Heseltine's wisdom exposes Osborne's limits

The former Conservative deputy prime minister condemns the government's lack of a growth strategy.

When George Osborne commissioned Michael Heseltine to produce a review of economic policy, he must have known that the results would not be entirely favourable to the government. The former deputy prime minister, a one nation Tory, has long favoured the kind of state interventionism that is anathema to the modern Conservative Party. Even so, it would be surprising if Osborne wasn't having at least some regrets this morning. Heseltine's 228-page report (which must be the first to feature a cartoon of its author on the cover), entitled No Stone Unturned in Pursuit of Growth, is a searing indictment of the coalition's approach.

The above cartoon appears on the front of Michael Heseltine's report.

"The message I keep hearing is that the government is that the UK does not have a strategy for growth and wealth creation," Heseltine writes, and he appears to agree. In an attempt to fill this void, he urges the government to establish a Prime Minister-led National Growth Council (rather like the National Economic Council abolished by the coalition), to transfer £58bn in funding to Local Enterprise Partnerships, to review "regulations relating to immigration policy", to "clarify urgently" its solution to the problem of aviation capacity, to outline a "definitive and unambiguous energy policy" (not much sign of that), to block foreign takeovers if they damage national interests, to hand a legal role to chambers of commerce to encourage local support for businesses, and to continue to "promote the British interest in Europe" (Heseltine is a reminder of the days when Tory MPs were more pro-EU than their Labour counterparts). But with the Treasury already briefing against him last weekend, it remains to be seen how many (if any) of these proposals become government policy.

The recurring mantra of the report is that an interventionist state is an essential precondition for growth. Having once believed in "the simplest of notions of the role of government. Get off our backs, cut the red tape, deregulate, lower taxes", Heseltine has come round to the view that "there are some things that only government can do to drive growth". At a time when the Tory party is increasingly dominated by crude Thatcherites, it is profoundly refreshing to hear such words from a Conservative.

Elsewhere, in a welcome blast against the supply side fanatics, he writes: "I reject the notion that regulation in itself hinders growth. Good, well-designed regulation can stop the abuse of market power and improve the way markets work to the benefit of business employees and consumers." And he warns that tax cuts, the right's other favoured solution, will "have only a limited effect", "the principal void in today's investment climate is confidence".

Heseltine's report is a reminder both of his enduring wisdom and of the paucity of the government's economic vision. Osborne did the country, if not himself, a fine service in commissioning it.

Michael Heseltine said that he kept hearing that "the UK does not have a strategy for growth". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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At Labour conference, activists and politicians can't avoid each other – but try their best to "unsee"

My week, from havoc in the Labour family to a sublime act of real-life trolling – via a shopping centre.

I like to take a favourite novel with me to party conference for when it all gets too much, and this year I took China Miéville’s The City & the City. It takes place in the fictional cities of Besžel and Ul Qoma, two metropolises that exist in the same geographic space but must dutifully “unsee” one another or risk the sanction of Breach, the secret police force. It turned out to be a better allegory for what was going on outside my hotel than I had expected.

Labour, as I don’t need to tell you, is badly split on almost everything. Now that the acrid leadership race has reached its inevitable conclusion, activists and politicians on both sides are operating as if they had a standing duty to “unsee” each other. The atmosphere feels a bit like a family dinner after a blazing row: everyone is aware that things have been said that will take years to be forgiven, if they ever will be, so the conversation is largely banal and superficial.

The exception is the conference floor, the only place where Corbynites and Corbynsceptics cannot unsee each other, which was therefore the scene of several acrimonious confrontations after tricky votes. It’s difficult to predict where Labour goes from here. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is largely against a split, but its members surely can’t spend the next four years dutifully pretending not to see one another,or their activists?

 

Chaos and confusion

Would it have been better for Jeremy Corbyn if his defeated challenger, Owen Smith, had done a little bit better against him – not just in the final vote but throughout the contest? All summer, Smith distinguished himself only through his frequent gaffes, to the point where it felt more appropriate to describe him as a participant in the leadership race rather than a combatant.

The difficulty for both Corbyn and his critics is that his opponents in the PLP have no clear leader. As a result, their dissatisfaction is amorphous, rather than being productively channelled into a set of specific demands or criticisms, which Corbyn could then reject or accept. The overwhelming feeling about his leadership among the PLP is that “something must be done”. So whenever an MP embarks on a freelance assault – Margaret Hodge’s no-confidence motion, say, or Clive Betts’s attempt to bring back elections to the shadow cabinet – the majority leaps on the scheme. Corbyn’s critics reason that at least it’s something.

Although fractious Labour MPs might not see it that way, the decision not to restore shadow cabinet elections helps their cause. Taking away the leader’s ability to choose his ministerial team was a recipe for chaos – chaos that would, rightly, have been blamed on them.

 

Custody rights

If the Labour family would be, as I suspect, better off seeking a divorce, there is an irony that one of the things that they all agree on is the fate of the kids. The party is entirely united behind its leader in his opposition to grammar schools – as is almost every serious thinker on education policy, from Policy Exchange on the right through to Melissa Benn on the left.

Still, Labour will encounter a visceral type of resistance to its stance from the alumni of grammars, who, regardless of what the studies show, attribute their success to their attendance at selective schools. I can understand that. Although I went to a comprehensive, the emotional pull of one’s upbringing is hard to escape. I can, for example, read all the studies that show that children in single-parent families do worse – but I find it hard to experience it as anything other than an awful attack on my mother, to whom I owe everything.

Winning the argument over schooling will require a sensitive ear to those for whom the argument against the schools seems like an attack on their parents.

 

Pudding and pie

One of the nice things about being from a single-parent family is that I don’t have to admit to flaws – merely to unresolved kinks that would have been ironed out had my absent father stuck around. One such kink is my capacity for procrastination, which
results in my making decisions too often at the last minute.

This always comes back to bite me at party conference. At dinner events, I frequently put off picking my meal options to the point that I have to eat whatever the kitchen has left. At one meal this year, I was lucky enough to have three courses of pudding, but at another, my hastily cobbled-together starter seemed to consist entirely of pesto, taramasalata and rocket.

 

Too late

The best thing about party conference is sharing a panel with a politician you don’t know very much about who turns out to be highly impressive. It’s particularly cheering now, when my optimism about politics is at a low ebb. I try to meet them properly for coffee afterwards, although because of my capacity for putting things off, that doesn’t always happen.

Last year, I was chairing a particularly testy fringe on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The then shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, was running late and an MP from the 2015 intake had to field all the questions on her own. She did this with immense poise and knowledge, while clearly having a sense of how unhelpful some of the louder, angrier voices were – during one lengthy monologue from the floor, she turned and rolled her eyes at me. Her name was Jo Cox.

I kept meaning to get to know her, but I never got around to ringing her office, and now I never will.

 

Banter and bargains

A colleague alerts me to a sublime act of real-life trolling. When Everton opened a second branch of its team store in Liverpool’s shopping centre, it picked an innocuous name: Everton Two. Innocuous, that is, until you realise that the shopping centre is called Liverpool One. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

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