If we’ve learnt anything from this interminable Tory leadership contest, it is that the Nasty Party is back, baby, and it’s nastier than ever. But beyond the vitriolic briefing wars, leaks and salacious smears of the campaign, there are more chilling reasons to resurrect the governing – and I use the term very loosely – party’s old moniker.
As he continues his Sisyphean task of unearthing the benefits of Brexit, Jacob Rees-Mogg has decided that one of those elusive gains might lie in re-thinking the British state. Which was not exactly what they put on the side of the bus.
Writing in the Telegraph, the man whose very job title is an oxymoron, says Brexit was always also about achieving greater government efficiency. So, not so much Take Back Control from an evil foreign behemoth as Get a Grip on your own government, if you will.
Rees-Mogg writes: “When I was appointed minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency, I said that the two adjacent responsibilities were one and the same. Our departure from the European Union necessitates a re-thinking of the British state. This means going beyond ministers looking for fiscal trims and haircuts and considering whether the state should deliver certain functions at all.”
At first glance, it’s hard to see what all this has to do with Brexit – it’s not like Brussels ever tried to stop the UK government from being more efficient – and Rees-Mogg does not elaborate on which “functions” he might want to cut. Commentators were quick to predict more pain for the stretched NHS, and other frontline services.
There was some support for Rees-Mogg, albeit from a likely quarter: former Brexit minister David Frost, who also backs Liz Truss’ candidacy, said he was “absolutely right about the need to ‘rethink the British state’ after Brexit”. Enough said.
Rees-Mogg goes on to link putative efficiency savings from a leaner state with lowering inflation – a stretch even for a man used to mind-altering flights of fancy.
“These savings will ensure the taxpayer can afford to help the public with a spike in energy costs this year and will consequently help to cut inflation. As a supporter of Liz Truss to become prime minister I am a strong advocate of the benefit of tax cuts to the economy and to the British consumer. The economy must grow both to pay for public services and reduce the tax burden.”
That’s a very tall order for the anaemic economy: Earlier this month, as it brought in the biggest interest rate hike in 27 years, the Bank of England said the UK was set to tip into recession, with the economy shrinking in the last three months of this year and through to the end of 2023. Less growth means less money in people’s pockets but on top of that, inflation is expected to reach 13% in the coming months. It’s already above 10% with higher prices pushing millions of households to the edge and thousands of workers onto picket lines. A classic case of stagflation – a stagnating economy alongside high inflation.
Both Truss and her also-ran rival, former chancellor Rishi Sunak, are promising tax cuts if they win the leadership race, although Sunak, who is trailing Truss in the polls, has a more cautious timeline. However, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) says the double-digit inflation makes reducing the tax burden tricky as the UK will have to spend more next year on welfare benefits, pensions and debt interest payments.
The IFS says borrowing will have to increase because the government will need to upgrade benefits and pensions in line with a higher inflation rate – it said this could cost £4bn, which is more or less the amount Rees-Mogg says his efficiency drive in Whitehall has saved. The IFS also said that higher spending on public services would be inevitable.
Inevitable unless one cuts the state’s “functions”. Perhaps Rees-Mogg’s Telegraph article is an uncharacteristically honest recognition that cakeism has had its day: you can either cut taxes or boost spending on public services. You can’t do both. So maybe you need to trim a few state “functions”.
The IFS has said there will have to be big spending cuts if Truss pursues her £30bn-plus tax cut plans. Rees-Mogg says it’s all about the waste: “While I support cutting taxes to unleash economic growth, we must eradicate waste so public money is spent as effectively as possible. We will not bring inflation down without a lean and efficient state.”
Lean and efficient are not words usually associated with the government of (play)acting prime minister Boris Johnson. It’s also not quite the language used in the 2019 Tory manifesto, which said Brexit would allow the party to invest millions of pounds in hospitals, schools and the police. Handily, that prediction did fit on the side of a bus: “We sent the EU £350 million a week – let’s fund our NHS instead”.
No one in government talks about the bus anymore. In fact, no one in government talks about being in government anymore. One of the more frustratingly fascinating elements of this never-ending leadership – again, I use the word loosely – contest is how everyone involved seems to have been born literally yesterday: all the terrible failings of the previous government – and indeed 12 years of Tory rule – have nothing to do with them.
In his article, Rees-Mogg does manage to present at least one Brexit benefit, performing a logic-defying analytical leap that would leave lesser politicians spinning.
He writes: “The trade border is one example of how government efficiency eases inflation. In the spring, thanks to the support of the Prime Minister and Liz Truss, the government suspended the expensive physical checks on incoming goods from the European Union to address the rising cost of food. As well as saving officials at the border time and resources, this measure has also saved businesses in the wider economy at least £1 billion in avoided costs, preventing shortages of goods and delays in already strained supply chains.”
So not implementing Brexit reduces inflation and is an example of this Brexit-delivering government’s efficiency, allowing the UK to save at least £1bn in costs that would otherwise have been racked up because of … Brexit.
Rees-Mogg also uses his Telegraph platform to laud his own efforts to weed out departmental inefficiencies using the newly formed Efficiency and Value for Money Cabinet Committee – an entity whose very existence makes one wonder what principles have been governing cabinet until now. He pledges to keep up slicing away at the numbers of civil servants, promising a 25% reduction in headcount in the cabinet office over the next three years.
And somehow all of this is going to turbo-charge the economy, which begs the question: if reducing government inefficiencies is such a cast-iron guarantor of growth, why on earth didn’t the Tories do it ages ago? During austerity, for example.
Could it be that the British public is being gaslit again by a man whose own job might be considered indisputable proof of the “bureaucratic bloat” he so decries? Perhaps the fact that Rees-Mogg starts his Telegraph article by praising former austerity chancellor George Osborne offers an answer. And it’s not a comforting one for the millions of families wondering how they’re going to survive the coming winter.