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23 July 2022

The Conservative Party in Crisis

Tag(s): Politics & Economics
In July 2019 I wrote a Blog styled as An Open Letter to the New Prime Minister[i] in which I congratulated Boris Johnson on his election as leader of the Conservative Party and therefore as the new Prime Minister. I wished him well and sincerely meant it. In the General Election that followed in December I did not vote for him as despite the ignorant ravings of the media we do not have a presidential system but a parliamentary one. I did vote for my local Conservative MP. But fairly soon I could see that a great deal was going badly for the Prime Minister and his government.

In August 2020 I wrote another blog styled as An Open Letter to The Prime Minister[ii] in which I admitted that I had changed my mind. I acknowledged that the Prime Minister was an outstanding political campaigner but the qualities that are required to win election campaigns are not the same as those that are required to conduct the business of government and in pursuit of difficult but necessary changes. I said that while he could not be held responsible for the outbreak of the coronavirus, he had to take responsibility for the sloppy handling of the crisis which had led to numerous delays and one of the highest rates of mortality on a per capita basis in the world. I pointed out the numerous U-turns that his government had conducted over a relatively short period. A government that constantly changes its mind when under pressure simply appears weak and will soon lose public confidence. I warned that even with his significant majority in parliament that he would find it very difficult to keep the full support from his backbenchers if he could not get a grip on his cabinet and he should make sure that he was not sending out his backbenchers to defend unpopular policies that were then dumped. I finished by saying that he needed to learn that the obsession that politicians have with top-down management and centralisation almost always means their efforts backfire. I hoped that he could learn this lesson quickly otherwise the premiership was not going to be remembered for the golden era people spoke of at its beginning. Again, to be clear I wrote this in August 2020.

Of course, these letters aren’t really open letters to the Prime Minister but simply a choice of artistic style, so I have no idea whether any politicians found their way to my website and read any of these blogs. Just last month I blogged on The Antithesis of Leadership [iii] contrasting our Head of Government and our Head of State. I referred to the recent vote of confidence that was undertaken by the Conservative members of Parliament when the Prime Minister only received the support of 59% of the Party members. He then declared it was a good result. It was certainly not. It was a terrible result; the worst of any confidence vote in the recent past. Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Theresa May all faced confidence votes and all got a better result than Mr Johnson and all of them were gone within a short time of that vote and now he is going. In that blog I said that in defending his position he emphasised the need to carry out the job, but he doesn’t carry out the job. If you read the manifesto on which the Conservative party won a majority of 80 seats in the 2019 General Election very little has been implemented. In this blog I want to develop that thought further.
Mr Johnson became Prime Minister and then his party won a landslide victory in 2019 at which time and subsequently he made a series of pledges to voters. Perhaps delivering on them was made harder by the pandemic. Let’s look at how he got on.
  • Pledge:  50,000 more nurses and 6000 more GPs
The Conservatives promised this for England by March 2025. The latest figures show that there are 321,624 full-time equivalent NHS nurses and health visitors as of March 2022. That is up 24,901 since December 2019 leaving 25,099 posts to fill over the three years till March 2025, so it could be said that on a time-based approach they are on course. However, the position of GPs is less satisfactory. As of May 2022 there were 35,626 full-time equivalents in post, that is up by 918 since the end of December 2019 but if you exclude locums (doctors who temporarily fill a rota gap) and trainees, GP numbers have actually fallen by 1,397 since December 2019 and so the promised increase by 6000 which now actually means by 7397 seems quite tough.
  • Pledge: Build 40 new hospitals
This pledge in 2019 was to be met “over the next 10 years” but by August 2021 the government in what to me looks like cold feet came up with new definitions for what constituted a “new” hospital. The first was straightforward, that is a whole new hospital on a new site or current NHS land.

Then they also added that a new hospital could consist of a major new clinical building on an existing site or a new wing of an existing hospital which somewhat stretches the definition of the word “new”.

Then they went further and said that the new hospital could be a major refurbishment and alteration of all but the building frame or main structure.

