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31 October 2012

Heseltine’s wisdom exposes Osborne’s limits

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

By George Eaton

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.

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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.