A recipe for a U-turn

Government should talk to experts earlier.

This morning the CBI boss John Cridland has moaned to the Financial Times that the government’s growth plans have fallen into something of an implementation black hole. Having announced major plans to get the economy back on track last November the plans are now, says Cridland, mired in bureaucracy and sitting gathering dust on ministers’ and civil servants’ desks.

While this is not a new problem, the time lag between announcement and action does seem to have worsened under the current government. Some observers put this down to cuts in departmental budgets, with fewer civil servants able to jump to it and get new initiatives moving. Others claim its down to a lack of joined-up thinking across government departments.

In particular, the growth plan is apparently suffering from the emasculation of business secretary Vince Cable, since BIS should be a key co-ordinating ministry in this area. Whatever the cause, the outcome is the same. Months have passed without, as Cridland puts it, us seeing “diggers on the ground”. Cridland’s own view is that members of the government appear to be “dazzled in the headlights”.

I wonder if the reality might be something simpler. This expectation of early action has been caused by a tendency to rush into making announcements for political expediency, rather than weighing up the practical considerations.

A senior banker told me last week that following George Osborne’s Mansion House speech the week before, at which several key new policies around stimulating lending to small businesses were announced, his firm received a flurry of phone calls from Treasury officials asking exactly what those policies might mean in practice and how they might be implemented. To re-cap, that’s officials working out the practical details of implementing policies after they have been announced.

If nothing else that sounds like a recipe for a series of sudden and unexplained policy U-turns. As the omnishambles budget unfolded, George Osborne told the Today programme that the only worse than listening was not listening.

I’d suggest that it would make more sense to do that listening – to professionals and industry experts in particular – before announcing key policies rather than after.

This article originally appeared in economia.

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.