The Tories are fail­ing to de­liver free-mar­ket ideas

The Sunday Telegraph - - Sunday Comment - DIA CHAKRAVARTY READ MORE JANET DA­LEY READ MORE

By all ac­counts the coup to re­move the Prime Min­is­ter has failed – for now. Her Par­lia­men­tary col­leagues ap­pear to have united be­hind her, with their anger in­stead be­ing directed at their dis­rup­tive col­leagues. Seventy-one per cent of Con­ser­va­tive vot­ers asked by YouGov say that MPs call­ing for the PM’s res­ig­na­tion are be­ing ir­re­spon­si­ble and should stop. With their leader wounded by sheer bad luck, any MP mak­ing a move against her would risk be­ing seen as a bully or as try­ing to cap­i­talise on Mrs May’s mis­for­tune to ad­vance their own ca­reer, while risk­ing the sta­bil­ity of the coun­try.

Take the prankster, the cough and the dis­in­te­grat­ing stage away, though, and you are left with a dire speech.

Like some mem­bers of the Labour Party, is Mrs May’s team un­der the il­lu­sion that it was Mr Cor­byn’s party which won the elec­tion? The les­son that the Con­ser­va­tive lead­er­ship ap­pears to have taken from the June elec­tion is that it was Labour’s man­i­festo that won the elec­tion, with the Con­ser­va­tives merely left in of­fice to im­ple­ment it. What other pos­si­ble jus­ti­fi­ca­tion can there be for re­hash­ing in­ter­ven­tion­ist poli­cies which only harm those they in­tended to ben­e­fit by dis­tort­ing the mar­ket? Let’s look at an ex­am­ple.

The en­ergy price cap was Ed Miliband’s flag­ship pol­icy, which he first an­nounced in 2013. The past is in­deed a for­eign coun­try. Mr Miliband’s idea was then at­tacked as Marx­ist by the Con­ser­va­tives, yet just a few years later, an en­ergy cap is Con­ser­va­tive pol­icy, de­liv­ered by Mrs May with this warn­ing: “For while we are in favour of free mar­kets, we will al­ways take ac­tion to fix them when they’re bro­ken.”

As is of­ten the case with gov­ern­ment-led mar­ket in­ter­ven­tion, there are con­cerns that an ar­bi­trary en­ergy price cap will harm con­sumers rather than help them, as en­ergy com­pa­nies will pre-emp­tively raise prices, with the cheap­est fixed-rate deals be­ing with­drawn from the mar­ket, re­strict­ing con­sumer choice. It is a clas­sic ex­am­ple of a mar­ket in­ter­ven­tion mak­ing mat­ters much worse for con­sumers. The irony is that when this pol­icy fails to de­liver, it’ll be branded as a fail­ure of the free mar­ket, paving the way for more gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion.

We have a po­lit­i­cal cli­mate where the shadow chan­cel­lor, when asked how share­hold­ers of in­dus­tries brought into na­tional own­er­ship un­der a Labour gov­ern­ment would be com­pen­sated, boldly de­clares on BBC Ra­dio 4 that the value of com­pa­nies’ shares will be de­ter­mined by Par­lia­ment. The Con­ser­va­tives – sup­pos­edly the party of the free mar­ket – should be ex­tolling at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity the dan­gers of state in­ter­ven­tions in the mar­ket. They should be stri­dently mak­ing the point that many of the prob­lems which are blamed on the free mar­ket are ac­tu­ally caused by ham-fisted mar­ket in­ter­ven­tion. In­stead, Con­ser­va­tives seem in­tent on res­ur­rect­ing in­ter­ven­tion­ist poli­cies which they them­selves have con­demned as dan­ger­ous in the re­cent past.

Theresa May’s con­fer­ence speech dis­as­ter is a mi­nor glitch com­pared to the party’s com­plete fail­ure to make the ar­gu­ment and de­liver the free-mar­ket poli­cies the coun­try des­per­ately needs in prepa­ra­tion for Brexit. A party can re­cover from los­ing a leader or even an elec­tion. Re­cov­er­ing its lost soul is much harder. FOL­LOW Dia Chakravarty on Twit­ter @Di­aChakravarty;

at tele­­ion To or­der prints or signed copies of any Tele­graph car­toon, go to tele­­toons or call 0191 603 0178

Let’s get this out of the way at the start. It was hu­manly im­pos­si­ble not to feel the most un­bear­able sym­pa­thy for Theresa May’s pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion. I was nearly re­duced to tears watch­ing it, so I un­der­stand (and ad­mire) the char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally Bri­tish kind­ness that has been show­ered on her. But you don’t give some­body a coun­try to run be­cause you feel sorry for them. And all the char­i­ta­ble talk of the de­ba­cle “not be­ing her fault” is, I’m sorry to say, not quite right.

What hap­pened on the podium last Wed­nes­day was not a bizarre, un­fore­see­able se­ries of ac­ci­dents. The voice fi­asco, which was the most se­ri­ously dam­ag­ing as­pect of it, was par­tic­u­larly pre­dictable and could have been avoided. Ev­ery broad­caster (like ev­ery actor) knows that if you are suf­fer­ing from a cough prior to a per­for­mance, a doc­tor can pro­duce an anaes­thetis­ing throat spray which will en­sure you are un­trou­bled for a num­ber of hours. If Mrs May’s team does not know this – or if she re­fused to ac­cept their ad­vice – then they are all un­fit for their of­fices. This isn’t even a mat­ter of po­lit­i­cal judg­ment: it’s a ques­tion of pro­fes­sion­al­ism and sim­ple com­pe­tence.

