I am deeply sorry- on a personal level- for Liz Truss, who has had such a short and turbulent time as PM. No doubt she set off with all the right intentions, but for a whole variety of reasons was simply unable to deliver.
It is only right to acknowledge that the last few months in Government have been shambolic. The demise of Boris (only 4 points behind Labour in the polls- we look back nostalgically), Liz Truss’s election (I was never a supporter) and now demise; the mini -Budget which may or may not have been the best thing for the economy, but which was so badly delivered and explained that it crashed and burned within a week or two, the new Chancellor surgically reversing most of its proposals; the turmoil in the Cabinet and in junior ministerial ranks, the briefings, sackings, resignations; the Parliamentary shambles over the Labour motion on fracking; these and more are matters over which, as a Conservative MP, even one not involved in any of them, I can but say ”Sorry.” It’s been an unedifying sight, and really not a very good way to run a country.
Attention now turns to what we should do about it? It looks as if there will be an immediate election (perhaps a ‘coronation’?) of a new PM. That will be conducted within Parliament, avoiding the unseemly battle we had over the Summer. I will be considering each of the candidates who will now emerge very carefully. Here’s a flavour of what I will be looking for.
We have two years until the General Election (it will not be sooner than that) to re-establish the Conservative reputation by getting a grip and sorting ourselves out. We must be the party of “sound money.” To that end we simply have to ‘balance the books’. What we spend must be no more than what we have earned. If that means unpopular tax rises, a tight grip on inflation, and perhaps cuts in Government spending, then like it or not from an ideological perspective, that is what we must do. Second, we are duty bound to look after those who cannot look after themselves, especially at a time like this of high inflation and rising energy costs over the coming winter. But the ‘safety net’ could well be much closer to the ground, and perhaps better targeted than it has been in recent times. Third, our primary duty is to defend peoples’ safety and security- both overseas with a strong military capability (perhaps counter- subsidised from the Aid Budget), and at home where we need firmness and clarity on policing and immigration amongst so much else.
These, and so many other Government departments need clarity of vision, firmness and pragmatic competence. People look to we Conservatives for straightforward down to earth effectiveness and delivery. Every decision of every Government minister must be sound and sensible; well thought-through and well explained. The people need to be shown that we are competent and able, and if so, they will accept what we say and do.
So I will be looking for a PM who can re-unite the Conservative Party, who will support Jeremy Hunt in his efforts to return to sound money; who will achieve the respect and support of the electorate very probably despite taking some very difficult decisions on a whole variety of topics. I will keep you up to date as my thinking develops.
It is neither surprising nor blameworthy that the media, and all of us have been fixated by domestic matters for the last few weeks- inflation, the cost of living, strikes, the Growth Agenda in the mini-Budget, personalities in Government. It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster ride, about which the least said the better it will be. But let’s just put it all aside for a moment and take a look over the European horizon to Ukraine.
The Ukrainians have been through a living hell which makes our troubles look pretty insignificant by comparison. Hundreds of thousands of women and children have fled their homes, leaving their menfolk behind to fight for their country. There have been thousands of military casualties and this week we saw a brutal bombardment of many cities including Kyiv.
Now I very much welcome the military progress the Ukrainian forces have made. The Russians are looking disheartened, ill supplied, undernourished. Thousands of young men have fled across various borders to avoid being called up; and last week the partial destruction of the Kerch bridge was a serious blow to Vladimir Putin’s reputation and war effort. So let us be glad about all of that; let us continue to supply the brave Ukrainian army with the supplies and weaponry they need; and let us not waver in our determination to remove the invader from all of Ukraine. War and compassion weariness must not make us forget that Putin has broken International Law in every possible way; that he has been responsible for war crimes and atrocities of the worst kind for which he must be made to pay a heavy price.
But Monday’s blitz-kreig is but a taster of what may be next. The smelly little rat Putin is cornered, humiliated, made to look a fool. What will he (and the generals and FSB who surround him, who are far worse than he is) do about it? Will they accept defeat? Certainly not. That would be the end of Russia. Will they try to find some kind of cease-fire, or negotiated outcome? Perhaps. But we should never trust any such approach short of removing the Russians entirely. So the third and most likely option is that the rat and his friends will lash out one way or another, to try to win the war, or at very least to be seen to die in a muscular and aggressive way. They will “escalate to de-escalate” as their defence doctrine has it.
