The Startup Party: reflections on the last 20 years, what could replace the Tories, and why
And building a Q&A on Brexit, what really happened in No10, covid etc
I’ll post a few blogs over the next 8 weeks answering as well as I can some big questions about the past 20 years.
This is partly (A) necessary background to thinking through what comes next, here and in America. In particular, is there an effort by a subset of the entrepreneurial elite that can build to ally with a large section of voters to replace the rotten Tory Party, or do we see the same dynamic as America — as politics disintegrates in a clownshow, those who can build respond by retreating further to their walled gardens and ‘fish ponds’, as Cicero put it, rather than trying to save the Republic.
We can’t start doing things like creating a legal structure for a new party, figuring out how to launch and build it, what should its electoral strategy be etc without having some solid ground for understanding the different perspectives on questions like — why Brexit happened, what were we actually trying to do in No10, why did our attempt to turn the Tory Party into something extremely different fail (mostly, so far), was our attempt doomed because of its own logic, because of Boris/Carrie etc.
It’s partly (B) trying to answer a set of important questions about what really happened coherently in one place, given the crazy fairy tales believed across Westminster.
It’s partly (C) a product of having to write my official covid statement and face some hard questions honestly.
It’s partly (D) skimming through the essay I wrote in 2013 a decade later and thinking ‘what do I think of it now, having left the DfE, done the referendum, Trump, gone to No10, GE2019, covid, Ukraine and so on’ — in the context of (A), what comes next.
Over the next few years there will be a lot of argument over:
why did Britain vote for Brexit
has it been a success or failure; do we measure this by mainstream Westminster perspectives, public opinion, Tory MP perspectives, Vote Leave’s perspective, HMT/mainstream economics etc
is the Eurozone fixing its problems and becoming more attractive or sinking further behind America/China in the important metrics (e.g ability to manufacture GPUs, build an ecosystem for multimodal LLMs)
is ‘distrust in our institutions’ a big problem, maybe the biggest (SW1 conventional wisdom) or is our real problem that there’s too much trust in our institutions by political-academic-media Insiders (I’d say my pre-2016 view is vindicated by 2016-22 but clearly there is extreme resistance to this conclusion)
connected to the point above — to what extent is the shift in Insider opinion from ‘Westminster basically works’ (2015) to ‘Westminster is broken’ (2023) because a) Insiders are catching up with decades of rot they didn’t want to see (so in at least one way Brexit is working as intended in stripping Insider illusions) or b) most of them have simply shifted from one delusion ‘Westminster basically works’ to another delusion ‘it was working but Brexit broke it’
what did we (a network of advisers and officials, not Boris) really try to do in 2019-20 and why, why did things crack up with Boris/VL, how much of it succeeded/failed, was the project to remake government and the Tory Party doomed, what does this mean for the future direction of Tories/Labour
why did the Tories generally fail so badly in general 2010-24, how constrained was Sunak by the overall deadweight of his party, how much by the Boris-Truss blowup, how much by his own bad decisions
why did the Conservatives win in 2019: how much was the core strategy, how much was Boris v Corbyn, how much was Labour strategic errors over Brexit and the campaign, how much a continuation of historical dynamics already visible in 2016 (particularly educational polarisation, also important in US, which was so underrated that many pollsters did not weight by education in 2016)
was the electoral coalition formed between the referendum victory and the 2019 victory something that — with the plan for government, changing the Tory Party, and building a new communication machine — could have been built on if we could have got Boris to do roughly what we wanted 2020-24 (as I think), and is it something a revived/replaced Tory Party should aim for again, or was it unnatural, an aberration, a dead end (as high status pundit world is now telling SW1)
is it possible to win elections while really trying to reverse longterm trends on productivity, Whitehall failure, R&D, education corruption, procurement disasters etc (me), or is it an illusion to think that a radically different approach is possible and the only future for British party politics is ever more regulation and tax (branded ‘fiscal responsibility’, ‘to save the planet’ etc) plus the old economic model (rely on the City, horrific housing market, HMT pushing infrastructure to south east etc) plus No10 as media entertainment service plus elections pretending to be about significant differences between elites which are actually trivial (e.g 2010, 2015)