In December 2021 analysis by the Nuffield Trust found that of the 40 hospital projects announced by the government 22 were rebuilding projects, 12 were new wings within existing hospitals, three involved rebuilding non-urgent care hospitals, and just three were entirely new hospitals. Last month a Department of Health spokesman when asked for an update said that one of the 40 hospitals “opened for patients last year and a further six are in construction” so it seems extremely unlikely that this pledge will be achieved in any significant way.
  • Pledge: 20,000 more police
This was promised for England and Wales by March 2023, so not far off. As of March 2022, an extra 13,576 police officers had been recruited which meant the government at that point was two thirds of the way there with one year to go. But this pledge is not really what is required as it has not made up for police numbers falling by 20,545 between March 2010 and March 2019 despite a massive increase in reported crime. Of all burglaries in England and Wales less than 5% are solved as I know to my cost.
  • Pledge: 300,000 homes a year
This manifesto pledge was to be met by “the mid-2020s”. In 2019-20 there were 242,700 net additional dwellings, which fell to 216,490 in 2020-21. Again, there has been some fancy footwork around the definitions and net additional dwellings now includes houses converted to flats, commercial buildings switching to domestic use, as well as new builds. It also factors in demolished houses. In a rare moment of honesty, the Prime Minister was asked about this pledge last month and he said “I can’t give you a cast-iron guarantee that we’re going to get to a number in a particular year” despite the fact that it was a clearly worded pledge in the manifesto.
  • Pledge: Get Brexit done
Get Brexit done was undoubtedly the central theme of the Conservative 2019 manifesto and in the literal sense it was achieved as the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020. Britain then departed from the EU single market and customs union 11 months later, after agreeing a basic and somewhat sketchy free trade deal with the EU. But if this election slogan implied Brexit would be fully achieved this has clearly not happened. A great deal remains unresolved particularly the question of Northern Ireland’s long-term future in the United Kingdom which looks in real doubt. Financial services are also unresolved and appear to be an area where the EU is not minded to give way. Liz Truss, one of the two candidates to take over the leadership of the party and hence become Prime Minister makes a great deal about the large number of trade deals that she signed around the world while in that role but nearly all of these simply repeated the ones that were in place as an EU member. Thus, it was a fairly straightforward box ticking exercise.  . Breakthrough deals with the US and other major economies outside the EU simply haven’t happened.

From my point of view, I voted for Brexit for many reasons, mostly about the problems of an undemocratic style of EU leadership. What I really wanted to see, and I see no evidence whatsoever of it so far, is that once we were free from the EU we would be able to conduct our own affairs in a more independent way and thus get rid of a great deal of unnecessary and expensive regulation which holds back all of our businesses, not just the 5% who were trading with Europe before.
  • Pledge: Australian-style points-based immigration system
This was not possible while the UK was in the EU because of rules giving citizens the freedom to work in all EU countries. After Brexit the government did launch this system. EU citizens wishing to live and work in the UK now have to apply for a visa via a points-based system, the same as citizens from the rest of the world. The process has been extremely difficult, remember the shortage of HGV drivers. And, of course, the levels of illegal immigration remain high.
  • Pledge: No rise in rates of income tax, National Insurance or VAT
This manifesto pledge was simply broken. In September 2021, the government announced that workers, the self-employed and employers would pay 1.25% more National Insurance from April 2022. They later reduced the impact of this by announcing that from July 2022 the point at which employees would start paying NI would increase to £12,750, so some will pay less NI than they did last year but anybody earning more than £34,000 will pay more.
  • Pledge: Fix the crisis in social care
The government says the money from the NI rise will go initially towards easing pressure on the NHS. A proportion of it will then be moved into the social care system but it is extremely unlikely that that is anything like enough given the tremendous shortage of care workers. Indeed, my own view of the NHS is that it is already far too big to manage as one organisation and to add the social care system to it as well is most unwise.
  • Pledge: Keep the triple lock
 The triple lock means the state pension increases each year at whichever of these is highest:
  • CPI inflation (the rate at which prices are rising as measured by the Consumer Price Index)
  •  average wages
  • or 2.5%
The 2019 Conservative manifesto said that the triple lock would stay for the duration of this Parliament. This promise was broken in September 2021 when the government announced it was suspending the triple lock for a year and in blatant propaganda blamed the pandemic.
  • Pledge: Spend 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) on international aid
This manifesto pledge has also been broken. The UK’s annual aid budget has been reduced to 0.5% of GNI – a cut of about £4bn. Again, the government blamed the pandemic saying cutting aid spending would help restore the public finances. Breaking such pledges damages our standing in the international community as do many other things done by this government.
  • Covid
As well as the manifesto pledges that have not been met the Prime Minister has made a number of claims about his government’s record during the pandemic. He is not to be blamed for the fact that he did not foresee the pandemic and at the time of the election few did, but one would expect him to be careful about what he claims.
  • Claim: Fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe
One of the genuine benefits of Brexit was that the UK could act alone in approving a Covid vaccine which it did on 2 December 2020. It’s vaccine rollout began on 8 December 2020 - weeks before that of the EU. The UK vaccine programme was the fastest in the European continent until May 2021 and after that other EU countries caught up, if you compare the number of doses per 100 people in the country’s population.
  • Claim: Fastest growth in the G7
The prime minister has repeatedly talked about the UK having the fastest-growing economy in the G7. That is only true if you look at one year. For the whole of 2020 the UK economy contracted by 9.3%, the biggest decline in GDP in the G7. For the whole of 2021 it grew by 7.4%, which was the biggest growth in the G7, but of course was not getting back to the position we were in at the beginning of 2020. The OECD forecast that the UK will have zero growth in 2023 and will be the slowest growing economy in the G7 and it certainly will have been one of the weakest over the four years from 2020 to 2023.

In his various farewell speeches Mr Johnson has always blamed others, never admitted his own failures, said that he was leaving office with his head held high, but I believe when the historians write his record it will be that of one of the worst prime ministers in our long history. Next week I will attempt to deal with what happens next.

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