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Government reshuffle rumours bode ill for forard-looking Tories

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Government reshuffle rumours bode ill for forard-looking Tories

Post  Panda on Sun 14 Jul - 12:00

Government reshuffle rumours bode ill for forward-looking Tories
A government that ejects a politician of David Willetts's calibre, intellect and experience to make space for (say) an Etonian with a full head of hair is practising self-harm

George Osborne’s purpose last week was transparently political: to present Labour as a party introspectively obsessed with reforming itself and still hopelessly confused on economic policy Photo: PA
By Matthew d’Ancona
3:49PM BST 13 Jul 2013
101 Comments
Of all the rumours swirling round Westminster about the forthcoming mini-reshuffle, the most disquieting concerns the possible pensioning off to the backbenches of David Willetts. For the sake of the Government, I hope this gossip is unfounded. If it has a basis in fact, I urge the Prime Minister, George Osborne and Ed Llewellyn – Cameron’s chief of staff and the man with the Post-it notes in any reshuffle – to think again.

Willetts, presently the Minister of State for Universities and Science, has never been admitted to the Cameroon inner circle, perhaps because he initially supported David Davis in the 2005 leadership contest (the PM has a long memory). The role of in-house “Deep Thought” was long ago entrusted to Oliver Letwin, who, in a Sunday Telegraph article in July 2005, became the first MP to endorse Cameron as a prospective leadership contender.

That said, a Government that ejects a politician of Willetts’ calibre, intellect and experience simply to make space for (say) an Etonian with a full head of hair is practising self-harm. In the cacophony of politics, his is a voice of calm deduction; more to the point, he has helped to give intellectual form to modern Conservatism and to explore the challenges facing Tories in the early 21st century.

In particular, he has urged them not to indulge in “bring-backery”: the lazy reflex to call for the restoration of practices, institutions and social systems whose time has passed. In his superb book The Pinch – one of the unofficial manuals of Cameronism – Willetts also shows how often taxation is simply “one generation compulsorily taking money from another” to fund a higher benefit bill, or to finance a deficit.

Both examples, as it happens, are profoundly relevant to the Chancellor’s remarks last week about his fiscal strategy and philosophy. On Thursday, he told the Commons Treasury committee that the Government’s targets could be achieved without tax rises. “The further consolidation after 2015/16 is built into the tables as a spending reduction,” he said. “I am clear that tax increases are not required to achieve this. It can be achieved with spending reductions.”

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At a lunch organised by the Parliamentary Press Gallery, Osborne made the same point: “I think this can be delivered through spending and savings both in welfare and in departments, and there is no need for tax rises to contribute to that fiscal consolidation.”

Let us first be clear what this was not: it was not an exercise in what Willetts would call “bring-backery”, a blue-in-tooth-and-claw revival of the mythic, marginal Toryism that sees all tax as evil, all public spending as profligate and anything more than a fax machine in Whitehall as the work of Big Brother. That kind of stuff is fun in meetings held in rooms above pubs, and blog comments that insist Cameron and Osborne are mid-ranking Illuminati. But it has no future as mainstream electoral politics.

Indeed, one of the achievements of the PM and the Chancellor during the Coalition has been to make clear that they understand the necessity of “fair taxation”. Cameron devoted much of the UK’s presidency of the G8 to this principle on a global scale. In his Budget speech in March, Osborne declared that “a tax system where people and businesses pay what is expected of them is part of the glue that holds society together”. This is a generational shift: a recognition that a tax system which is visibly fair (as well as globally competitive) is part of the modern social contract.

The question is: what constitutes “fairness”? Exhibit A is last year’s Budget, which quickly disintegrated into an “omnishambles”. Even as Osborne cut the top rate, he lifted two million low-paid workers out of income tax. But that social symmetry was obscured by the fury over the granny tax, pasty tax, caravan tax, and other comparatively minor irritants. From this bruising experience, the Chancellor concluded that it is better to tax one thing and, as he has told colleagues, “take the hit all in one”, rather than fight many small battles.

More generally, his political antennae suggested to him that the voters were reaching a fundamental moment of decision. If they had to choose, they would prefer spending cuts to tax increases. In which context: Exhibit B is Osborne’s speech last month announcing the 2015-16 spending review.

In typically brazen style, Osborne framed the exercise not as an apology for missed deficit targets, but as the continuation of a successful strategy. In particular, he exploited the occasion to articulate and celebrate the central principle of public service reform: that it is possible to do better, for less. Look at the Home Office, he said: “What was the prediction from the opposition three years ago? Crime would rise. And what has happened instead? Crime has fallen by more than 10 per cent.”

This is the reward of a lengthy exercise in public diplomacy, launched in 2009. Four years on, the voters have grown used to the rhetoric of austerity. It would be stretching it to say that spending cuts no longer inspire alarm. But the incremental approach adopted by Cameron and Osborne, so scorned by some in the Tory movement, has allowed the public to grow used to the new realities.

Contrast this with the NHS reforms which were sprung upon the electorate without warning, explanation, or what the PM calls “pitch-rolling”. Postponement is always presented as failure. But it is more frequently a sign of wisdom: the new, more cautious timetable for the Universal Credit decreases the risk that this huge upheaval will become the Coalition’s poll tax.

In the case of public sector retrenchment, the challenge has never been to identify particular cuts. It has been to make them politically practical. Slowly, but substantially, the realm of the practical has expanded: a Conservative Chancellor with a decent majority could go a lot further. Will he or she get the chance? Osborne’s purpose last week was transparently political: to present Labour as a party introspectively obsessed with reforming itself and still hopelessly confused on economic policy. He also hoped to differentiate his party from the Lib Dems, who have not ruled out tax increases (and will not do so).

Such undertakings, of course, have a history that is best described as “chequered”.

In the 1992 election campaign, Norman Lamont said he had ''no plans’’ to raise VAT – and then did precisely that the following year. The memory of that broken promise, and others like it, lingers, vague but strong. It will be hard for the Chancellor to persuade the public that he means it. It will be even harder – if the Tories win – to stick to the pledge. What happens to the ring-fenced budgets (health and international development), the protected line-items (schools), and the sacred turf of pensions and retirement benefits? Delicate terrain, all of it. This will be a time for cool heads and sharp minds, for calm explanation rather than shrill rhetoric. I can’t think of a worse moment to hand the golden carriage clock to David Willetts

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Re: Government reshuffle rumours bode ill for forard-looking Tories

Post  Panda on Sun 14 Jul - 12:05

"That said, a Government that ejects a politician of Willetts’ calibre, intellect and experience simply to make space for (say) an Etonian with a full head of hair is practising self-harm. "

Could he be alluding to my mate Boris ?? 

This Government is in tatters and there is not one Depertment functioning well.

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