could the Tories be transformed into a party that is simultaneously a) more Hayekian (lower tax, lower regulation, pro-competition, on the side of startups against incumbents using political power to entrench themselves, more market forces to solve many public service failures), b) much more aggressive in (re)building state capacity and more interventionist / less laissez faire in some areas (e.g investing for strategic advantage in niches of science and technology, much more aggressively blocking Chinese legal/illegal acquisition of technology), c) trusted with healthcare, schools etc, d) much tougher and more serious than the Tories on crime/security/defence so increasingly seen as ‘extreme’ in SW1 (but seen as ‘obviously sensible’ by relevant voters) — or is conventional wisdom right that this is ‘incoherent’ (as they described VL’s message in 2016) and impossible and the only future for the Tories is something like Cameron, i.e a light touch on the brake from New Labour (I’d describe this as ‘keeping up appearances among Insiders in London as the country keeps disintegrating’)
is there a huge opportunity for a party that focuses on a) real problems, b) how power really works and c) the voters — rather than the media — or are the MPs right to focus almost exclusively on the media (I’d argue the referendum and 2019 showed MPs don’t understand communication therefore, to the extent they think about this rigorously rather than just respond to their environment, wrongly think they have no choice)
is it better to try to revive the Tories or replace them
what’s the interaction between A) the quality of the old parties, the quality of the old Whitehall bureaucracies, the quality of the old media, and B) why we can’t reverse decline, improve productivity etc — to what extent are we really talking about the need to retire a subset of our elite and replace it with a subset of the entrepreneurial elite that can build, and how practical is this given politics and the bureaucracies actively drive away those who can build (in London and DC)
what do the trajectory of the Democrats and GOP in the 2024 cycle imply for whether America sees a lot more political violence and, even, can hold together as a country (it’s common to hear US elites discuss privately ‘civil war within 10-20 years’); what are the implications for the UK, future of NATO; should we be more worried by people like Steve Bannon or that so many senior officials in US intelligence agencies told so many lies to the mainstream media to help Biden beat Trump
is our real problem ‘a loss of trust in mainstream media like the New York Times which play a vital role in democracy’ (mainstream Insider view) or is this mainstream media itself the biggest source of lies and fake news and thereby undermining public confidence in democracy
should ‘conservatives’ (i.e liberals with minor reservations about the leading edge of the left) try to capture centralised institutions like the Department for Education and ‘reform’ them (mainstream view) or focus on building a full stack alternative decentralised system outside the bureaucracy’s control (Marc Andreessen’s view); should politicians try the normal path of ‘reform centralised institution X’ (say the Pentagon/MOD) or instead ‘create a startup to do some of what’s needed 10X faster and better, cannibalise X then quietly close X’
how will politicians cope as advanced technology (e.g multimodal LLMs. text, video etc) force themselves into political debate, given they’re mostly bad at using TV; how will political entrepreneurs use new tools to break the power of the old parties/media, with echoes of how radio, cinema and TV changed politics
will Tories and Labour face the disaster of them ignoring a) China’s aggressive infiltration of critical infrastructure, b) the rot and corruption of the MOD and much critical infrastructure around WMD, c) the implications of some new technologies for national security and prosperity (even survival), or will they carry on as usual with ‘world leading’ rhetoric as capabilities hollow out
should we be strengthening confidence in the UN, EU, World Bank, IMF, WHO etc (mainstream Insider view) or are they actually blocking what we need to build for global cooperation and themselves huge dangers; is ‘the rules based international order’ a great asset or just another hypocritical, rotten Insider delusion; if it’s doomed what should we try to replace it with
is it possible to reverse the disintegration we see everywhere in politics before we hit crunches like 1914/1930s or will history follow its normal path — slow rot, elite collective blindness, rare prophets ignored or ridiculed, fast crisis, sudden collapse…
I had a view of:
crucial problems, globally and UK;
a plan for government — e.g how to tackle the stagnation in productivity, making strategic advantage in parts of science and technology central to a PM’s job/focus and post-Brexit national strategy, fixing the MOD horrorshow;
a plan for how to do the plan given most of Whitehall can‘t / doesn’t want to change much, including changing the core institutions of No10 and the Cabinet Office, changing civil service personnel and HR;
a political strategy to develop the coalition that emerged 2016-19, turn the Tory Party into something very different, and to change enough of the people to make it stick — i.e ally a large section of voters with a subset of the entrepreneurial elite who can build brought in to replace a chunk of the old ruling elite;
a political machine to drive it.
