Monday, October 3, 2022

The Tories' Weird Incoherent Collapse

She's backtracking on her supply-side economic policy reforms. Not good for so new a prime minister. 

More from Andrew Sullivan, "The contradictions of Brexit and a choice for conservatism":

At the heart of Brexit was, it is now becoming ever clearer, a contradiction. For some on the economically liberal right, it was a chance for Britain to wrest free from becoming a highly regulated, highly taxed province of the European Union. It was a chance to create what the EU always feared: a low-tax, deregulated Singapore-on-Thames that would snag more business investment and realize its Thatcherite potential. For others — call them Red Tories — it was a way to preserve the nation, to listen to working-class voters who felt they had become the victims of the free market and free movement of labor across Europe, and to return to a conservatism that sought to protect rather than liberate.

Boris Johnson represented both wings — he had a liberal mind but a Tory gut. And his emphasis on more public spending, redistribution of wealth from South to North (“leveling up”), new infrastructure projects, and pissing off EU technocrats all pointed toward a much broader coalition for the right. He won a stonking majority on those grounds, re-branded the Tory party, and provoked writers like me to grapple with a new bigger-state Toryism, much more similar to its Disraelian past than its Thatcherite inheritance. It was a risk — but one that reflected a genuine shift among many ordinary people, responding to the catastrophic success of the Thatcher/Blair revolution. And his charisma and charm sold it.

That brave new dawn for Toryism really wasn’t that long ago. It was echoed in much of the revamped debate about conservatism in America — with Republicans worried again about a beleaguered working class, the decline in domestic manufacturing, off-shoring, mass immigration, and the collapse of the family and a vibrant civil society. These intellectual and ideological realignments take time — but it seemed that Johnson had that time, and the wind behind him, when he won so convincingly in 2019.

But Boris was Boris; and it is difficult to be a pathological liar and deeply unserious about everything and stay in power in a parliamentary system where your peers matter. The right inheritor was Rishi Sunak, Boris’ sane chancellor. But the tiny Tory membership, like the much bigger Labour membership that once picked the nutter Jeremy Corbyn, went for the base-pleasing radical, Liz Truss, aka “the human hand-grenade,” as Dominic Cummings has dubbed her.

And almost instantly, whatever coherence or direction or even meaning that resided in post-2016 conservatism vanished. Overnight, Truss has gone full retro-Thatcher, with a dose of unfunded Reaganite fiscal stimulus thrown in. She and her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, have backed a series of policies that will super-charge inflation, redistribute wealth back from the North to the South, super-size the post-Covid debt, and force the Bank of England to raise interest rates so high that soaring mortgage payments in Britain will cancel out much of the tax cuts’ stimulus anyway. It’s insane. And it has virtually no constituency beyond 20 percent of the Tory party’s elderly membership who picked her.

It’s true that some of the policies are popular. The “mini-budget” is a huge giveaway, after all, and the bulk of it is to cushion soaring energy prices because of the war in Ukraine. As Matt Goodwin shows here, Brits like the small tax cuts for the working and middle classes; and they support the energy subsidies for this coming winter and the next. But they have no idea why the government couldn’t claw back some of that money with a tax on the huge windfall profits of energy companies, and are disgusted by a set of measures that seem designed to alienate the very working-class voters Boris won:

Scrapping the cap on bankers’ bonuses? Only 12 per cent of voters support it. Abolishing the 45% top rate of income tax for people earning over £150,000 a year? Only 11% support it. Cancelling the planned increase in corporation tax? Only one in five think it’s good idea.

When a political party reverses itself so completely after a landslide election win, you’d imagine that there would be a huge campaign to explain why — a major communications push, briefings of journalists, speeches, and all the rest. But the day that Kwarteng introduced this shocker, he barely picked up the phone and went to a pub.

The prime minister herself went silent as the pound tanked, the IMF panicked, and the Bank of England said it would be forced to hike interest rates more decisively than before. Yesterday, she finally held a press call with regional and local papers in Britain … and was incapable of saying anything faintly coherent or compelling. The questions were tougher than any US president would ever face from the US media, but it was nonetheless painful to listen to. A brutal quip from an opposition leader, Angela Rayner, summed it up: “Liz Truss has finally broken her long painful silence with a series of short painful silences.”

Immigration? You might recall how Brexit was fueled in part by the demographic revolution initiated by Tony Blair, and the public’s sense that they had lost control of their own country. Yes, part of this was ethnic and cultural, as the once homogeneous island was turned into something it had never previously been at a breakneck pace. Both those in favor of staying in the EU and those who wanted to leave preferred immigration from the EU to immigration from the rest of the world.

But Boris’ immigration reform — while taking back control from the EU — massively liberalized skilled, non-white immigration from the rest of the world. This past year has seen foreign work visas surge by 80 percent. As Goodwin writes, there are now “close to 1.8 million non-EU nationals working in Britain — 302,000 more than a year ago.” The biggest contributors? India, the Philippines, Nigeria and, with a cool 744 percent increase, Zimbabwe. This is a great refutation of the idea that Boris was or is a racist. But I don’t think it’s what most Brexit voters were anticipating. (Ed West, in fact, observes how different this makes the British right from the resurgent right-populism in Italy and Sweden. The Tories have actually embraced mass non-white immigration since Brexit, not kept power by vowing to end it.)

It’s enough to make you think that the Tory party has become an incoherent, chaotic shit-show, zig-zagging, divided, bitter and exhausted after 12 years in power. This is not to say, of course, that supply-side reforms in a country with struggling productivity are bad; nor to deny that Brexit has widened the scope of actions the UK government can take. (Tyler Cowen notes that there’s less stimulus in the plan than some are claiming.) But policies this ill-timed, this different from what has gone before, and this horribly communicated are a form of collective political suicide. It does not in any way surprise me that the polling has shown a simply staggering and instant collapse in Tory support. In one poll, Labour now leads by 33 points — the largest lead by any party since the 1990s.

So what now? Well, the Tory party has its annual conference next week — so we won’t lack for drama. The most hopeful scenario, some Tory friends tell me, is that the energy crisis won’t be as bad as many feared, that the economy might rebound with this stimulus, and that some of these reforms will indeed juice some productivity gains. That’s a profoundly weak case for optimism. But the deeper problem is figuring out just what conservatism now is. Neoliberalism unbound? Or illiberalism unleashed? Protectionism? Ever freer trade? Pro-immigration neoliberalism? Or anti-immigration conservatism?

The good news is that the Tories are not careening toward the anti-democratic authoritarianism of the GOP. The bad news is that they have nothing else coherent to offer, and no one left with any talent to sell it. Advantage: Keir.