Sunday, April 21, 2024
HomeNewsMemo to the next PM – get your backside-kicking boots on

Memo to the next PM – get your backside-kicking boots on


AS the ridiculously protracted Tory Party leadership race draws to its close – albeit enlivened by an insane attempt to put Johnson back on the ballot – there is much talk (well, prattling) about channelling Thatcher. They should be so lucky.

Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 when the flaws of the big state were clear. Her (unelected) predecessor, James Callaghan, had focused on public ownership and the NHS. This led to the Winter of Discontent, when strikes left bodies unburied and rubbish mountains in the street. Thatcher, who had been Tory leader for five years, and her team had developed a coherent plan of economic reform which reduced the size of the state and stimulated private sector growth. Although the party was split (then, as now, there was a strong Europhile element) and both economists and mandarins were horrified by the plan, it worked. There was an amount of pain – unemployment doubled before it fell – but it worked. The country which had been the sick man of Europe led the world.

Of course, Thatcher’s Cabinet comprised experienced politicians, many of whom had a life outside politics – the era of the professional politician was yet to come. She also benefited from a powerful, experienced Cabinet Secretary and advisers who were not obsessed by the latest bleating on social media.

Post-Thatcher, the Tory Party and its successive governments have been split on Europe and obsessed with being ‘nice’ (remember Mrs May’s PR coup when she said the Conservatives were seen as the ‘nasty party’. Rather than developing and delivering the case for a small state after the Brown expansion, it has become another party of big government. Where Thatcher had a mission of reform, Sunak and Truss are more worried about surviving for a couple of years while they work out how to win the next election – currently an unlikely prospect. What they should realise is that the looming electoral disaster is their best friend. None of the occupants of the government benches wants to go anywhere near a ballot box as most of them would be out of a job. Thick though many of them are, this simple message should get through – it’s my way or the highway. With a majority double Mrs Thatcher’s the next PM can afford to remove the whip and/or expel a few rebels. The need is to channel Machiavelli: ‘It is better to be feared than to be loved, if one cannot be both.’

One of Thatcher’s regrets was that her team were not bold enough in their first term. The incoming PM has no choice but to be bold if they are to save the country, and indeed their party, from devastation at the hands of a poorly advised leadership who were unable to cope with the equivalent of a flu epidemic. While the political failures were multiple, it is part of the remit of senior civil servants to ensure their political masters do not make ill-informed decisions or create structures that will lead to them. Our new PM should sack the Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case – after all, you get only one chance to make a first impression. Replace him with the best of the rest and bring in a proven civil service outsider to act as chief of staff. Allow them to sack the cohorts of special advisers.

Then they must build a Cabinet of ability – also empowered to sack their senior civil servants. That will be a challenge, which can be simplified by reducing the size and ignoring the calls in the media for reconciliation between the candidates. Even losing a few by-elections won’t matter to anyone other than the chattering political cliques (most of whom are unaware of a world outside the M25). Let them chatter and ignore them.

Now address some idiotic policies. The first is Net Zero, imposed by the departing Mrs May by statutory order, never challenged and only now being seen in the mainstream as an economic disaster (TCW has been pointing it out for years). It’s a major contributor to the energy problems, so put it on hold. Some of our gas power stations are dual-fuel – they can also run on oil, the price of which is coming down, unlike European gas. Switch them to that. There are clever things that you could do to smooth energy costs – hire some clever outsiders.

The second problem is the consequences of lockdown, which Rishi Sunak has now revealed as being a political imposition rather than a rational policy (you read that here first too). The NHS has been using Covid as an excuse for too long. Revise GPs’ contracts to get them working more than three days a week and get some more beds into A&E in portable cabins. Scrap masks in hospital.

There are two strikes with which the government is directly involved. Criminal barristers want the rate of pay for legal aid increased by 25 per cent. The government has offered 15 per cent. A £50 gross fee for a day’s work in a magistrates’ court does seem low. The amount in dispute would add about £60million to the £600million criminal legal aid budget. The solution suggested by former Under-Secretary of State for Justice James Cartlidge? Nationalise criminal barristers. Seriously. Will that cost more or less than £60million a year? Can’t he see a tiny problem with both prosecution and defence being run by the executive? How did someone so idiotic end up in government – or even in the House of Commons? Do the deal, extract some concessions and move on.

Then there’s the Department of Transport, the domain of Grant Shapps. Given the quasi re-nationalisation of railways, he has to deal with Mick Lynch, who is on a mission for wealth redistribution by strikes that even Arthur Scargill would have shied away from. Train drivers are paid around £60,000 a year. That’s twice what the average HGV driver makes. Which job is harder, stopping at a red light on an empty railway line or threading a lorry through traffic on a rainy M25? It takes just two weeks to train an HGV driver – learning to drive a train must take less. So why is Mr Shapps not pointing this out – threatening to sack the lot, replace them with ex-HGV drivers and save money at the same time?

Shapps’s department is also embracing driverless cars. If you can programme a car to drive in rush-hour London it can’t be that hard to programme a train: ‘Red stop, green go’. It’s already been done: the Docklands Light Railway and several London Underground lines have automatic operation, with a single train captain to open the doors.

Well, PM, you wanted this role and have spent the best part of the summer delivering banalities to the coterie who will choose you. As you fly back from Balmoral after kissing hands, prepare to kick some backsides and upset many. Few in the country want you to fail – we simply can’t afford it.

If you don’t deliver I wouldn’t bother standing at the next election.

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here.

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