The below Q&A explains some of what I thought/think and what really happened in No10. If we’re going to try to replace the Tories, there needs to be a much clearer picture of what actually happened over the past few years, what worked, what didn’t, why, and people outside the Insider-Westminster-world have to develop a view on how accurate that world’s conventional wisdom is on many crucial questions. A lot about bureaucracies below applies to the next President, e.g do you try to ‘reform’ the Pentagon or create new entities to do its work. And I get asked the same questions a lot so it’s useful to put answers in one place.
You will have got a very weird impression if you relied on the political media since 2015.
Rick Rubin, cofounder of Def Jam records, said recently that WWE is real and it’s mainstream political news that’s fake. This will sound nonsensical, or ‘a sign of the terrible lack of confidence in our precious institutions’, if you’re a political Insider or trust political Insiders and the New York Times. If you realise just how much political news really is invented (with lower production values than WWE) and how much of supposedly ‘real’ political action is fake responses to fake news, it makes sense.
One of the most interesting things about the last decade is the way a subset of the entrepreneurial elite has quietly split away from the political elite in basic attitudes towards mainstream political news. In 2015 the two were much more closely aligned, with huge overlap around what you could loosely think of as Blair-Clinton-Obama, and the entrepreneurs focused mainly on business. I failed to persuade them that political Insiders were mostly living in a fake world.
Now I have extremely divergent experiences talking to these groups. The entrepreneurs share political news and discuss how surreal it is that mainstream political figures treat obvious fakes as real, then respond to the fakes (they think of as real) with more fakes, then deplore the public for not trusting their fakes as real and exhort us all to trust the mainstream (them) again. Often such entrepreneurs use private time with political Insiders to try to figure out how much of the fake the Insiders really believe is real and are realising — almost all of it.
The political Insiders talk to me as if they believe their fakes are real and I should start believing them and stop telling people it’s fake. The idea they’re more fake than WWE is incomprehensible, gratuitously insulting, deranged. If you want a shortcut to see these diverging viewpoints, follow Marc Andreessen (team entrepreneur) and people like George Osborne, Starmer or Biden (team ‘trust us’).
The people who most trust mainstream political news and analysis are political Insiders whose politics are far from the median voter and spend huge amounts of their time trying to figure out why it’s so hard for them to communicate effectively, why almost nothing they say is heard and the little that’s heard is not believed. They’d communicate more effectively if they learned from WWE.
The public believes less and less of what they’re told by the mainstream media and politicians and this will surely accelerate given how they’ll be bombarded with ‘fakes’ that seem more ‘real’ than the ‘real/official news’. Insiders are sure to panic further and accelerate the forces they dread. Given their responses to Brexit, Trump, covid and Ukraine, how likely is it Insiders will reflect on how it’s them who are the biggest suckers for ‘fake news’ and ‘information bubbles’?
Obviously lots of the questions/answers below are interrelated.
Please suggest other Qs in the comments.
If you think what I’ve said is wrong, particularly if you were there 2019-20, please leave a comment or get in touch.
There’ll be 5-10 of these over the next 6-8 weeks.
I’ll look at comments and other feedback then put updated versions on the Q&A page so they’re all in one place and indexed.
Big picture: background to Brexit, the ‘unrecognised simplicities’ of high performance, do people learn from them, why is learning so hard
Brexit: why we won, why I did it / what was the plan, the 2016-19 Brexit fight (firing the 21 MPs etc)
Covid: procurement case study for regime failure and determination not to face failure; the inquiry
Ukraine / Russia / China
No10: some Golden Rules for how politics really works, how I actually spent my time in No10, what was the real plan behind announced changes to government communications
Boris/Carrie: what went wrong with Boris/Vote Leave, why etc
[UPDATE 4/6. An example of how mainstream news is fake. The day after I published this on 3 June, the BBC published this piece on immigration after interviewing numerous Home Secretaries. How many mentions of ‘ECHR’, ‘Human Rights Act’, or ‘judicial review’? Zero. After millions of words written, endless TV coverage over years, the BBC tries to get some historical context and totally ignores central issues and reports lots of dopey quotes from MPs. Fake analysis, fake politics, fake government.]