But the Prime Min­is­ter’s cred­i­bil­ity – and her re­la­tion­ship with the party – had be­gun to break down be­fore the am­a­teur­ish sham­bles at Con­fer­ence. It re­ally started when she de­clared her in­ten­tion to con­tinue as leader through to the next gen­eral elec­tion. Her orig­i­nal state­ment to the par­lia­men­tary party af­ter the dis­as­ter of the last elec­tion that she would stay on for “as long as you want me to” was gra­cious and ap­pro­pri­ately hum­ble. When she ap­peared to re­tract that prom­ise in the name of her fa­mous de­ter­mi­na­tion to “get on with the job” it did not look like coura­geous ded­i­ca­tion (as she ob­vi­ously in­tended) but ar­ro­gance.

She first said it in re­sponse to a di­rect ques­tion in a broad­cast in­ter­view. On the spur of the mo­ment, she may have felt that it was nec­es­sary to ut­ter an un­equiv­o­cal dec­la­ra­tion that sounded con­fi­dent about the fu­ture – and then, of course, she had to stand by it. But the ques­tion should have been an­tic­i­pated: po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in dif­fi­cult po­si­tions need a script ready for such awk­ward mo­ments.

Was she caught off guard and pushed into giv­ing an un­wise re­ply? Did her team not pre­pare for this pos­si­bil­ity? Or did she ig­nore their ad­vice? Again, ei­ther way, she is un­fit for her po­si­tion. This isn’t just a fail­ing of tac­tics: it sug­gests that her judg­ment is se­ri­ously in­ept, and that she is not ca­pa­ble of mak­ing a team (in­clud­ing her Cab­i­net) work suc­cess­fully.

So even in the midst of our agony it was ap­pro­pri­ate to feel an­gry. This dis­play of floun­der­ing in­ep­ti­tude would have been em­bar­rass­ing at a lo­cal coun­cil meet­ing. In a na­tional read­er­prints@tele­ gov­ern­ing party fac­ing the most crit­i­cal im­passe in post-war Bri­tish his­tory, as well as the most dan­ger­ously ir­re­spon­si­ble op­po­si­tion for a gen­er­a­tion, it was sim­ply un­ac­cept­able. It is delu­sional to think that things can go on as they are.

On this score, there are some pe­cu­liarly stupid things be­ing said. The May Loy­al­ists claim­ing that the Plot­ters are only de­mand­ing her res­ig­na­tion out of per­sonal bit­ter­ness be­cause (said with heavy sar­casm) “they think their own tal­ents have been ig­nored” are sim­ply fu­elling the sense of a party fall­ing into ac­ri­mo­nious pieces. Even if the de­mands for her res­ig­na­tion are be­ing led by mal­con­tents, that doesn’t mean they are wrong. You might just as eas­ily ar­gue that the peo­ple who are de­ter­mined to keep her in place are do­ing so be­cause they be­lieve they, or their views, are likely to be favoured by her. Ev­ery­body has a dog in this fight. By jam­ming up be­hind Mrs May with sup­port, the party sim­ply looks as if it is, to re­sort to the tra­di­tional cliché, sleep­walk­ing. For Mrs May her­self to an­nounce, as she did on Fri­day, that the coun­try needs calm lead­er­ship and “that is ex­actly what I am pro­vid­ing” looks blithely pre­sump­tu­ous rather than as­sured.

None of it – not the speech catas­tro­phe or the man­age­ment fail­ures – would mat­ter so much if the con­tent of her po­lit­i­cal pro­gramme was inspirational or even sound. To make some mis­takes en route to a glo­ri­ous ob­jec­tive would be ex­cus­able – be­cause the prospect of a great new plan for the fu­ture would nec­es­sar­ily in­volve risks and the peo­ple would un­der­stand that.

But to suf­fer through all this mis­han­dling and bungling for the

‘None of it would mat­ter so much if the con­tent of her po­lit­i­cal pro­gramme was inspirational or even sound’

at tele­ opin­ion pro­mo­tion of a re­turn to coun­cil hous­ing – state-owned sub­sidised ac­com­mo­da­tion which un­der­mines so­cial mo­bil­ity? Her grand plan for the fu­ture is a re­turn to the Fifties? Once, not long ago, even Labour recog­nised that self-de­ter­mi­na­tion and as­pi­ra­tion were the keys to po­lit­i­cal pop­u­lar­ity and a gen­uinely free so­ci­ety. Now we have a Con­ser­va­tive lead­er­ship propos­ing to build more (but not much more) gov­ern­ment hous­ing.

Con­fus­ingly, in the same ill-fated speech Mrs May of­fered the ultimate state­ment of true Tory val­ues: “How far you go in life should de­pend on you and how hard you work.”

So which is it: Macmil­lan pa­ter­nal­ism or Thatcherite sel­f­re­liance? Or nei­ther? Some­thing new and bravely orig­i­nal? That might be pos­si­ble but for it to emerge would re­quire the kind of deep thought and se­ri­ous re­search that un­der­pinned both the elec­toral mir­a­cles of our time. The most suc­cess­ful po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in re­cent Bri­tish his­tory – Blair and Thatcher – ran their op­er­a­tions as con­tin­u­ous sem­i­nars. Ideas fac­to­ries, led by think tanks and aca­demic the­o­rists, pro­vided the sub­stance for po­lit­i­cal par­ties that, in op­po­si­tion and in gov­ern­ment, were en­gaged in con­stant and fre­quently heated de­bate, which some­times ex­ploded into open splits. But at least they were fall­ing out over ideas and not just snip­ing over per­sonal am­bi­tion. Where are the ideas now? Declar­ing your love, in the ab­stract, for the free-mar­ket econ­omy isn’t enough.

Mrs May speaks with ob­vi­ous sin­cer­ity of her sense of duty. It’s time to say that car­ry­ing on in the present job is prob­a­bly not the best way of ful­fill­ing it.

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