‘Efficiency’ is the deficiency at the heart of the UK’s false economy
The Conservatives are supposed to be known, above all, for ‘sound money’. That’s shorthand for a party that knows how to make decisions that are, in the long term, more sensible and sustainable than their opposition.
Liz Truss’s trust in instant growth via unfunded tax cuts arguably sent the party past the point of no return. But Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt represent an attempted return to ‘competence’.
Given that the chaos of crumbling schools and hospitals is now acting as a visual metaphor for ‘the natural party of government’, it seems crass to point out the obvious.
However, as it still seems beyond those still banging the drum for ‘efficiency’, the obvious still requires pointing out. Maybe some glitter, bright lights and a bit of Coronation-like pageantry would help to ram it home.
This is a country in which the Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan MP, is happy to appear on television saying that school buildings falling down are ‘not the job of the Department for Education’, and then, in the next breath, demand applause for turning up to work. It’s a country in which the literal Schools Minister, Nick Gibb MP, says he’d be happy for his relatives to sit in a classroom whose ceiling is temporarily propped up by beams.
This is the opposite of the ‘messianic belief’ in government that Janan Ganesh recently condemned. Instead, it’s a collective shrugging of the shoulders. The Conservatives have surrendered to the idea that life is unfair and that the UK’s decline is irreversible. The best argument they have remaining on schools is that ‘You can’t protect every child’ – as though that is a reason not to try.
It is now hard to look at their behaviour and avoid concluding that it is driven by a misunderstanding of what life is like for the vast majority of people living in the country they govern.
That misunderstanding goes alongside a corresponding lack of empathy – an inability to put themselves in others’ shoes – that results in communication disasters such as the frighteningly misjudged (and all too real) image trumpeting ‘Most Schools Unaffected’.
Just over a year since Liz Truss became prime minister, and in a week where she defended her disastrous record, I’m reminded of how she came undone so quickly. Her mistake was to flaunt that misunderstanding to the point where even money markets saw behind the bluster.
While damaging short-term impacts of her budget were clear to anyone who has a mortgage or rents a property, her decision to break fiscal rules for those tax cuts didn’t just crash the economy. It reduced the political space for a future government to change those rules so that Treasury officials are forced to consider not just short-term ‘efficiency’ but long-term returns.
The irony is that while Rishi Sunak has sold himself to his party and to the public as a return to sensible, sober government, he is presiding over the same slow-motion car crash. Truss just stamped far harder on the accelerator.
Sunak’s announcement today reneging on the Net Zero policies and timelines he signed off as Chancellor are another indication that this government is going nowhere fast. Riven with disagreement, the Conservatives would rather be defined by what they’re against than what they’re for. That might help them limp to the general election, but it is highly unlikely to extend beyond that point.
More seriously, it’s another shrug of the shoulders, rather than a committed attempt to convince the public of the necessity of change. It might be tempting for some people to believe in lower bills this winter – but what happens over the next ten or twenty, when some of the worst-insulated housing stock in Europe suffers from delayed energy efficiency measures? ‘Efficiency’ strikes again.
What are citizens, businesses and investors to take from all this? As we wrote all the way back in January, it’s up to actors outside of politics to take the country decisively in the right direction. Car companies might express anger at Sunak’s government for the latest delay in their agreed deadlines, but there is nothing to stop them ignoring today’s deferral and continuing – or even accelerating – the shift to greener vehicles.
More widely, it would be a mistake for businesses that accepted and advanced the Net Zero agenda to pay too much heed to the politicking. Instead, they should take confidence both from the long-term efficiency and productivity gains that will result from a more sustainable economy – and from the citizens who continue to support policies that attract investment on that basis.
Tom King is a Director at Lodestone Communications.