In the build-up to the 2015 election, back when people were for some reason expecting it to be very close, the role of kingmaker was occasionally attributed to Paul Johnson, the head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
Then, as now, the IFS was the nation’s most trusted voice on economic matters, and it was him and his team, more than all others, who would be listened to on the question of who could be trusted on the economy.
So we must hope, for his own sake, that Rishi Sunak, Jeremy Hunt and their long cast of forebears have chosen not to listen very hard to Mr Johnson’s now traditional day-after-Budget assessment. If they were paying attention, then they might as well give up and go home, and the rest of us frankly won’t bother to leave the house.
Johnson is not one for hyperbole. He deals in matters of fact. When, in 2015, David Cameron said that Labour was planning a £3,000 tax hit on every family in the country, Johnson described it as “unhelpful”. It was, in plainer English, complete b*******. But it does provide a useful vantage point from which to view his current assessment. “The truth is we just got a lot poorer. We are in for a long, hard, unpleasant journey; a journey that has been made more arduous than it might have been by a series of economic own goals,” he said.
Hunt and Sunak are absolutely desperate for people to believe that the causes of all this are global, which to an extent they are. Johnson, meanwhile, could hardly have been clearer.
Britain’s pain is a consequence of Brexit, a “clear economic own goal”, Liz Truss’s six-week premiership and deranged mini-Budget – “a large own goal.”
It is not yet winter, we are still just one season on from a long, tedious summer in which two either deluded or deceptive would-be prime ministers, competed on promises to make taxes lower, the state smaller, to usher in Tory nirvana.
They both got the job in the end, and yet, we defer again to Johnson: “I would be most surprised if the tax burden gets back down to its long-term pre-Covid average at any time in the next several decades. Higher taxes and a bigger state look to me to be here to stay unless something quite radical changes.”
We must repeat again that these are the words not of an activist, but a studiously impartial assessor of economic reality. It is a polite, accurate and devastating assessment of a decade of staggeringly bad government, of failure on a colossal scale.
Hunt’s Budget included increased spending on public services, to the tune of tens of billions. This was wafted away. It will not lead to improved services, but just recognises rising, inflation-based costs.
The successive Conservative governments of the last 12 years had, Johnson said, focused not on the economy but on “political priorities”, which will not exactly come as a shock to anyone who’s been paying any attention.
So when the guy who is occasionally spoken of as the arbiter of general elections tells you, in strictly neutral language, that everything you’ve done for 12 years has been a failure, and it’s only going to get worse, there’s a chance it means you’re in quite big trouble. And quite right too.
There is also no prospect of the Conservatives accepting reality, because they can’t. On the radio on Friday morning, Jeremy Hunt was talking about the urgent need to grow the economy. One way to grow the economy, very quickly indeed, would be to rejoin the EU single market. This, he said, was the “wrong way” to boost growth, itself an acknowledgement that it would, but that it can’t be done. That political priorities will have to carry on, because we are too far along the road to ruin now to turn back.
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There is no real backdrop to all this, the front-of-stage action being too vast for that. But it is worth observing that, during Hunt’s speech yesterday, various polling data emerges that shows support for the Conservatives among graduates under 50 is now at single figures.
There is no pathway back from there. Comically, a particular cause of this has been the complete abandonment of Cameron and Osborne’s modernising agenda, in favour of Brexit and spitfire nationalism. They have prioritised politics over economics, but got the politics spectacularly wrong too.
It is more than legitimate to ask if, after 2024, the Tories will ever govern again. And if they did, it would still be too soon.