removed Saj and created a single unified No10/11 team. All HMT information was completely open to my team because it was one team. This eliminated the usual friction that wastes time and distorts thinking. It allowed us to have serious discussions about policy and compartmentalise political discussion (which absorbed little of our time because we didn’t have to worry about Starmer). It allowed us to think through problems seriously — with officials and spads working harmoniously — while minimising the effect of the PM’s appetite for constant and immediate ‘stories’.

As soon as VL left the PM destroyed this system. Now he impotently rages that he doesn’t know ‘the real figures’ because HMT quite understandably has reverted to keeping them from him. (This is also because the PM’s outer office leaks constantly and he has refused to remove those who do it and No11 know this.) His rage is stronger because he knows he did see them when I was there. Of course he assumes plots. And he is right to see plots! Plots become self-fulfilling when you so obviously behave selfishly, have no plan, have no grip, lie to everyone, and let your girlfriend interfere with government and whisper audibly in your ear while you’re talking to colleagues. He’s now surrounded by plots among political colleagues, his own staff and officials watching for their moment to push him off the ice.

His fears have transferred to HMT. When a PM destroys relations with their Chancellor, history suggests they are often shortening their own career, especially if, as with BJ, they have no personal loyalty among the MPs and the relationship is purely temporary and transactional.

What should Ministers and MPs do?

The media describes policy as a result of ‘Cabinet rows’. This is almost always a fairy tale. I describe why HERE. Since the 2019 election the Cabinet has been almost totally irrelevant. It was so irrelevant I never attended between December 2019 and leaving in November 2020 — yes, in the biggest crisis since 1945 the PM’s main advisor attended Cabinet … zero times… Do you get told such useful things about how power really works by your newspaper?! So far on this issue it has also been irrelevant. The PM’s private secretary who deals with No11, who you’ve never heard of and the media has never heard of and never reports on, has been much more influential than anybody in Cabinet except the PM and Chancellor. Will these dynamics change?

This blunder, if it happens, will echo for a long time. Cabinet ministers should ask if they’re happy being nodding dogs on this as they have on everything else.

If you’re a Cabinet minister and want to protect your own political position, I strongly suggest that over the next 48 hours you insist to the Chief Whip on full discussion on Tuesday of the whole plan for the policy, implementation, and communication — before any announcement, ‘otherwise the PM should not expect me to defend it on TV’. There won’t be one worth the name. And when the PM tries to explain it all on Tuesday you will see he doesn’t understand it. Your brain will flash ‘council tax … train wreck’. You should make clear that you oppose breaking the manifesto promise unless No10 can present an overwhelming case. Coordinate with other ministers this weekend. Don’t be one of the dupes shoved out on TV by Doyle with lame talking points about ‘the public understands blah covid blah’.

If you’re a backbench MP, call the Chief Whip this weekend. Remember No10 is now just a machine for aggregating and repsonding to pressure as the PM sees it. If you shout loud enough you will panic the PM into shelving the plan. Given the Telegraph does this routinely, why can’t you? Insist the PM explains the whole plan to the 22, given it has implications for everybody. Do you want your career cut short because the PM blurted something on the steps of No10 and let his girlfriend alienate him from the Chancellor?!

This blunder, if it happens, will be the source of recrimination for years. So a) try to stop it and b) if you can’t then position yourself as well as you can so the PM gets the blame for his blunder and you wriggle free as much as possible.

Also ponder this basic truth that should be obvious by now.

The only point and justification for ‘Johnson as PM’ was to serve as a spokesman for Vote Leave. We had a plan to get Brexit done and the constitutional crisis out of the way, consign Corbyn to history, rewire the state and the Conservative Party, destroy the Labour Party and fundamentally change the condition of the country — and a team, formal and informal, to do it. He has none of these. He’s there for himself. That’s it. You know this.

Without VL’s purpose, ‘Johnson as PM’ is not just pointless, it’s absurd.

PS. Yes, obviously I want to maximise the chances that Tory MPs remove the PM ASAP, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong! You, Tory MPs, very probably don’t know me except via very weird media coverage. You probably don’t like me. But I do know something about winning and losing in politics. If I’m wrong, and it turns out there is a brilliant plan, then forcing the PM to explain it to the Cabinet and 22 costs you almost nothing. So my advice is the best sort of political advice — very high upside (avoid disaster that affects your career), very low downside (a bit of chuntering from the Chief Whip). But let’s face it, all your colleagues shout him and it works, and on this your activists probably strongly oppose tax rises, so why risk your career by keeping quiet and hoping for the best? Remember the ‘levelling up’ speech? Did that convince you the PM has a winning political plan and the team to deliver it…?! The stakes are much higher when it comes to breaking this promise…