2 May 2023

The Tories can’t keep replaying Coalition era politics


The more one contemplates Greg Hands’ incessant deployment of Liam Byrne’s infamous ‘I’m afraid there is no money’ letter in the run up to Thursday’s local elections, the more profoundly depressing it becomes.

It’s quite impressive, in a way. Like a piece of modern art, it works on multiple levels, growing bleaker and more significant the more of its context is borne in mind when viewing it.

On the surface, it is relatively trivial. We are talking, after all, about one man’s Twitter feed. There have to date been precious few public figures whose image has been enhanced by the bird site, and it is not therefore especially surprising that the Conservative Chairman du jour is not one of them.

But then Twitter is not, alas, entirely trivial when it comes to politics; there’s a reason that ‘Twitter is not the country’ is something that politicians and journalists alike sometimes need to remind themselves of. It is where our political class come together online, and thus has an influence over coverage of the campaign entirely disproportionate to any attention the average voter pays to it.

Which is my slightly chin-stroking excuse for finally getting to write about how much I hate, hate, hate the letter meme Hands is trying so desperately to create.

The obvious political problem with it is that the Conservatives are trying to fight an election – and not even a general election, a local election – against the record of a Labour government which left office 13 years ago.

Obviously both sides tend to indulge in this sort of nonsense – Gordon Brown went long on the ‘same old Tories’ line in 2010, when the Major government was as much a thing of the history books as Brown’s is now. But that doesn’t make it any less an admission of failure, a plea to the electorate not to judge you on your own record.

In fairness, who can blame CCHQ. Whatever your politics, the Government’s list of achievements is thin. Polling today finds that voters in the Red Wall feel that despite Boris Johnson’s promises during the 2019 election, their communities have yet to benefit from levelling up.

And of course they haven’t, because ‘levelling up’ was never a coherent programme. It was just a promise to spend more money in various places that don’t usually vote Tory, married to Johnson’s typically arrogant assertion that his predecessors had been merely ‘stupid’ not to fix the North-South divide before he came along.

Lacking any apparent structural understanding of the problem or clear vision of what the solution looked like, levelling up devolved into either crackpot proposals for relocating the House of Lords, utopian nonsense about people not having to leave their home town to follow their dreams, and a few pots of money from which MPs could bid for pleasant but small-change local projects.

Meanwhile, at the national level the Tories can’t campaign on economic growth because their voters hate the main thing (building houses and infrastructure) which would unlock it, and they can’t campaign on low taxes because neither their voters nor their MPs would sign off the spending cuts needed to balance them.

So in that sense, Hands’ digging through CCHQ’s campaign reliquary for a once-potent artefact from a happier past is understandable – although there is something a bit snake-eating-its-own-tail about how the Conservatives’ recent habit of trying to memory-hole the recent political past has led them all the way back to the Downing Street rose garden.

In truth, though, the letter itself is actually an even bleaker milestone in British politics than the Tory Chairman’s embarrassing dependence on it. 

Byrne has said that writing that note is one of his biggest regrets, and who can blame him. It was touted by the Coalition as a secret confession that all the nation’s worst fears about spendthrift Labour were accurate, and certainly did his prospects no favours.

But he is not the villain of the piece, David Laws is. 

The Lib Dem minister’s stint as Chief Secretary to the Treasury was remarkable mainly for its brevity, given that he was felled by a now-forgotten expenses scandal just three weeks into the job. Not enough time to contribute much to the work of the Coalition government – but certainly long enough to do lasting damage to our political culture by leaking Byrne’s note.

One of the things which makes Westminster work is that for all the formal adversariality of the system, there is (normally) a lot of mutual respect, trust, and even friendship across party lines behind the scenes – and nowhere more so than during changes of government, when both sides usually recognise the weight of the responsibilities being transferred and act accordingly.

Notes from outgoing ministers to their successors may contain much useful advice which could not be communicated in formal settings; they could contain words of encouragement; they could even, as in Byrne’s case, contain what was obviously a joke. Major left Tony Blair one which read simply ‘It’s a great job – enjoy it’.

By choosing to publicise and weaponise Byrne’s letter, Laws struck a hugely damaging blow against that culture in exchange for temporary (indeed fleeting, in his case) political gain. Future ministers will be less likely to leave either jokes or candid advice to their successors – and any such communications are now much more likely to be made face-to-face, further thinning an historical record already decimated by the Freedom of Information Act.

And it fits into a broader, unhappy pattern. In the age of time-limited debates and cameras in the Commons, parliamentary speeches are increasingly stand-alone contributions, intended either for clipping or bolstering an MP’s TheyWorkForYou scores, rather than actual contributions to a genuine debate. The perils of being caught out and consumed by our hyperspeed news cycle has seen politicians get ever-more proficient at pivoting to their preferred lines, and long-form interviewing almost disappear as a genre.

It is sometimes taken as axiomatic that transparency is good, especially by the media, whose professional and commercial interest in having access to everything is obvious.

But the so-called observer effect is a real problem. Even if only watching through a screen, an audience is not a neutral force: people naturally, and inevitably, modify their performance. There is no reason to expect the same conduct from MPs whose audience is other MPs as from those whose audience is, at one remove, Twitter.

No part of this story is novel. That the collapse of politicians’ privacy has negatively affected the calibre of people entering and sticking with elected politics has been widely discussed, as has the troubling impact of Freedom of Information on the conduct of government.

Yet the idea that there are some things that we, the press and the public, should not be allowed to see – and worse, that our seeing might be actively harmful to sensitive parts of the political process – apparently remains impossible for many to compute.

And so instead we get politics-as-performance – Hands endlessly sharing a letter which might as well read ‘Sorry, there’s no achievements’  and trying to elevate it through sheer repetition into a self-aware meme. As if that would excuse it.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.