When I was Comment Editor at The Times I always looked for three ingredients to make a successful article: an argument, good writing and some enlightenment. Many people have a case to make but struggle to make it with style or pace. And facts matter, too, or an argument is just assertion. Even if the reader doesn’t agree with the writer’s point of view they should learn something by the end of the piece that they didn’t know at its beginning.
But accuracy is about more than facts. Accuracy should also cover whether a writer generally points their readers in the right direction or not. I apologised three years ago for the three big things I got wrong when I was editing ConservativeHome. That apology and the three errors are still online. And earlier this month – after reading a list of confessions by pollster Stan Greenberg – I promised I would audit my writings from 2015 and draw attention to where I had erred.
Can I begin, however, by noting the things I largely got right? I don’t, after all, want this audit to be my Ratner moment:
I’m proudest of my early campaigning against George Osborne’s tax credit cuts. Two weeks after the general election I was warning that “the middle classes shouldn’t be getting tax cuts while those in tough, poorly paid jobs, who are already running out of money at the start of the month, are getting their benefits cut”.
On 18th June I urged George Osborne to embrace the living wage. He didn’t embrace it in the way I recommended but it was close enough.
I didn’t predict Jeremy Corbyn’s victory but on 26th March I did write a column headed, “Win or lose, Labour is going to turn hard left”. It ended with: “The Labour party will divide between the pragmatic heirs to Blair, who aren’t going to stay quiet forever, and the left-wingers of heart-before-mind. The issue for Britain’s voters is whether they elect Labour and see the split happen in government and therefore to the country, or watch it happen in opposition, without peril to the rest of us.”
I think I also got Ukip largely right. I predicted Nigel Farage wouldn’t win Thanet South (accurate) and worried that his mean style of politics would be toxic for Euroscepticism and the Brexit campaign (a fear I hold today with even more apprehension).
On the whole I think I got more right than wrong and, fortunately, didn’t concoct anything as spectacularly mistimed as Lord Cooper of Windrush’s piece for The Guardian on polling day. Do read it if you have the time. But enough Ronnie Corbett meandering – where did I go most wrong? Four columns stand out…
My most recent error was to predict that George Osborne would dispense tough medicine in his Autumn Statement. On this site I set out my expectation that he would announce deep cuts. He didn’t. Instead he gambled on growth. In both the pace of deficit reduction and also in the way he has cut defence, the police and infrastructure spending in order to raise spending on pensions, the NHS and aid, the Chancellor is looking a bit too Keynesian and, well, a bit too Balls-ian. I made my prediction because new governments normally like to implement painful and unpopular measures early in the parliament and then start dispensing goodies closer to polling day. This government is behaving differently because the outcome of the In/Out referendum (likely to be held in June 2016) may well determine David Cameron’s place in history and is uppermost in his mind. He risks Britain’s membership of the EU if he’s an unpopular mid-term prime minister at the time he is recommending Britain should vote to “remain” (as he certainly will). I underestimated Downing Street’s determination to organise everything in terms of avoiding Brexit. The go-slow on cuts, the living wage announcement, the retreat on tax credits, the extra money for defence… this pre-referendum behaviour is pretty boilerplate pre-election behaviour.
I was also wrong about Labour’s sanity. When a YouGov/ Times poll suggested that Jeremy Corbyn was on course to succeed Ed Miliband I thought it might be a wake up call and Labour members and sensible trade unions would step back from the brink. I predicted a massive fightback by ex-Labour leaders and by Labour moderates to keep their party in the mainstream. That fightback was never more than half-hearted… and it’s still in second gear.
“Don’t insult the Scots with a pact to block the SNP”. On 9th March I wrote that “there would be nothing illegitimate about an SNP-Labour arrangement. Alex Salmond is not Gerry Adams. The SNP is not Sinn Fein.” Technically I was correct but it was bad campaign advice. The focus on the danger of an SNP-supported government is probably the main reason why David Cameron has a majority today and that’s why, deservedly, it’s arise Sir Lynton in the new year honours list.
My big picture failure, however, was to be too pessimistic about the Tories’ chances at the general election. I don’t, however, regret writing my “We need more than this dull, simplistic budget” column on 19th March. Tory HQ was furious at me for questioning the blandness of George Osborne’s pre-budget message and of the wider Tory campaign. In questioning the blandness of the Tory campaign I did also argue that Lynton “Crosby’s political recipe might be enough to beat Ed Miliband”. But, I concluded, “it’s not enough to build a Conservative party that deserves to win elections or to stop the decline of faith in our political system.” I stand by every word of that piece. The Tories are winning at the moment because of the weakness of their opponents. While the likes of Anthony Seldon suggest that David Cameron is likely to be one of Britain’s most successful prime ministers I see too much failure.
Welfare, school and the city-deal reforms have been impressive but the deficit? Still huge.
Net immigration? Going up.
Rebalanced British economy? London is as dominant as ever.
European renegotiation? Trivial.
The party of the NHS? No, the Lansley reforms scuppered that.
A fair deal for England? No, English votes for English laws is a pipsqueak of a reform.
Housing crisis? Most new measures have boosted demand rather than supply.
Compassionate Conservatism? Even great achievements like hitting the 0.7% aid commitment are buried and the tax credits fiasco undermines good work like the job creation record.
When the time comes to choose Mr Cameron’s successor I suspect the party will vote for someone to break with the Cameron-Osborne years rather than continue with them. I certainly hope so.
While I’m reviewing the year I’d like to nominate one of Damian McBride’s columns for column of the year. On 22nd March, in The Sunday Times Mr Brown’s former spinmeister declared that Mr Osborne’s budget had been a failure because he hadn’t promised more money for the NHS and had not ruled out an increase in VAT. The Chancellor or Sir Lynton obviously had been paying attention because within days they recognised Mr McBride’s reveal of Labour’s war plan and announced a big increase in cash for the NHS and they ruled out an increase in VAT.
And the column I most enjoyed writing was my book review of “Cameron’s Coup” by Polly Toynbee and David Walker. It was an awful, awful book and a glimpse of the uber-partisanship that puts people off politics and is turning Labour into a sect rather than a mainstream party. Extract here.
Happy 2016 everyone!