‘Dear Chief Secretary, I’m afraid there is no money. Kind regards — and good luck!’ Liam Byrne will forever be haunted by the note he left on his desk for his successor in 2010. Both coalition parties made much of what was supposed to be a joke about the difficulties of keeping Whitehall spending in check. David Cameron waved the note around in his victorious 2015 election campaign. Byrne later said he was so embarrassed by his mistake that he considered throwing himself off a cliff.
There’s nothing funny about what Theresa May leaves on her desk for the next prime minister. Rather than just one pithy note, there’s a teetering, disorganised in-tray of decisions the Tory leader has been putting off. For three years, Britain has had a government that has been unable to govern, leaving what is perhaps the biggest pile-up of unfinished business ever created by a peacetime government.
Under May, a nuclear winter descended on UK policy-making. She seemed to think that the best way to tackle the ‘burning injustices’ she named on the steps of Downing Street in 2016 was to pour cold water not on the fire itself, but on any ideas her ministers came up with. At first, secretaries of state were impressed with the shift from chillaxed David Cameron, who didn’t understand the detail of the NHS reform his government was carrying out until it became an enormous political row. May was serious, asking for more information on every policy. Ministers liked this — until they realised she wasn’t really ensuring something was designed correctly. ‘She just wanted to prevaricate for as long as possible,’ says one. ‘Anything to avoid making a decision.’
All the unresolved problems have created opportunities for the leadership candidates. They’ve each picked an issue to grandstand about, hoping their suggested solution demonstrates what sort of Conservative they are. Take Jeremy Hunt. He’s said HS2 is worth pressing ahead with. This, he thinks, marks him out as someone who believes in the power of the state to do good things for the country beyond London.
Dominic Raab is more worried about the £57 billion HS2 bill, and says he’d review the whole project — while cutting income tax by 1p a year for five years.
As Hunt tells this magazine, he is keen to copy some of Donald Trump’s ‘big business cuts in tax’. Sajid Javid wants to bring the top rate of income tax back down to 40p, while borrowing £100 billion for infrastructure projects, mainly in the north.
‘In another era, we’d be the party of low taxes and smaller state,’ says one of the leading contenders. ‘But the issue I’m hearing from colleagues is that the cuts have gone too far.’ Boris Johnson wants to ensure the per-pupil secondary school budget is at least £5,000, which would mean a big boost to most grammars. Hunt, the son of a Royal Navy admiral, suggests taking defence spending to American levels over ten years, which, if he is remotely serious, would mean almost trebling the cost today, the most expensive pledge made by anyone.
Such announcements are, above all, intended to show how different each contender is to May. That’s why all of them seem so interested in crime. Raab thinks the stop-and-search reforms that she introduced as home secretary have gone too far, while Javid and Johnson want to spend more money on boosting police numbers. Esther McVey promises £3 billion, to be funded (she says) by halving the foreign aid budget. It’s also why so many of them are using the row about Huawei to say they could reverse May’s decision to let the Chinese tech giant build parts of the UK’s 5G network.
In fact, all those now contending for the leadership are far more likely to leave the injustices smouldering away than to solve them. Whoever becomes prime minister could end up swerving around all the biggest crises facing this country, just as May did.
Take social care. Politicians all offer the same pointless platitude about ‘taking the politics out’ of the issue, which is code in Westminster for trying to get as far away from an unpopular decision as possible. A worthy-sounding commission headed by an unelected boffin will spend several years examining the detail which everyone already knows from the past five failed consultations. Then the prime minister can take a couple more years to read its earnest report about how to tax grannies or take away a hard-earned inheritance. And hey presto! There’s a convenient general election or change of leader to distract everyone before a decision is taken.
One of the boldest moments of May’s premiership was when she used her 2017 manifesto to promise proper funding for social care. Unfortunately, she messed up that pledge and caused a majority-crushing row about a ‘dementia tax’, and then was too scared to try again. A green paper has been sitting unpublished in the Department of Health since last autumn. One leadership contender complains that: ‘The problem with social care is that voters think it’s free at the moment and get really upset when we announce plans that involve them having to pay. So you can never ever win.’ Only Rory Stewart, who falls into the category of candidate who can never ever win, has decided to make social care a key part of his campaign.
Or take energy policy. How will the government keep the lights on following the collapse of the Moorside nuclear power plant deal? What does it have to say about Hitachi suspending its construction of another nuclear station in Wylfa Newydd in Anglesey? For more than a decade, Tories have talked up the wonders of shale gas but they have not found a way past local opposition to fracking. So what’s it to be? Will a Conservative prime minister opt for higher state involvement in energy, or might they invite in foreign investors, with all the associated security worries?
Then there’s housing. Those writing policy for the main contenders accept that their candidates won’t do anything that might upset Conservatives, such as promising to build large numbers of homes. Stewart says he’d build two million new homes within five years but doesn’t say how he’d go about it. Raab would tweak planning permission and hope for the best. Civil servants have started organising for a planning bill in the autumn in the vain hope that a new administration might cement over more of England’s green and pleasant land — though this is bound to cause a fight with the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
Such fights are necessary. Decisions are needed to solve problems that have festered for years precisely because there are no simple or popular options. It would be all too easy to make the same excuses as May about Brexit taking all the bandwidth. But it’s beginning to look as though Tories are developing a phobia of governing — and that voters are beginning to notice. The real question in this leadership contest isn’t who has the balls to deliver Brexit, but who has the strength of character to sift through that scary in-tray.
Now listen to Isabel Hardman talk to Alex Morton and Hugh Pym on that nightmare in-tray in The Spectator Podcast (00:30):