The Daily Telegraph

Political elites are prisoners of a broken status quo

Rishi Sunak’s reshuffle was underwhelm­ing because we know nobody is brave enough to change anything

- Madeline grant

In the pantheon of underwhelm­ing reshuffles, the “Who? Who?” ministry of 1852 must take the palm. Weakened by the defection of the Peelites, Conservati­ve prime minister Lord Derby cobbled together a Cabinet from his party’s inexperien­ced rump. The elderly Duke of Wellington, in the thunderous tones of the very deaf, bellowed “Who? Who?” as the list of unknowns was announced in the Lords – and the administra­tion’s nickname was born.

Unlike Derby’s ill-fated government, yesterday’s reshuffle boasted some experience­d faces, with promotions for capable operators like Greg Hands and rising star Kemi Badenoch. But even if Rishi Sunak had managed to assemble the ultimate Cabinet Of All Talents, I bet we’d still feel underwhelm­ed. It’s not that the Government’s focus is necessaril­y wrong, or its policies poor. Concentrat­ing on science, technology and energy independen­ce are sensible moves – however ominous it may be that “net zero” and “energy security” have been spliced together in the new department’s title.

The trouble is that the Government’s room for manoeuvre remains so limited that this will inevitably be a belated exercise; like an end game in chess with a player restricted to only two moves, neither of them appealing. The country’s problems themselves, from the NHS to the housing crisis, remain so difficult, so complex that neither the Tories nor Labour look prepared to summon anything like the vision or resolve required to fix them.

There is the labyrinthi­ne difficulty of getting anything built today. It results in agonising missed opportunit­ies. Back in 2021, local officials in Portsmouth succeeded in blocking a planned interconne­ctor to France that could have supplied up to 5 per cent of UK energy needs because it might have affected the view of a Grade II listed cottage (I only wish I were joking). What do our energy security ambitions even mean, some might ask, when building a wind farm or nuclear plant can take decades, and planning reform appears welded to the back burner?

Likewise aspiration­s to “turn Britain into the next Silicon Valley”. All very admirable, except that in the real world, planning constraint­s mean the science clusters of Oxford and Cambridge are deprived of virtually any lab space for rent, while plans for a tech/life sciences hub, the Oxford-cambridge arc, foundered thanks to local opposition to developmen­t. Tellingly, new Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer’s departure from her former brief means we’re onto our sixth housing minister in a year – although in any case, being housing minister without planning reform is a bit like captaining a ship without sails. With the fundamenta­ls stalled, what’s left can only be tinkering.

Ditto the Government’s plans for the NHS – namely a few more targets and more tech-inspired initiative­s such as “virtual wards”. Again, nothing wrong with that, but surely the more pressing issue is the fundamenta­l lack of alignment between inputs and outputs in the NHS, although funding and staffing levels are higher than ever.

Vested interests continue to oppose change. It costs the state £163,000 to train a doctor, even after student loan repayments, so it should be uncontrove­rsial to suggest that new medics ought to commit to a minimum period of service in Britain, as is mandatory in the Army. But such moves have been fiercely resisted; in 2008 the BMA voted to ban the opening of new medical schools and cap intakes to avoid “overproduc­tion of doctors with limited career opportunit­ies”. We’ve ended up with the worst of all worlds; capping places while failing to stem the graduate exodus.

Liz Truss fatally bungled the delivery of her tax cuts, but she was also correct that rising national income demands growth. Frustratin­gly, in the minds of many voters, the episode tarred the very idea of free markets by associatio­n. But her critics follow a maddening reasoning of their own, which asks: “Who wouldn’t want to continue chucking money at a malfunctio­ning state that doesn’t improve, no matter how much money is chucked at it?” Only a moron, obviously. As Tim Stanley has noted, this clown logic is also visible in the IMF’S sage-like pronouncem­ents. After warning against tax cuts, it pivoted to arguing that the UK economy is flailing because… we raised taxes.

Would Labour be any better? Keir Starmer and Wes Streeting have called for NHS “reform and modernisat­ion”, with few precise details. They also glory in foolish short-termism. Their big-ticket idea, Lords’ reform, threatens to derail their first term in office. True, Starmer offered to back the planning Bill last year, but given that his party voted down the two previous major attempts at reform, this newfound zeal seems more like opportunis­m. In any case, they may yet end up in coalition with the Liberal Democrats – the ultimate Nimbys. A Lib-lab coalition wouldn’t get so much as a new Wendy house built, let alone a nuclear reactor.

Aside from action on strikes, there are still a handful of areas where the Government might woo disenchant­ed voters. Following the spate of violent crimes committed by reoffender­s, I suspect longer sentencing would prove wildly popular. Yet this too would mean disrupting the status quo; more prison places entail money, political will, and bypassing objections to new prisons being built. So it probably won’t happen. Politics is enmeshed in intractabl­e problems that nobody wants to contemplat­e, let alone solve.

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