30 November 2022

What the Government needs now is some boring radicalism


After another year of political turbulence, the country is crying out for boredom. Sir Keir Starmer’s soporific speaking style used to be an object of derision, now it has emerged as a secret weapon. Opinion polls suggest the dull, ‘safety-first’ approach has put Labour in position for a landslide election victory in a couple of years’ time

Rishi Sunak is sensitive to this mood. His pitch is for calm, technocratic competence. His speeches are modulated to convey a sense of balance and responsibility, which is why Fraser Nelson describes the PM’s driving credo as ‘being honest about trade-offs’. Rather than the death or glory approach of Liz Truss, he is cautious, risk-averse – checking the numbers, considering the downsides, planning for contingencies. ‘A boring sense of purpose, focused on policy, is what exhausted Britain needs right now,’ writes Sebastian Payne in the Financial Times, rejoicing at this change in the Downing Street culture. 

All this is perfectly understandable. But the danger is that the Conservatives simply embrace managed decline. That essentially Tory MPs have given up on the next election and vaguely hope that opting for a quiet life might allow a return of political gravity and a reasonable proportion of them to survive, rather than the virtual wipeout currently envisaged. 

Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement saw yet more tax rises while overall public spending will continue to rise in real terms. That is supposed to ‘set a trap’ for Labour, who would find it hard to claim that tax and spending should be even higher. But the high-tax approach also chokes off prospects of economic growth and leaves natural Conservative supporters dismayed, puzzled and unwilling to fight the Government’s corner.

All is not quite lost, however, as we look forward to two years of tedium. There is some potential for the Government to embrace what I call boring radicalism. We often hear the narrative that any significant reform must be ‘difficult’ and ‘controversial’. But that is not always the case. Sometimes sensible and technical changes can quietly provide considerable benefits to the economy. 

Take this line from Jeremy Hunt in the recent Autumn Statement:

‘Nigel Lawson’s Big Bang inspires us today – but nearly 40 years on we must stay true to its mission to make the UK the world’s most innovative and competitive global financial centre. So to further support investment across our economy, I can also announce we are publishing our decision on Solvency II, which will unlock tens of billions of pounds of investment for our growth-enhancing industries.’

Solvency II is unlikely to be the talk of the Dog and Duck. It refers to the not particularly box office topic of EU regulation of the insurance industry, which restricts competition. Some suspect that the damage was deliberate – the EU was out to constrain the financial services market in London which has been such a boon to the UK economy. Reforming those rules, therefore, has great potential to improve our economic performance, even if the average voter doesn’t much notice.

Another area ripe for boring radicalism is the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP. It is, to quote Trade Minister Greg Hands ‘half a billion consumers. A combined GDP of £9 trillion. A naturally pro-free trade club’. Signing up would be, to quote Hands again, the ‘biggest deal we’ve secured post-Brexit’. Again, it’s not taking up many column inches, but could do our economy a great deal of good. 

Then there’s Baroness Neville-Rolfe, a Cabinet Office Minister, who is busy taking an axe to procurement rules inherited from the EU. Her aim is to replace 350 European Union regulations with a ‘simple and flexible framework’ for British SMEs, so they can compete more easily for public sector contracts.

Even more significant than these individual areas is the Retained EU Law Bill. This gives a presumption that thousands of EU laws will expire by the end of next year. If ministers feel that any of the rules are genuinely needed, the onus will be on them to come forward with new versions and seek the approval of Parliament. This is a bit boring, a bit technical, but still truly radical stuff that will change the way Britain is governed and fulfil some of the promise of the 2016 referendum.

The other advantage that all these political projects have is they are quite unlikely to incite the kind of vehement opposition that will spook increasingly skittish Tory MPs. Does anyone have strong enough feelings about the CPTPP to go out on a demo? I suspect not. Will the BBC really lead their bulletins with indignant accounts of streamlined procurement rules? Even if they do I suspect they would struggle to whip up public indignation.

The timing will be challenging, of course. With an election within two years the main benefit of these changes will be longer term. Then again, putting in place the right policies sends a powerful signal to investors that the UK is somewhere worth doing business. It’s not a huge reach to suggest we could be seeing the green shoots of economic recovery before we next go to the polls. And, of course, these are the right things to do anyway, notwithstanding any crude political calculation. A sense of helping the country progress ought to give ministers a sense of purposes, rather than just marking time in a mood of drift and despair. 

This week the Prime Minister was accused of an oxymoron when he called for ‘robust pragmatism’ towards China. Some might say the same of ‘boring radicalism’. But then Sunak, with his mixture of high energy and instinctive caution, is hard to classify – and boring radicalism may yet be his party’s last best hope to prove they still have direction and purpose.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.

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