In this column’s unflinching commitment to finding fragments of silver lining in the debris that has been the Year of Brexit it is torn between Emmanuel Macron and Dominic Cummings.
Both have been thoughtful on the future of Europe this week. It is true that not all British voters have yet heard of Macron, but they will eventually now that he has been elected president of France at the tender age of 39. It is no reason to ignore his Versailles speech.
Though he did not once run off with his drama teacher, Cummings is also an infant terrible did not let l’herbe grow under his busy feet either. He once ran a campaign against British membership of the eurozone and another against a regional assembly in his native North East. He set up an airline in Russia (it made one flight) and started a think tank which stayed airborne a little longer. He worked as director of strategy for Iain Duncan Smith before noticing that the then-Tory leader was ‘incompetent’. That took him eight months. But by the time he blew out 39 birthday candles in November 2010 he was installed in Whitehall as special adviser to the new education secretary, Michael Gove. How special is that?
Arguably not as special as having the arrogance to summon the newly-elected French National Assembly to an audience at Versailles, as Macron did on Monday. It is a chess move French leaders have rarely tried since a desperate Louis XVI summoned his own long-neglected parliament, the Estates General, to his suburban palazzo in the spring of 1789. Bad call, Lou.
But let us not quibble. With his glittering First in Ancient and Modern History from Oxford University Cummings is also considered exceptionally clever by many, mad, bad and dangerous to know by mere stick-in-the-muds. David Cameron once called him a ‘career psychopath’ and Gove a ‘bit of a Maoist, he believes the world makes progress through creative destruction’. It is a phrase coined by the Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, but not before he took the sensible precaution of emigrating to America one step ahead Adolf Hitler, a highly creative demolition specialist.
So we are talking Big Picture stuff here, Schumpeter and Gove, Macron and Cummings, the future of Europe. On this President Macron was more consistent in his speech this week than Cummings seems to have been on Twitter, the digital Versailles. Macron still thinks the EU is central to France’s survival and prosperity, as he has throughout his stellar career as a banker and public official. But the twin pillars of his grandiose vision for its revival are reinvigoration of France’s reformist alliance with Germany (now unencumbered by British ‘interference’) and domestic reform of the country’s moribund institutions – too many Paris politicians (925 MPs and senators: we have more) as well as too much debt, too much tax-and-spend and bureaucracy. It was left to his prime minister, Edouard Philippe, to explain the ‘debt volcano’ bit the following day.
I’m quite wary of Macron who seems to have a streak of manipulative authoritarianism in his make-up, plus a shakier electoral base than Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and trades union opposition even more conservative than Jeremy Corbyn. But he’s right about the need for reform at home and right to see it in the broader EU context. A friend just back from talking to officials in Angela Merkel’s office reports how keen the German chancellor is to help Macron shake up France. ‘This is Europe’s last chance,’ one told my friend. French failure to keep up with Germany during three feeble presidencies – Chirac, Sarkozy and What’s-his-Name – risks turning Europe into more of a German project than it already is.
So the glee expressed by some ardent pro-Europeans about the rising state of their economies and our apparent slippage – Labour MPs were full of it during last week’s Queen’s Speech debates – strike me as misplaced as well as unwise. It’s only cyclical and our collective capacity to pull each other down has been amply demonstrated over the past decade. Where we need to do better is helping to pull each other up, Brexit notwithstanding. Those Italian banks are about as stable as the earthquake fault line and even President Juncker has finally got round to deploring attendance rates at the Strasbourg parliament. With just 30 MEPs out of 751 turning up to hear the Maltese PM they are all Faragiste absentees now!
Where does ex-future President Cummings (one of Debrett’s ‘500 people of influence’ in 2016) fit in here? Well, I can do no better than quote the BBC’s account of his Twitter exchange with David Allen Green, the FT’s (pause for Brexit hisses) legal commentator. I should tell you that Cummings, never knowingly inclined to undersell himself, appears here in the guise of Odysseus, the hummus-eating hero of Homer’s great, proto-EU warning against the collapse of supra-national military cooperation.