There is always the risk of what they describe as ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons. Let us pray that they cannot be that mad, or at least realise what the consequences would be for Russia and for all of them. Much more likely seems to me to be ’hybrid warfare’. Surprise attacks on our infrastructure (eg the bombing of the gas pipelines); acts of terror or murder (Skripals in Salisbury), incursions into NATO countries (Latvia, Gotland, Svalbard spring to mind) to test our resolve. Cyber warfare is a very real threat – imagine what would happen if our banking system, the NHS, or other Critical National Infrastructure was brought to a standstill. What would be the result if GPS, or even perhaps the Worldwide Web were destroyed? The West would be crippled.
And who do you think is behind many of the domestic troubles of the last few weeks- inflation, shortages, oil prices and the rest of it? It is classic economic warfare, and it stems directly from the Kremlin. Putin will try to bring us to our knees, and we must be resolute against it. The in-fighting, economic squabbling, strikes and protests we are seeing in the West play into his hands. We are at war in a very real sense and must try to remember some of the determination of previous wars. We cannot flinch. Vladimir Putin is a dictator, a murderer and a criminal. He must be defeated and held to account for his crimes.
Was it THE Queue; the silence in Westminster Hall; the immaculate drill of those on guard (including my nephew Thom, I am proud to say); was it the heroic pall bearers (what a responsibility for 19 year old boys); perhaps it was the magnificence of the ceremonial, the glory of the funeral service, the simplicity of the country flowers on the coffin; was it the Lord High Chamberlain breaking his wand of office; perhaps President Biden being asked to wait his turn as the VC and GC procession wound its way down Westminster Abbey? Was it the two young Royals taking it all so seriously or the bagpipe music dwindling away to silence in the distance? These and a thousand other details enthralled us over more than a week of mourning. How fitting it all was, how understated; how moving in parts, impressive in others. How superbly well planned in every detail. Perhaps above all how reminiscent of so many aspects of our dear Queen’s character.
For me it was the bringing together of the Nation, and of the peoples of the Commonwealth and wider World. People in the Queue put aside their selfish interests; people across the world marvelled at what they saw on their televisions; we were given a glimpse of a greater good, of a better way of managing our human ways and concerns. In particular we were reminded in so many ways of Duty, of sincerity, honour, good manners, kindness – all of the merits so amply held by Her Late Majesty.
What a lesson there is in all of that for the real world we have now re-joined with a bit of a bump. Russian nuclear sabre rattling, the bogus referendums which will allow Putin to annexe 15% of the Ukrainian landmass; the reported deportations to Russian concentration camps, and the mass graves and torture chambers uncovered in the areas so magnificently liberated by the Ukrainian Army. These things depict the most base, the most wicked of all human behaviour, and of course could not be further from the merits of our late Queen. Yet we must also remember her clarity of thought, her determination, her steadfastness throughout the so many wars and crises she lived through. She kept steady, she held true to her principles, and she truly led the Nation in good times and bad over 70 years. The crises in her own private life would have been enough to floor most of us; yet she rose above the hubbub to do what was best, whatever the circumstances. We must do the same in our reaction to the dictator and criminal, Vladimir Putin.
So must the new PM and Kwasi Kwarteng in his mini-Budget on Friday. We all know of the crises engulfing the World’s economy and the consequences for all of us in our domestic and business budgets. Kwasi needs to keep a clear head; focus on the long-term targets and do what must be done to protect us from the worst. I found the PM’s readiness to “do unpopular things” in her Empire State Building interview very refreshing. She must not do what is popular. She must do what is right for the country and its people, even if it is monstrously unpopular. All she needs do is explain clearly and precisely why it is that she is doing what she is doing.
It wasn’t just about flummery and pageantry; it held messages for all of us about our lives and decisions and about the great decisions of State which we now face. I think that the Country- and much of the world- emerges from two weeks of Mourning in a curious way refreshed and strengthened by all we witnessed. God Save the King in all that lies ahead.
I’m no economist, nor any kind of tax expert. (What is the Laffer Curve anyhow?) So my views on Kwasi Kwarteng’s Mini-Budget, and the subsequent events carry very little weight. That never stopped me in the past, so here they are.
For many years now, economic policy has been hampered by two things:- First, a combination of the Coalition, Brexit, General Elections, Covid, and Russia’s war on Ukraine has prevented clarity of vision and thought. The Government has been “firefighting” for much of the time since they came to office in 2010. The commonest criticism in my mailbag was that there was no ‘vision’, no ‘direction’ no ‘long-term thought.’ Second, we have only, as a result, dared to take mini baby-steps; we were ’trimmers’. In particular we thought that subsidies and hand-outs were what the people wanted rather than growth and stimulus. The net result is an economy facing the doldrums and quite possibly a long and deep Recession, with all of the agony which comes with it.
