Sexy taxes, jubilee fatigue and expat islanders in Swindon

 

It’s been quite the week for odd policy interventions by random busybodies. First came the leaking of the venture capitalist Adrian Bee­croft’s romp through red tape (sample recommendation: let employers “fire at will”, because removing hard-fought workers’ rights apparently will encourage consumer spending). This was swiftly followed by the TaxPayers’ Alliance report on, you guessed it, tax (I’ll summarise: they’re against it).

Soon after publishing the report – ambitiously priced at £50 a copy – the TPA’s directors embarked on a victory lap through the TV studios, omitting to mention some of their odder deductions.

My favourite has to be the suggestion, in a chapter written by the zoologist Matt Ridley (not only a viscount but also a former chairman of Northern Rock), that support for taxation is down to “sexual jealousy”. No, really. “Even in an age of working women, sexual continence and gender equality, the man with the most money still gets more sexual opportunities than the man with the least money . . . no wonder we want tax to take that money off a Vanderbilt before he grabs all the best women.”

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, chaps (and I mean that – only one of 16 “commissioners” named on the report’s opening page is a woman), but doesn’t that analysis rather depend on it only being men who pay tax? I think I need to have a word with HMRC.

The Swindon lot

The remote island of St Helena in the South Atlantic – at present accessible only through a two-day, 800-mile boat trip from Ascension Island – is building an airport and advertising in a newspaper for a statistician to deal with the subsequent transition “from a centralised economy . . . to a market economy” focused on tourism. (Currently, half the islanders work for the government and postage stamps are one of the biggest exports.)

I can’t work out my favourite part of this story. Is it that the advert promises a “relocation allowance”? Possibly. Or it might well be the discovery that the largest expat community of the wild, remote and windswept St Helena is in the not-at-all wild and remote, although occasionally windswept, city of Swindon. There are just 4,000 people on St Helena, but 800 expats in the Wiltshire city, winning it the nickname “Swindelena” in the Swindon Advertiser.

IPOcalypse no!

It’s good to know one sector of the British economy is experiencing a boom: the neologism industry. OK, “chillaxing” – the sport in which Cameron allegedly excels at weekends – doesn’t count, having entered the dictionary some years ago, but fans of crashingly awful portmanteaux (crawmanteaux?) have plenty of others to choose from. After Swindelena and “Grexit” – the potential Greek exit from the euro – comes the description of the flotation of Facebook on the Nasdaq. It has been dubbed the “IPOcalypse”.

Jubilympic madness

The closer we get to the Golden Jubilee and the Olympics, the more I’m feeling like an enormous party-pooper, unmoved by the faux-festivities. Mostly that’s because my in-box is being flooded daily with red, white and blue tat. (Brora was the latest, trying to flog me “Union Jack cashmere wristwarmers” for £45, which will come in handy as I’m watching the Jubilee celebrations in THE HOTTEST MONTH OF THE YEAR.) The official London 2012 online shop is a fiesta of patriotic piffle. Is there really a big market for “Team GB handbag charms” at £60 a pop? And how did the “host cities of the Olympic Games ingot set”, a collection of 27 gold-plated bricks at £775, sell out? Don’t even start me on the people flogging their Olympic torches on eBay. If selling overpriced souvenirs were an Olympic sport, Britain would definitely take the gold.

Spelling Bee

Back to Beecroft. I’m not sure that “evidence-based policy”, a Whitehall buzzword, has completely caught on. Following the publication of the report, Clive Hollick, co-founder of IPPR, the left-wing think tank, tweeted: “When I asked Beecroft for the evidence to support his recommendations, he told me that they were heresay [sic] based only on what he had been told”. Robert Peston, the BBC’s business editor, shot back: “Do you mean ‘hearsay’ or ‘heresy’?” Sadly, it was the former: the words “I” or “my” appear 20 times in 16 pages, while the words “research” or “studies” don’t feature at all.

Anatomic power

One upside of the Queen is that she doesn’t half own a lot of stuff. At the weekend, I went to the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, to see Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings. I haven’t seen much press coverage of the exhibition but it’s well worth a visit; the idea of Leonardo as a “Renaissance Man” is a cliché worn down to the stump but the drawings remind you of the scope of his intellect.

They remind you, too, of the strange beliefs he was brought up with, the most startling being that a foetus was conceived using elements from the father’s spinal cord, heart and testes. Sounds painful.

Ninja Dave

The revelation that David Cameron plays a “crazy, scary” amount of Fruit Ninja, the iPad game where you cut and cut (fruit) until you can cut no more, has had one unexpected bonus. The game is now number one in the UK iPad app charts; it wasn’t even in the top ten this past week. Shame its developers, Halfbrick, are Australian, otherwise Dave could legitimately claim to be boosting British industry as he sits on the Downing Street sofa, swiping away into the small hours. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

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