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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.