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.

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war