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15 April 2023

The Tories need to get over their obsession with the “I’m afraid there’s no money” note

It’s meant to shift the focus to the threat of a Labour government. But all it does is remind of Tory failure.

By Jonn Elledge

Leaving the Treasury after Labour’s victory in the 1964 election, the outgoing Tory chancellor Reginald Maudling wrote a note for his replacement, Jim Callaghan, or possibly (accounts vary) spoke to him in person: “Good luck, old cock, sorry to leave it in such a mess.” Callaghan thought he meant the office, not the economy; and while Labour did go on to win more seats at the next election, Maudling’s self-deprecating joke had very little to do with it.

Nearly half a century later, on the day Gordon Brown called the 2010 election, another team was preparing, in all likelihood, to leave the Treasury. With some sense that there was a tradition of ministers leaving advice for their successors, one, Liam Byrne, scribbled a one-sentence note for whoever that successor turned out to be: “Dear chief secretary, I’m afraid there is no money. Kind regards – and good luck! Liam.”

That was 13 years ago, and the Tories have yet to shut up about it. David Cameron’s government talked about it in the 2015 election campaign. Theresa May talked about it in a 2019 no confidence vote. In 2023, with this Tory government just as old and at least as tired as those that left office in 1964 and 2010, the party’s chairman, Greg Hands, is tweeting about it approximately once a week. In one tweet, he’s wrapped a copy of the note around some chips.

[See also: Labour’s attack ads against Rishi Sunak are disgraceful: Column]

There are a number of things that are deeply aggravating about all this. OK, Liam Byrne is not the easiest politician to defend – he muffed up a winnable campaign to become mayor of the West Midlands; last year he was briefly suspended from the Commons after being found guilty of bullying a staff member; and the “no money” letter isn’t even his only notorious note, which isn’t a great sign. (The “Working With Liam Byrne” memo is, in my humble opinion, quite a lot worse, because he meant it.) Nonetheless, the offending letter was quite clearly a joke – the same joke, in fact, as Maudling had made 46 years earlier. It was indeed “stupid”, as Byrne admitted in the Guardian in 2015 in a doomed attempt to atone for and expunge his mistake. It may even have been “offensive”. But it was never intended to be taken seriously.

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It was also never intended to be read by anyone but the next chief secretary. I’m not sure that Byrne’s assertions that this is a Treasury tradition stretching back to Churchill in the 1920s are correct – the only references to it I can find come from Byrne himself, so I suspect he may have misremembered something – but there is a tradition of outgoing ministers leaving private messages for incoming ones, and expecting them to remain private.

Byrne’s successor, the Liberal Democrat David Laws, chose not to respect that. Indeed, he read it out to a press conference, misquoting it as “no money left” in the process. This whole affair tells us less about Labour’s economic record than it does about the honour and trustworthiness of David Laws, who, thanks to the expenses scandal, would survive in the post for not quite three weeks.

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But the most infuriating thing about the fact we’re still talking about the letter 13 years later is the fact that it’s 13 years later, and there’s no bloody money now either. Taxes are on course to hit their highest level as a percentage of GDP since the Second World War, yet public services are on the floor and the country is visibly falling apart, in large part because wage rises and improving living standards are as much a thing of the past as the Spitfire. If the Tories lose the next election, and a Treasury minister were to leave a note for their successor apologising for the mess they’ve left behind, it would have to be a lot longer than a single sentence long. Yet they’re still trying to blame the last lot.

[See also: New Cabinet Office transparency data reveals Rishi Sunak’s dinner with Rupert Murdoch]

Why are they doing this – not just talking about the letter, but repeating the attack line at every opportunity, like George Osborne banging on about his mythical long-term economic plan? Best guess is that, with local elections around the corner, it’s a sort of core vote strategy. There are voters – especially (but not exclusively) those old enough to remember not just 2010 but 1979 – who still associate Labour with economic chaos. The note is a way of reminding these voters they can’t take the risk, of nudging angry “don’t knows” and apathetic non-voters back towards the Tory column.

In that limited way, it may work. But I’m not sure how many of those voters, more concerned with the worries of 2010 than those of 2023, there really are. For everyone else, a strategy focused not on the future but on one bad decision one mediocre minister made 13 years ago offers them nothing. Worse: in her 49 days in office, Liz Truss did something austerity and Brexit had failed to do, and showed the middle classes that you can’t trust the Tories with the economy.

So, like so much this government does – banging on about small boats they can’t possibly stop; blaming woke academics and TV presenters for national decline, rather than our actual leaders – the obsession with Liam Byrne’s note serves mainly to highlight the fact it has no real answers to the problems of today. It’s meant to shift the focus to the threat of a Labour government. But all it does is remind people of Tory failure.

[See also: Labour’s Sunak adverts show Keir Starmer has finally decided to gamble]

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