I am ready to accept that the Mini-Budget sought to answer both problems. It lays out a vision for growth in the economy thanks to massively cut taxes and swathes of regulation removed. Only time will tell if it has been successful. Its presentation was pretty poor to say the least, enabling Labour and the tabloids to allege that it is ‘unfair’ and benefits the rich more than the poor. (And nothing annoys we Brits more than ‘unfairness’). But the fact is that everyone has benefitted from the vast Government expenditure in the Budget. No-one pays tax on income below £12500 (up from £6500 when Labour left office); a 1% income tax cut benefits all taxpayers; the National Insurance rise was reversed, and even the 7 pence a pint rise proposed was scrapped. The (possibly vastly expensive) cap on energy costs is exactly what we were all crying out for. Not only all of that, but the whole point of the Budget is to curb inflation, create growth and jobs, keep a lid on interest rates, all of which benefit everyone. A strong economy must be our aim.
It is perfectly true that the markets have not yet seen what a great idea it is (the jury is out), and there is no doubt that it’s a bit of a gamble. The huge Government borrowing the Energy price cap needs will only work if the international markets realise it’s inherent success; and the energy limit will only work if international prices turn round within 6 months. But to those whose knee-jerk reaction is so massively against it all, and who (believe it or not) are calling for yet another Tory Leadership change, I would simply say: “We do now have a vision, dramatic change, a plan for Growth. Dumping all that now would be a disaster, and equally a change at the top is both impractical and would be a huge political mistake.”
So for now, I plan to watch the markets, listen carefully to the economists who really do know what they are talking about, support the Conservative Government and our new Leader (despite her not being my first choice.) I shall press for it all to be better explained, and a significant change in our media and public opinion handling.
But I readily admit that I am not an economist- so I will be a Loyalist. For now.
As I watched King Charles receiving the warm messages from Parliamentarians on Monday (sitting on the very spot where his ancestor and namesake King Charles 1 had been brutally condemned to death by our Parliamentarian ancestors), it occurred to me to wonder whether he was being comforted by us; or we by him? Was all of the magnificent pageantry of the last week or so, and the many poignant and emotional moments within it, a family matter, a farewell to our great Late Queen, a celebration of our new King, a moment of transition for the whole Nation, an essential symbol of our (unwritten) Constitution with the Parliamentary Monarchy at the heart of it; or, I suppose, some part of all of these.
Or is it that the Royal family, we Parliamentarians, the people as a whole (so many thousands of whom will queue for hours for a last glimpse of Her Majesty), the soldiers taking part in the ceremonies, the hundreds of people responsible for making the necessarily highly complex logistical arrangements, the purist Constitutional expert; is it that all of us in our different ways are seeking ‘comfort’ from these events and ceremonies. Comfort from our grief, comfort that other people feel the same as we do; comfort that the traditions and symbols are as powerful as ever; and comfort that despite Her Majesty’s sad death our Nation and Parliament and Monarchy would still be the same; comfort that the Nation is still functioning as it always has and always must.
It’s an odd word ‘comfort’. We tend to think of it as being rather like ‘luxury’, perhaps ‘cosy-ness’. It’s a first class hotel; it’s a warm fire, our old slippers, relaxation after a busy day; it’s what our Mother did when we fell over and grazed our knee- she ‘comforted’ us.
In actual fact the word’s real meaning is rather less soppy. It comes from the same root as ‘fort’, ‘fortitude’, ‘fortify’, and its real meaning is “to make strong.” In an old sermon of my Father’s he points out that the Beatitude “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted” does not really mean that the mourner’s pain will diminish. Nor should we necessarily want it to, cathartic as pain can be. The Beatitude does not mean that mourners will be made less sad, but that they will be made stronger - stronger not only to bear the immediate loss, but also stronger to face the other problems of life as well. Mourning strengthens us in every way. Those who have queued for hours to file past HM’s coffin feel satisfied, stronger, as they leave through the Great North door of Westminster Hall as the King did after the ceremony on Monday.
It has been an extraordinary few weeks - with the switching of one Prime Minister and Administration, the start of a new one with some dramatic (if overshadowed) announcements about the Energy crisis, alongside the sad passing of our late great Queen and the accession of the new King. Meanwhile we rejoice at what looks like a dramatic and I hope, decisive, turn in favour of the Ukrainians, the Russians fleeing in disarray. What a mix of emotions, what concerns and sadness yet what curious happiness we have experienced. What uncertainties and newness we face. Who knows what the short, medium, far less long term future will hold?
In all of that we seek certainty, reassurance; we hold dear to all we know, to the familiar and to the certain. And I hope that we are comforted- given fortitude, strengthened, given new certainty and strength for the future - by the mourning of the last few days.
‘Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’
© 2022 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.