The BBC’s account continued:
He tweeted (his Twitter name is @odysseanproject) that there were ‘more possible branches of future’ in which leaving was ‘a good thing’, saying it increased Europe’s ‘overall ability to adapt more effectively to an uncertain world’. Mr Cummings also warned Brexit negotiations were heading for a ‘debacle’ without ‘management changes’ in Downing Street, although he said warned the importance of the talks was ‘greatly overstated’ compared with domestic reforms that could be carried out.’ Decisions re our own institutions will decide success/failure,’ he tweeted.’
Hmmm. That’s quite an admission, though in keeping with Odysseus Cummings’s mercurial character. He was campaign director of the official Vote Leave campaign until the inevitable bust-up in which his sidekick, Matthew Elliott, also left. Though Vote Leave kept the Faragiste ruffians at Leave EU at arms length they stooped to dodgy maths over that £350 million rebate for the NHS, promoted slogans like ‘You Can’t Trust David Cameron on Turkey’ and ran with Cummings’ ‘Take Back Control’ slogan. For those who don’t feel much in control of their lives it was as shrewd an appeal to marginalised Brexit voters in his Geordie youth as it would later be for Donald Trump in the Rust Belt.
Let us hope that this week’s reports of Brexit uncertainty leading to falling investment and sales in the UK car industry do not hit Sunderland’s Nissan workers too hard. Otherwise it could be one of Dom’s ‘possible branches of the future’ which turn out to be an error. In fairness to Cummings (in our last Twitter exchange several years ago he falsely accused me of having backed sterling to join the euro) in later exchanges with Green he remarked that MPs and similar Twitter riffraff have ‘little grasp of epistemological uncertainty’ (as if the rest of us had never been pissed and uncertain) and stressed that ‘My view was/is that there are more possible branches of future in which leaving is good for EUR as well as for UK…’
Good, it’s progress in the march back from the Manichean world of Brexit towards the sensible compromises which stand between us and the Lawson (‘there is no cliff’) Cliff. So is former DEXEU communications chief, James Chapman’s public complaint that David Davis had been ‘hamstrung’ by May’s unexpected insistence that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) should have no role in supervising the rights of EU citizens who continue to live in post-Brexit Britain. In reporting Chapman’s swipe few fellow-hacks reminded their readers that he is an ex-Daily Mail political editor, albeit one who’d had enough of Paul Dacre and went to work for George Osborne. He has a Double First in Project Fear.
But making effective compromises partly depends on the point where Macron’s vision thing intersects with Gove’s Brain, as Cummings is said to have been in the same way that the late Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, another pair of intellectual bullies, were said to have been Theresa May’s. It is on the urgent need for parallel domestic reform, to address the various ailments which afflict the Fifth Republic and our own crowned republic (as Montesquieu [1689-1755] was first to call it) – still presided over by the Hanoverian dynasty, though for how much longer? In or out – Britain has stayed out of the euro and of Schengen – our most egregious errors are usually self-inflicted.
This takes us straight back to the bubbling rows which daily beset May’s tottering, post-election cabinet. It is the ‘real car crash masterclass’ that is currently British public life, according to a foreign observer whom Alastair Campbell bumped into for last week’s column for The New European. Among the chattering classes I remain an outlier in my hunch that May will survive in Downing St for years rather than months, not least because no credible successor is yet visible and no one wants to carry the Brexit can.
May will get a respite if she gets to the July 20 recess in one piece, but must then survive the party conference season with several colleagues playing blatantly to the activist electoral college which will chose between her would-be successors. Fortunately they are a pretty pygmy crew in which only the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, positively shines – and she’s not even an MP. This stuff is fantasy football where Andrea Leadsom’s disloyal attempt to break from the pack – that ’empathetic’ visit to the Grenfell Tower survivors – serves chiefly to highlight her unsuitability.
If the lack of Tory alternatives was not enough to save May from all but further self-inflicted folly, there is also Jeremy Corbyn, transformed by May’s ineptitude from Comic Relief to a Clear and Present Danger: a Marxist herbivore in No 10 under the thumb of a carnivore in No 11 whom even Ken Livingstone had to sack. Why do the kids not get it, any more than they get Jez’s Brexit past? Because they weren’t even born in the chaotic 1970s when Unite’s Len McCluskey was a militant shop steward helping Tony Benn undermine a well-meaning, less than brilliant but quite egalitarian, Labour government from the left. You have to be well into your 50s now to remember all that.
So under the headline ‘It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way’ in last week’s New European, Abi Wilkinson (who wobbled on Corbynismo but now seems back on side) illustrated how easy the absence of that memory makes it to talk about replacing nasty austerity – apparently, it restricts growth – with nice investments in the future. ‘Education, healthcare and infrastructure are not akin to making frivolous purchases of designer clothes, expensive holidays and fancy dinners,’ she wrote. No, not quite. Contrary to what Corbyn told MPs the other day the proportion of poor and disadvantaged students in university is rising, though the other side cherry-picks the data too. And, as the IFS pointed out again this week, three-quarters of graduates won’t pay off their (now average) £50,000 of debt, assuming – as Corbynista pessimists tend not to do – that they ever get to earn the £21,000 threshold for repayment. Writing off the £100 billion loan book (do I really mean ‘buying it back’?) as the Corbyn bung proposed, would chiefly free up better-off families to, er, purchase designer clothes, expensive holidays and fancy dinners. And no, taxes on the ‘corporates’ who are Corbyn’s easy focus wouldn’t make up the difference, much of the pain would fall on people like you, Abi.
Health spending? In the pre-obesity era when everyone smoked but ate less unhealthily, Nye Bevan innocently saw it as an investment in future health. It’s certainly a public and personal good. But it’s also an expensive form of consumption which most of us abuse. Infrastructure spending? Another warm word, it’s like taxes, useful if properly targeted. HS2? Crossrail 2? That third runway at Heathrow? All controversial. Scientific and medical research to make up for lost EU funding sound better. But do we really mean – as the Callaghan/Wilson governments often did in the embattled 70s – higher wages for public sector staff. That’s a good thing too, but let’s not kid ourselves it’s investment in any meaningful sense. Public sector works make ‘frivolous purchases’ too.
So David Cameron – possibly our most disastrous Etonian prime minister since Lord North lost those uppity American colonies – was right ( it pains me to say so) to protest that it is the opposite of ‘generous and compassionate’ for cabinet ministers like BoJo and his ex-best-friend Govey to endorse calls for an end to the 1% cap on public sector pay. It is especially so if they can pretend it can be done without raising taxes. As chancellor Hammond reminded MPs after John McDonnell took the BoJo/Govey tack, there are only three ways to finance better public services (and higher wages): taxes, borrowing or economic growth via higher productivity, which also seems elusive.
Unsurprisingly, Hammond struggles to promote the latter. More surprisingly he has the backing of ballroom dancer, Ed Balls, and of the often-disloyal Cliff Lawson. Britain’s debt stands around £1.88 trillion, France’s at about the sa
me when measured in sterling. It is not to be confused with the annual deficit, now shrunk from 10% of GDP after the bankers crash of 2008 to around 3%, mostly through the cuts which have disproportionately hurt the poor and the public services on which they depend more than the rest of us.
But at 96.2% France’s debt is a higher percentage of GDP than Britain’s 89.1% (or Germany’s 71.2%) and French public expenditure is 56% of GDP compared with Britain’s 42% – below the 2010 bank bailout peak of 48%, but higher than when Tony Blair left office in 2007. Even with rock-bottom rates, interest on the UK national debt cost £50 billion a year. With Brexit inflation edging up, so must interest rates. If there is another credit crash (free Audis, anyone?) as household savings touch record lows (1.7% in Q1), Hammond will need more head room than he has.
In the dinosaur era, back in 1976, it was Jim Callaghan who had to go to the IMF for a humiliating bailout, a loan to tide us through the cuts. He told the Labour conference that autumn: ‘We used to think you could spend your way out of recession. I tell you in all candour that option no longer exists and that insofar as it ever did exist, it only worked by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy… higher inflation followed by higher unemployment.’ Less in the grip of then-fashionable monetarist theories on the causes of inflation than Callaghan, Macron would not say much different now. French entrepreneurs have moved to London (he’s trying to get them back) and French jobless (double ours) have voted for Mélenchon or Le Pen, both anti-EU nationalists. If Britain looks chaotic in a 1950s Fourth Republic sort of way, France looks stagnant.
Like any half-competent leader, May’s job is to respond to ever-changing challenges of the moment, but do so without taking her eye off the future. Higher nurses pay, as morale and number slip? Yes. Fire fighters too, especially after Grenfell. The number of fires is falling, but they are getting worse. Infrastructure projects, especially outside London (and Belfast, Arlene?), yes: green energy, some roads, more rail (across the Pennines), well-placed social housing. There is plenty for a government to do which believes – as May claims to do, but plenty of Tory MPs don’t – in the beneficial power of state action. In the process she can steal some of Labour’s sensible ideas, it’s what oppositions are for. Some wit dubbed the new mix ‘Torbynism’.
But first she must gradually recover her political strength and will to govern, as (so we are told) she has been persuaded is a vicar’s daughter’s duty. Fear of a botched Brexit and fear of Corbynismo – Venezuela without the oil – are her strongest unifying cards. Then she must impose better order on the cabinet’s minority hooligan wing. You know who you are. Talking of whom, Michael Gove, newly re-enamoured of expert advice as a novice environment secretary, has a challenge at hand to show us it’s not all hat and no cattle, as his farming constituents say. Not only has he signalled UK withdrawal from the EU’s hated Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) – the 200 mile zone – but also from the older 1964 London (sic) Fisheries Convention which governs fishing rights between 6 and 12 miles from our sovereign shore.
Just as they flew Canadian flags in Spain’s fishing dispute with Ottawa, fishing communities mostly voted Brexit and fisheries minister, Cornishman and Cornish MP, George Eustice, is confident that Brexit will revitalise this highly-diverse industry as we take back control (copyright D Cummings) of our fish stocks. The House of Lords EU committee’s 8th report (2016-17) gave some support to the hope. But a glance at the FT’s (hiss) excellent Brexit Briefing or the InFacts website underlines how many watery pitfalls must be navigated, including a quotas regime which will be both hard and possibly counter-productive to unpick. Not to mention crucial export markets to er, um, the EU which is less cod-fixated than unimaginative British diners. And could the sovereign Royal Navy even enforce whatever rules we decide upon, old sea dog, Lord West, wondered aloud this week? Probably not, fisherfolk are pirates by nature and coastguard vessels expensive.
Gove’s beloved father was an Aberdeen fish merchant whom Gove claims (the point is disputed) was put out of business by the CFP. So he has a personal dog – dogfish? – in this test of the Brexiteers ability to prove that lazy years of ‘leaving it all to Brussels’ have not atrophied Britain’s willingness to take hard decisions. When I was in Cornwall for Easter I was delighted to see 70 locally-registered fishing boats in Mevagissey harbour. They land £2 million worth of fish, I was told, which mostly goes to France and Spain via Plymouth. Locals ‘hope Brexit will be good for them, but I’m not so sure, we’ll have to see what happens’, said my man on the quay. Let’s hope it does not prove another salty branch of Brexit ‘error.’