Tories may be wrong on national debt, but some are right on personal debt

The Bright Blue conference revealed some allies in the fight against the payday lenders

Last week I attended a conference run by the Tory "Fresh" group Bright Blue. There were plenty of faces I recognised and not all of them belonging to the "left wing" of the Tory party. After a few conversations it had become apparent that there is an anger across all wings of their party regarding the continued employment of George Osborne.

For the Tories, who fancy themselves as the party of fiscal responsibility (though as a Labour party member myself, I remain skeptical), the perception of Osborne's continued weak effort is the source of much frustration.

However to suggest that Osbornomics is the sum total of the financial thinking within the Conservative party would be an error. Take the area of finance that I'm interested in for example, that of personal debt – many in the party who are driven by principle rather than pride tend to sit on the correct side of the tracks here.

Justin Tomlinson MP, for example, the member for North Swindon, is one of the most vocal critics of the payday lending industry in parliament.

Earlier this year he addressed parliament during the debate on the clauses in the Financial Services Bill in support of imposing a total cost cap on loans that lenders can deal out to consumers. This, for him, is one way to ensure exploitative companies don't make life harder of those who are most vulnerable.

But Tomlinson understands that this cannot be a single policy enacted in isolation. This was why he, along with fellow Conservative member of parliament, Andrew Percy, authored a very interesting report on financial education. For them both, more focus on finance early on, can better gear up people when they are older to make healthy financial decisions – which can be hard to come by if times are tough on the pocket with more and more payday lenders popping up on our high streets.

With Percy, his interest in bad debt stems from his own problems with it. Though he has never had to take out a payday loan, he has been in the position of owing tens of thousands of pounds – for which as of 2011 he was still paying off.

"I now pay about £600 a month to clear off all of my credit cards which I've had to roll into a loan since my election", he told the BBC last year.

Another Tory MP, Tracey Crouch, member for Chatham and Aylesford, also came into focusing on debt issues as a consequence of her own past. When I spoke to her earlier this year she told me that her debts were down to "youthful stupidity" and her £15,000 credit card and store card debt was largely the outcome of living a lifestyle she couldn’t afford, which some of her peers could.

Crouch insisted that there is a positive side to credit, indeed most regard it as the sign of a healthy economy. However she herself has seen the negative side of it. She is particularly concerned about those who are termed the "underbanked", namely those those who still have bills to manage and cashflow problems to overcome, but are restricted in their access to mainstream credit products.

Given the rate at which the payday loans industry is growing, the temptation to see this as an easy way out for the very vulnerable increases. The government has a responsibility to do what it can to ensure all consumers do not fall foul to expensive loans, but also many of the barriers of alternatives such as credit unions need to be overcome too.

For example the Association of British Credit Unions (ABCUL) still haven't tapped into social media, and trying to raise credit union membership that way, whereas payday lenders such as Wonga have done this very successfully.

One person who does know a thing or two about credit unions is Damian Hinds MP, the member for East Hampshire. He chairs the All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Credit Unions, and is a vice chairman of the APPG on Debt.

His politics are perhaps most interesting because he is a self-described free-market Conservative. He told me that when he first became an MP he was convinced that market solutions would drive down expensive lenders and anything the state could do would only frustrate this process.

However, he has since changed tack on this, deciding that "normal market rules don't apply with payday lenders". Now Hinds realises that the state can play a part in helping a create a fairer lending market since all evidence points out that the invisible hand is typically absent.

The legacy of Osbornomics will be negative – and Conservatives themselves are as adamant as anyone that this is the case. David Cameron is not being a renegade, but a fool for keeping him. But the Conservative party is not without sound economic minds – and on an issue as important as personal debt this is proven most forcibly.

A payday loan company in Birkenhead. Photograph: Getty Images

Carl Packman is a writer, researcher and blogger. He is the author of the forthcoming book Loan Sharks to be released by Searching Finance. He has previously published in the Guardian, Tribune Magazine, The Philosopher's Magazine and the International Journal for Žižek Studies.
 

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories