Why David Cameron is not a compassionate conservative

David Cameron is legacy conscious, that is the take away from a speech he made earlier in the week. He wants to be remembered as more than an administrator in chief, someone who made a few reforms and reduced (but did not clear) the deficit. He wants to change society in a way he will be remembered for. Margaret Thatcher brought the language of the market into everyday life. Tony Blair oversaw huge social liberalisation. Cameron has survived three referendums and that is it.

Cameron started out wanting to be a moderniser. He wanted to ditch the Tory's "nasty party” image and occupy the centre ground of British politics the way Blair did for Labour in the 1990s. Now Cameron is legacy conscious; he is drawn back to the idea of compassionate conservatism that he championed in his early days as party leader. Cameron wants the Tory party to tackle the social ills and deep rooted problems of Britain.

I believe that Cameron really does want to tackle the country’s complex problems and leave office with more people from all walks of life better off than when he arrived. I also believe this goes further than a nebulous desire to help people and that he has ideas about how to tackle Britain’s social problems. However, these ideas have never come together into something tangible. Cameron has spent none of his political capital being a compassionate conservative.

The argument made by Cameron’s apologists is that he has not been compassionate because of circumstance. Cameron has had to jump from crisis to crisis, which has gotten in the way of his vision. I dispute this, as a lot of these crises were of Cameron's own creation. The EU referendum, Cameron's rebellious right wing backbenchers and the trouble with UKIP eating away at Tory marginal support were created by Cameron's timidity and his reluctance to confront the right of his own party. He has allowed the right of the party to consistently undermine him because it is easier than standing up to them. If Cameron really wanted to lead Britain to a future of compassionate conservatism then he should have started by convincing his own party to stay in line.

Other events (AV referendum, Scottish independence, etc) Cameron could also have avoided, had it not been convenient to allow them to happen at the time. The other obstacles to the compassionate conservative project, cited by its defenders, are part of the cut and thrust of politics. These are mainly elections and circumstances created by the opposition. Did Cameron expect to be able to govern in a vacuum? Did he think that the Labour Party would just allow him put his grand, but ill defined, vision in practice?

We have to evaluate governments on what they do, not what they say or what they intended to do in an ideal world. The Tories have introduced the Bedroom Tax, penalising benefit recipients whose family members die, which is the opposite of compassion. The Tories have created a blame culture which accuses the unemployed and disabled of being scroungers. People with bad luck who lose their jobs or who have medical and/or physical disabilities are people who need our compassion, but the Tories have created an atmosphere of accusation and imply that these people are just workshy and are therefore not deserving of our compassion.

The day to day governing of the country is filled with compromise and maybe Cameron felt these not so very compassionate moves were necessary. He may still intend on being a compassionate conservative, but I doubt this when I look at some of things Cameron attempted. Under Cameron the government proposed cutting tax relief to people in work who are struggling to get by as well as raising council rents for people in work but with low paying jobs. Surely people who are working hard but still cannot a pay their rent and put food on the table without government aid are people who need compassion. However in the eyes of the Tories the working poor and also scroungers who need to be bullied into making more money rather than being shown compassion.

In the last week Cameron has shown his lack of compassion as the Tories voted against an amendment to the housing bill to ensure that all rental properties are fit for human habitation. People living in substandard accommodation are apparently not deserving of compassion according to the Tories.

Then we come to Cameron’s greatest absence of compassion: child poverty. Even someone who blames the unemployed for being unemployed or the working poor for not having better paid jobs, must acknowledge that children are not responsibility for the poverty they are born into. The government should be compelled to tackle child poverty, to give every child in the country equality of opportunity.

Under Cameron’s government the number of children living in absolute poverty in the UK has increased by half a million Cameron’s response is to redefine child poverty as a social condition and not an economic one, thus dodging the government's obligation to tackle the issue. This is a shocking lack of compassion for children born into poverty and amount to Cameron turning his back on millions of poor children.

Cameron's flagship compassionate conservative policy is the Big Society. The most generous assessment that of this plan is that it aims to encourage ordinary people to take a stake in their community and local government and to use their expertise to improve local services by tailoring them to the needs of the community. It could be described as a plan to provide socialism without state interference. To make ordinary people care for each other and work together to improve the lives of others without the need for a draconian state that involves itself in the personal lives of its citizens.

That is when I am being generous. Most of the time I see the Big Society as a means to transfer services that were offered by the state to ordinary people and use social pressure as a means a to do this. The neo-liberal drive towards maximum labour market flexibility has created a society of workers disconnected from their communities, moving to where the work is (mainly London). The Tories have no plans to oppose this as it would involve standing up to private businesses who do quite well out of a flexible labour market. However in the towns and villages workers have vacated no one is available to look after the elderly people. The state could provide this service but that would be expensive.

Enter the Big Society. By using social pressures of the 1950s, workers are encouraged to provide social care or management expertise to cut back state run services. We will still move to where the work is, but we are supposed do our bit for Blighty while we are there and to slot into a community care, health and education network that used to run by the state. It is social democracy without the state or a lot of people working long hours and then providing care services and running schools in their free time. The time we are supposed to spend with our children or being idle for the sheer joy of it are not accounted for as they have no value. Compassion has been removed from this equation. It is the worst combination of the strict social pressure of the past and the austere state of the present.

Cameron may want to be a compassionate conservative but by victimising the unemployed, the disabled and low paid workers he is behaving like the same old nasty party that he wanted to move the Tories away from. His Big Society dream is a means to create a state that does not care for its citizens and little England nightmare of social pressure where overworked people provide the services the state used to run. This is a compassionate conservative vision of a future without leisure time or any collective responsibility.

Spitting, shouting and bursting Tory bubbles: Conservative party conference

Last week in Manchester the Tories staged their annual festival of self-congratulation, also known as the party conference. This time they have been trying to keep the swagger to a minimum after their surprise election victory in May. Whatever your view on whether or not austerity is the best solution to our economic problems, it is clear that the Tories have not governed for everyone during the five years of the coalition. There have been cuts to unemployment benefit, the introduction of the bedroom tax, rising homelessness and now low paid workers are losing their tax credits. All of these have disproportionately affected the poor, so not everyone was pleased to see the Tories back in government.

Inevitably this displeasure led to a protest outside the party conference, a protest attended by over 60,000 people. It was a large protest, but Manchester Police commented on Twitter (??? link) that it was a well organised, and well behaved, protest with only 4 people arrested. Despite this commitment to public order from the protestors, the right wing media still called them yobs and tried to make it look like Genghis Khan's hordes had tried to invade the Tory conference. Some journalists were spat it, which is completely unacceptable, but we should not judge a largely peaceful protests but its worst members.

There was an attempt from the Tory sympathetic sections of the press to portray this a far left lynch mob, prevented from murdering the Tory party membership by only be a thin line of police officers. We were told that these people were anarchists and socialists who want to destroy the government and capitalism. I do not think this is fair. I think that many of these people were not anarchists, socialists or even trade unionists or Labour party supporters. In fact, many probably did not think of themselves as left wing.

These were the people hurt by five years of the Tory led coalition and the people who will be hurt by five years of a Tory government. The people hit by the bedroom tax, the people who are about to lose their tax credits. This protest was simply about the Tories acknowledging that these people exist. It was about the Tories recognising that last five years have not been "mending the roof" as George Osbon put it, but bringing it down onto a lot of peoples' heads. It was about the fact that yes unemployment down and GDP is up but there has been a human cost to this, primarily born by one section of society. If the Tories are going to have a huge festival of self-congratulation then they have to walk past the people who they have hurt.

The worst thing about the Tories is that they deny the hurt they have done. They talk about sacrifice and tough decisions, as if all that is needed to fix the country’s economic problems is for a few people to go without quite so many take-aways and trips to the pub. The Tories praise themselves for making difficult decisions but they are never the ones who have to make sacrifices because of them. They deny the deaths caused by benefit sanctions and they refuse to acknowledge that what they are doing is destroying communities and lives.

The most intense anger of the protest, the spitting and the shouting, was brought about by the Tories trying to avoid the protesters or walk away without acknowledging them. The crowd grew more angry and aggressive to get attention.

From the Tory's point of view, they refuse to engage with anyone who presents their criticisms in what they see as an unreasonable manner. They will not engage with what they see as a mob baying for blood. From the point of view of someone at the protest (or the millions of people hurt by Tory policy that they represent) there is no reasonable way to bring their suffering to the attention of the Tory Party.

I assume that the Prime Minister did not go into politics to make poor people worse off. He just lives in a posh Tory bubble, where the only people he meets are Tories, even those from less well off backgrounds. Trying to pierce this bubble is almost impossible. The protesters have no means to make their objections known other than to shout loudly. The Tories ignore them for being unreasonable, which makes them get angrier, so they shout louder. The net result is that politics feels increasingly distant and alien to the protesters, while those in power are made to feel that these are people to be governed and not engaged with.

Make no mistake that a political divide is growing between the victims of austerity and those who have not been touched by it, and the Tories winning an election has not changed this. Anyone who wants to reach any kind of political consensus needs to make these two groups talk, which currently they are not.

The main event of the conference was Prime Minister David Cameron's speech, which he primarily used to attack the new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn was also present in Manchester, but he was addressing the same protesters that the Tories refused to acknowledge. In many ways, Corbyn is the opposite of the protestors: quiet, impersonal, and from a mainstream political party.

Corbyn's election as Labour leader was because he engaged with this faction of society that the other mainstream politicians ignore, they flocked into the Labour Party to carry Corbyn into the leadership. Now Corbyn is trying to reasonably convoy the anger and hurt of these people to the establishment. However, the establishment are not listening to Corbyn either and would scare people by calling Corbyn a threat to national security.

When the angry try and engage with the political process in a constructive way, through political changes such as electing Corbyn, they told either that they are stupid, that their opinions are dangerous or that they are traitors. I am still not sure what the Tories believe is a reasonable way to object to their policies. Presumably it is as meekly as possible so that any objections can be ignored.

Questions remain of how well Corbyn will go down with the electorate as a whole, but so far he has done well at representing the views of this angry section of society that have been ignored for so long. Corbyn is trying to avoid a violent confrontation in the future by addressing the social problems of austerity. However the establishment do not want to listen to him.

If the Tories do not want to talk to the protesters about their objections then they can talk to Corbyn. If they do not want to talk to him either, then the divide will grow until something snaps and violence breaks out. The post-war consensus was supposed to the stop extreme politics of the left and right and the violent political uprisings that had dogged the first half the twenty century. If the Tories want to tear up the last remnants of the post-war consensus and silence any objection, then they invite a return to the extremes and violence of the past. This is what will happen if there is no constructive dialogue.

I would prefer engagement with the protesters through the established political channels as the best means to address the social problems of austerity. The choice of doing that directly, or through Corbyn, is left to the Tory party. The one thing which is certain is that pretending that no one is suffering under austerity and Cameron's leadership will not heal the growing social divide. Only constructive engagement can do this.

Welcome to the new Tory Britain

NB: This blog post was written a while ago and not posted due to computer problems. The debate has changed since it was written, mainly because of Jeremy Corbyn, who will be the subject of the next blog post, but I felt it worth posting anyway. It was supposed to go up shortly after the budget was announced.

We were all surprised when the Tories won a majority in the general election earlier this year. Polls had showed Labour and the Tories neck and neck for weeks. No one expected what happened when the polling stations closed and the BBC announced its exit polls. The Tories were going to be the largest party in a hung parliament by quite a long way.

Paddy Ashdown's comments that he would "eat his hat" if the polls were right summed up the belief that this could not have happened. Over the next few hours, the results backed up the exit poll. The Tories would be the largest party and hold the balance of power. By the early hours of the next morning it was clear that even the exit poll was an under-estimate and that the Tories would form a majority government.

A taste of what the next five years would bring was immediately served in the form of July's emergency budget, the first purely Tory budget since Ken Clarke's 1996 budget 18 years before. The budget contained tax cuts for the rich in the forms of reductions in inheritance tax and corporation tax, the later to become lowest level in the G7 and joint lowest in the G20. The budget also contained £12bn worth of cuts to welfare, much of it for people in work but earning less than a living wage. The people who have insecure jobs, the people with low incomes, the people who have been suffering from years of stagnant wages, rising rents and high costs of living would bare the brunt of Tory austerity. We were told that it was essential to cut back aid to these hard working families in order to balance the books of the nation.

At the same time as those who work hard for a low wage were having money taken away from them, Chancellor George Osborne has announced the sale of the publicly-owned Royal Bank of Scotland at a cut down price. The net loss to the public purse of this sale is £13bn. The conflicting message is our society cannot afford to be generous to the poor but it is essential that we continue to be generous to the rich, if we do not then the entire mechanism of our society would ground to a hault. If we give the poor money they will not work, but if we stop giving the rich money they will not create wealth.

This cut to the poor and subsidy to the rich represents an enormous transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest. The welfare state is being bled dry out of a sense of necessity, a necessity that does not extend to selling the government's RBS shares at market price. This shows what the Tories really believe in and what we will get for the next five years: help for big business and the rich, punishment the poor for being poor.

Osborne has pushed back his deficit reduction plans. The national debt will now be paid off in 2019, and it will take longer to repay the deficit under Osborne's plan than it would have under the plans laid out by Labour Chancellor Alastair Darling in 2010 and Labour Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls in 2015. Both of these alternatives, dismissed by the electorate, involved fewer cuts to public services. The Tory plan is not to rebalance the nation's finances but to rebalance society in favour of the “wealth creators”. This not a conspiracy organised by a public school elite, it is simply what the Tories believe will encourage economic growth that will eventually trickle down to everyone. The mass transfer of assets from the poor to the rich is supposed to benefit the poor at some later date. However, that day never arrives and we are becoming an increasingly unequal society.

Following their surprise defeat, Labour are searching for a new leader. This has not prevented interim leader Harriet Harman from endorsing the Tory welfare cuts. The electorate sent a clear signal that they did not trust Labour with the economy, that they completely accepted the Conservatives’ line on Labour overspending, and they wanted the deficit cut. Harman wants to regain some electoral credibility for Labour during her brief time in charge and her approach to this is to sign up to the Tories plan to hack away at the safety net the poor rely on.

By signing up to the Tories’ anti-welfare agenda, Labour have moved the middle ground of politics towards scaling back welfare. When Labour fails to offer an opposition to Tory cuts they become more acceptable to the electorate. This gives the Tories licence to cut welfare further than they initially planned.

It is not a coincidence that on the day that Labour agreed not to oppose the Tory welfare cuts, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has suggested that workers save for their own sickness and unemployment by paying into a private fund out of their wages. This is fundamental redrawing of the social contract and an attack on the basic premise that the state provides assistance to those who are unfortunate enough to be sick or unemployed.

This new assault on welfare is partly ideological: there are many Tories who would like to abolish welfare alltogether and move to system entirely based on self-reliance. That would be a system entirely based on how wealthy your family is, which suits the Tories perfectly. Another reason for this assault on welfare is the cut and thrust of politics. The Tories have a simple plan: to paint Labour as a party of the unemployed and themselves as a party of the hard workers, and this was one of the reasons why they won the election.

The Tories will keep hacking away at welfare until Labour stand up to them, at which point the Tories will accuse them of being on the side of the scroungers and against the strivers. If Labour try to avoid being accused of supporting scroungers by voting with the Tories, then the Tories will cut welfare further and further. While the two main parties play games of positioning over the issue of welfare, the people who rely on welfare are losing their livelihoods.

Labour, and other people on left, need to stand up to the mass transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich through welfare cuts and discount privatisation. However, the position faced by Labour after the surprise electoral defeat is a difficult one. They need to find a new way to present themselves, because the way that former leader Ed Miliband presented Labour completely failed to resonate with the electorate.

While Labour are going through this period of introspection, we should appreciate the size of the challenge. The electorate voted for the Tories and gave them a mandate, however slim, to cut further. The arguments of Miliband fell on deaf ears, the electorate is not interested in a Labour Party that offers a milder version of what the Tories are offering. The electorate would clearly just prefer the Tories.

If Labour and the left are going to start winning again, then we need a pursue new narrative about what has gone wrong in the past and what will go wrong in the future unless we change direction. This new narrative needs to be bold, radical, different from what the Tories argue, but it also needs to resonate with ordinary people and their experience of the world.

For my part, I intend to write articles looking into this question of a new left wing narrative and what shape it could take. Whatch this space for new ideas of how we change the political debate. The Tories are rolling out their vision for Britain for the next five years and it is a painful vision of welfare cuts for the poorest and the mass transfer of assets to the richest. The need for the left to express a narrative which could oppose the new Tory Britain has never been greater.

The problem of Etonians

The public’s approval of politicians is at an all-time low. Most people think that the elected representatives of all parties are simply self-serving and money grabbing, mainly interested in looking after their own narrow band of supporters while cramming as much corporate funding and expensive claims into their pockets as possible.

The Tories are especially singled out as being the party of vested interests, of making life easy for the wealthy while cutting benefits. Symbolic of this is the number of Etonians in the cabinet and on Cameron’s personal staff. Recently Michael Gove has labeled the number of Etonians in Cameron’s inner circle as ‘ridiculous’. However the problem is more widespread than this, 45% of all MPs are privately educated compared to 7% of the population. This is true of the opposition as well as the government. Labour has made great strides in women and minority representation but there is still a problem of the over representation of MPs from wealthy backgrounds with private educations. All parties are as bad as each other in this regard.

The country should not be run by a private school educated elite. Our government cannot be made up of MPs out of touch with the problems faced by most people. Problems like trying to buy healthy food for a family on a tight budget. Problems like trying to give your child the best start in life when state school is the only option. Increasingly, people have the problem of having choose between food and heating. As a country, we will struggle to deal with these important problems if none of our leaders have any experience of them.

It is no wonder that the current government wants to stop benefits for the under 25s. When they were young, their parents lived in houses with spare rooms for unemployed children to stay in between jobs. It honestly has not occurred to the members of cabinet that some parents cannot financially support their children up to the age of 25. It probably has not occurred to them that a 24 year old can have a family and a career, be made unemployed, lose their house and then be forced to move their entire family in with their parents. These are not circumstances that occur to the children of the wealthy, so it is no wonder a government of such people has not taken this into consideration.

The political principals of all leading parties are guided by the ideology of the wealthy. Their creed is competition, self-reliance, hard work brings rewards – but these too only benefit the wealthy. Competition seems like a good idea when your children begin with a head start in the race. Self-reliance is fine if your expensive private education allows you walk into any job of your choosing. And whilst hard work may well bring rewards for them, to most politicians the hard work of an office cleaner is not worth a living wage.

Poor people have to play by the same rules as the wealthy and they lose out. When they vote for someone else, the guiding principle behind our economy do not change. Meanwhile the rich get richer, the gap between rich and poor widens, class mobility decreases and safety net which most poor people rely on is being dismantled.

There are currently more working people in the UK claiming benefits than non-working. This is because wages have stayed low while food, heating and rent bills have soared. Still the government is cutting from the welfare bill. Wealthy MPs with private education have little need of the safety net benefits offer so they view it as unnecessary expenditure. If there were more MPs for poorer backgrounds then the benefits poor families rely on might not be under such threat.

Related to this problem is the fact that too many politicians have only ever worked in the Westminster bubble. There is a dire lack of MPs who are former teachers, nurses, police officers, office workers and shopkeepers. Most rising star MPs worked for think tanks or as special advisers before being elected. This has created a disconnection between the problems of the outside world and the problems of Westminster. Case in point is the low importance most voters place on EU membership (either in or out), but this debate still dominates Westminster.

Parliament is becoming increasingly abstract from the real world issues which affect most people lives and the root cause of this is the rising number of MPs from privileged backgrounds, who are privately educated and have only ever worked in Westminster. This is hurting our democracy as more people become disaffected with politics. Faith can only be restored in politics when politicians take steps to change this overrepresentation. All parties need to take action to stop this trend and have candidates which reflect the income and educational background of their constituents. In short, fewer Etonians and more people who have experience of the everyday problems most  people have to deal with.

Fracking exposes of a crisis at the heart of the Tory Party

The Tory party is in crisis. This is mainly a result of UKIP’s attack on their right flank, bolstered by the party leadership’s unpopular stance on EU membership. However there is also something deeper going on here. It must be hard for the party members to get excited about being a Tory. The glamour of opposition has gone and the party has been tarnished by being in power. Their term had been characterised by lack-lustre economic growth and compromise with the Lib Dems. Drumming up passion from the membership must be difficult, who are looking at the sexy UKIP for a little excitement.

The crisis in enthusiasm stems from the party's make up. Like the Labour Party its membership has steadily decreased over the last 30 years. The average Tory Party member is in their mid 60s and comes from a more relaxed section of society. They are well off, retired, comfortable and desire little, expecting their way of life to be protected. They see their traditional lives as threatened by modernity and are angry about this but they do not have a grand vision of how society should be remodelled. This is because they do not need one. Society had provided for them nicely, however, it is hard to energise a political force around protecting their way of life.

It was not always like this. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the Tory Party was known for dynamism and vision, they had Thatcherism, an idea that would change the whole nation. The Tory Party was seen as being on the side of business and innovation. Now they are seen as protecting vested interest and the young business person of today is not a Tory. If anything they are apolitical or libertarian. They want government out of the way completely. The final triumph of Thatcherism threatens to destroy the Tory party itself. The old members are inactive or dying off and young ones are not replacing them.

They need to do something to move the party’s image away from NIMBYs and social conservatives and towards the ethics of today’s young business people. After growing up under Blairism, these people are generally more socially liberal than the average Tory Party member but are also more in favour of the free-market. They see rural Tories’ opposition to high speed rail or wind farms as stifling the future of British business. The Tory Party needs to do something, and fracking appears to be their solution.

The government have thrown their weight behind fracking in a big way, claiming this is both the solution to our energy concerns and the economic stagnation that has gripped the country since they came to power. This idea has not been universally popular, and the government has inadvertently managed the difficult task of uniting wealthy, rural NIMBYs and green movement against them. Despite this, the government has claimed we could be the Saudi Arabia of fracking. From this I imagine Britain will become a country where a few extremely socially conservative rich people will possess unimaginable wealth and the rest of the population will be poor and live in a dry, lifeless wasteland – this is probably George Osborn’s vision of utopia. 

The process of fracking has the potential to cause irreparable damage to the natural environment and if anything is clear, the world does not need more sources of green house gases. However, the biggest problem is that we currently have a lively debate about alternative energy solutions that has the potential to do some real good. Countries like Germany are already moving towards producing their entire energy requirements from renewable resources. Fracking only delays the problem of what to do when the gas runs out at the possible  expense of this critical debate.

Still support for fracking solves some political problems for the Tories. Aside from the political problems it solves if fracking brings about an economic boom, it helps the party reclaim their mantel as the party of business. We have heard a lot of talk of how Britain can be a world leader again, in something over than CCTV cameras per square mile, while private companies make huge profits, driving growth and employment. This is the essence of what Conservatism used to be about.

Fracking also appeals to the elements of the Tory part that is frightened of modernity. This is big traditional heavy industry which voters like because they can understand what it does. This is not a social media start up with complex business plan that is difficult to understand and uses the word fermium a lot. This is also not a similarly complex financial industry, support for which is still tainted by popular dislike of bankers. This looks like government actually doing something. Even if doing something will create 30,000 gas towers across mainland Britain.

In fact the only people who seem to dislike this are the retired Conservative Party members whose garden view of a National Trust property is about to be spoiled by a pillar of smoke rising into the sky and whose house is about to experience increasing seismic activity.

This has exposed a division between Tories for whom Conservatism is about conserving, and the party’s Thatcherite members. It asks fundamental questions about what it means to be a Tory. One thing is certain, the Tory Party cannot go on mounting effective electoral campaigns with an increasingly ageing and inactive memberships. Something has to be done to bring new life into the party and attract young people. Also for the party to win an outright majority in a general election they need to become more dynamic and more appealing to young entrepreneurs.

Fracking may not be the solution to our energy problems, but it does help the Tories with their political problems. It focuses on business and aggravates the comfortable rural Tories whose vested interests the party is seen to protect. The government's support for fracking is not aimed at tackling the energy crisis or creating jobs, it is about marketing the Conservative Party to a new generation of business people.

Could Boris Johnson be Prime Minister?

“LOL Boris for PM!!!1!” tweeted one articulate person during the London Mayor's speech after the Olympic Games. The famously mop-headed Tory politician had declared a parade in honor of Team GB's medalists, and closed this event with a speech which many believe was setting him up for a bid for the Conservative Party leadership and ultimately Number 10. Pundits claim that he took credit for the games and that the success of the London 2012 Olympics reflects well on Boris Johnson. His visibility during the games and his savvy courting of the international media has propelled him to a new level of recognition which can only work in his favor should he decided to make a play for power. The idea of Boris as Prime Minister might not be a joke for too much longer - not the least because he out-danced Cameron's awkward shuffle during the game's closing ceremony.

Boris Johnson, or B-Jo to some, has always managed to use his status as Britain's most high profile joke to forward his career. His popularity lies in his appeal to people who are either not interested in politics or who believe all politicians to be grey suits, only marginally more interesting than accountants. He clearly believes himself to be the second most powerful person in the country, with eyes to take his unique brand of self-publicity to greater heights. The above quoted tweet is indicative of the fact that he appeals to people outside the main political debate.

I am yet to meet anyone who admits to voting for Boris for any position of power simply because he is funny, but the nagging suspicion that such a person is out there somewhere will not go away. Boris is the classic Cameron model of Tory, clearly a Conservative of the left of the party, a self-styled progressive and not a darling of the right-wing. His appeal to those who could make him leader is his ability to attract support from those who are unlikely to vote for traditional Tory candidates, primarily young people who the Conservatives have had little success in wooing. Rising youth unemployment under the Cameron government makes it unlikely that they will have much success among the under 25s in the 2015 election, but Boris Johnson as leader might make that more likely.

Let me lay out the case for Boris as party leader: the current economic stagnation is doing the Conservatives no favours electorally, and Cameron has a growing problem with the right of his party. He is seen as appeasing the Lib Dems too much and flip-flopping on key issues of immigration, welfare reform and – crucially – EU membership. All this could be brushed off, but Cameron cannot escape the growing feeling amongst Conservatives that the government is not right-wing enough and that this could cause the traditional Troy vote to stay home in 2015 or switch to a new party, such as UKIP. Tory strategists are concerned about the current leadership's effectiveness to mount a successful campaign for the next election, and Boris could make all the difference. He is internationally-known, watchable on TV and an effective user of modern political tools such as social-media. He appeals to the young, the politically central and the so-called “chattering classes”, what I will call the LOL B-Jo crowd. His connection with the Olympics brings positive thoughts to people's mind when musing on Boris Johnson. By contrast, David Cameron reminds everyone of government cut-backs and our own squeezed wallets. Boris also has experience of high office, and being Mayor of a city as diverse as London requires a special type of politician who appeals to different sections of society and fosters consensus. He is also of good Tory stock, Eton and Oxbridge educated, clearly a friend to wealthy and privileged, whose support the Tory party depends upon. Even his frequent gaffes come across as lovable buffoonery: Boris has turned his biggest weakness into his greatest strength.

However, there are reasons against making Boris party leader. He is clearly no more right-wing than Cameron, and thus unlikely to attract back the euro-sceptic support lost since Cameron became party leader. British politics are also very different from American politics and, although Boris considers himself to be Governor of the London (in more ways than one), being Mayor is an unlikely stepping stone to party leadership. Cameron's successor is more likely to come from a cabinet colleague, probably Osborne who occupies the traditional king-in-waiting role of Chancellor and is firmly to Cameron's right. However, the main reason against Boris becoming party leader is actually his clownish appearance. Britain longs to be taken seriously as a world power and everything about the London 2012 Games is a testament to this, but choosing a tousle-haired dandy as our leader does not project seriousness. The thought of a leader who might drop his trousers at a meeting of NATO has little appeal outside the LOL B-Jo crowd. Memories of how all of Italy was mocked for Silvio Berlusconi's gaffes are still fresh in people's mind.

The LOL B-Jo crowd may have their day: remember that in the early 1970s, the idea of Margret Thatcher as Prime Minister was laughable (remember Life on Mars?). However, Boris Johnson is clearly setting the agenda right now, with his appearance on David Letterman's The Late Show in America prompting Cameron to be a guest on the same late-night talk show. Recently, Douglas Alexander has written in the New Statesman that Labourshould take the idea of Boris as party leader seriously. B-Jo maybe the nation's favourite joke for now, but he is no fool. Boris Johnson's political foes (both inside and outside his party) would do well to take seriously the way he uses his public image to promote himself, and his appeal to people alienated by politics. No other politician better sums up the way Twitter has changed politics. It would not come as a shock to me if I were to read a tweet saying “LOL just voted for B-Jo for PM” in 2015.

A budget to reward work?

Politicians are always looking to incentivise employment. The general means of accomplishing this is by either cutting taxes on high earners and corporations to encourage entrepreneurship or cutting benefits to get the unemployed off the dole and contributing to GDP and tax revenue. In the run up to today’s third budget of the coalition government Chancellor George Osborne claimed he was planning a “budget to reward work”, i.e. one which will benefit those already in employment and encourage the unemployed to get a job.

Now with the details of the next 12 months of government spending announced we can ask ourselves: to what do degree has he succeeded? There was some welcome news, such as raising the level at which someone in employment begins to pay income tax to £9,205 a year with the aim of raising it to £10,000 next year. Not only will this reduce the tax burden on those with the lowest incomes but all those in employment will pay less tax; the average basic rate tax payer will now be £305 a year better off. This may not sound like a lot but it will boost consumption and aid the economy. Another good idea was tax breaks for firms working in the fields of computer games, animation and high end television manufacture. These are important sectors to the UK economy where we have a competitive advantage and are vital to our growth.

However, over the last year those in employment have had their prosperity dogged by the spectre of inflation above the Bank of England’s target. Although inflation has fallen back in the last few months (currently the CPI is at 3.4%) higher inflation erodes the value of income made from working and reduces the incentive to enter work. Firms have tended to give lower than inflation pay rises recently so as inflation remains high and those in work are finding themselves worse off. Inflationary pressure is largely the result of rising fuel costs caused by the soaring price of oil and gas on the global market. A domestic fuel subsidy or measures to reduce transport costs could have reduced inflationary pressure and made the income from work more valuable. This, however, was never on the agenda.

Another consideration is where will the funds come from to pay for this tax reduction? Borrowing is projected to be £1bn lower than anticipated which has given the Chancellor room to manoeuvre. A certain amount of the slack will be taken up by the rise in stamp duty for properties over £2m and the proposed clamp down on tax avoidance. The majority of the additional revenue will be raised by an extra 37p per unit tax on cigarettes. It is worth remembering that taxes on commodities disproportionately affect low earners as they spend a higher proportion of their income on the taxed commodity. A tax break for lower earners could be a double edged sword for those who also smoke – which there is also a higher instance of among the poor.

The other main highlight of the budget was the reduction in the top income tax bracket - from 50p in the pound to 45p – aimed at encouraging entrepreneurship and investment from overseas. I have blogged about this before but investment will remain low and the rate of business start ups will be sluggish while GDP growth is lack luster. With growth in 2012 projected at a mere 0.7%, Osborne should consider a growth strategy if he wishes to stimulate investment and create a fertile environment for new businesses.

Job creation and a plan for boosting growth were not overtly stated in today’s budget. There was protection for some vital areas but others important growth sectors (such as renewable energy) were all but activity discouraged – mainly through the government’s continual commitment to non-renewable energy. Unemployment is projected to hit a peak this year at 8.7% and a clear plan for job creation is needed to protect the recovery. Unemployment and the low growth rate are the biggest problems the UK economy faces right now and the government should commit to a clear strategy for tackling these before it leads to endemic social problems. Such a plan would also send a clear signal to overseas investors and aspiring entrepreneurs that the UK is committed to economic prosperity above political goals.

Overall this is a budget lacking in ambition or a clear plan to boost the economy out of its current dire situation. There were no sweeping cuts, surprise new schemes or massive tax boondocks. Just a few tweaks to the system with the vague goal of stimulating growth and getting more people off benefits and into employment. If Osborne really wanted to create a budget that would reward work he would take measures to reduce inflation or help get more people into work. More employment and a better growth rate would benefit both those in and out of work as it would grow the economy overall. The Coalition maybe attempting to incentivise work but while the economy remains weak, their efforts will be unsuccessful.

50p Tax: What’s going through the Torys’ heads?

It is no secret that the Tories want to abolish the 50p tax band. There are few points more fundamental to Tory ideology than the belief that taxing the wealthy is not only bad for the economy but also morally wrong. It runs to the heart of their belief in individual freedom, economic liberalism and personal responsibility. The most surprising fact about the rumoured plans to abolish the 50p tax rate in the forthcoming budget is that it has taken the Tories the better part of two years in government to consider acting.

This is partly due to their coalition partners. The Liberal Democrats oppose the removal of the tax without the instigation of another tax on the wealthy in its place. They would prefer the Mansion Tax they proposed in their 2010 manifesto – which is also vehemently opposed by grass roots Conservatives. If the Tories were to repeal the 50p tax rate without implementing the Mansion Tax (or something similar) it could derail the coalition’s remaining legislative agenda at a time where Lib Dem support is essential to pass the government’s welfare reforms.

The second reason why the Tories have waited until now to considering removing the tax is fiscal. The government’s argument that the nation’s coffers are in such a dire state that all must make sacrifices for the economic wellbeing of the country carries little weight if it emerges that there is room in the budget to cut a substantial revenue stream. The Conservatives would be on dodgy political ground if as soon as they entered government they cut the essential services lower income earners rely on (such as EMA) and introduced a tax which falls disproportionally on the poor (the VAT rise) whilst also passing a tax break for the highest earners.

Sound economics does also lie behind the decision to keep the 50p tax rate. To reduce government borrowing as quickly as possible, tax streams would have to be kept at the current level or raised – hence the rise in VAT. Income Tax is the largest proportion of the government’s income from taxation, and high earners pay the lion’s share of this income.

So why act now? Again there is an economic case to repeal the tax. Growth has been poor since the coalition came to power, and many think tanks and economists believe that repealing the 50p tax would stimulate consumption of consumer durables (predominantly purchased by high earners) and boost the economy. It would also go some way toward attracting investment from overseas - although investment will be limited whilst growth remains sluggish. The Tories’ re-election and deficit reduction programme depend on growth rising in the next few years, and cutting taxes on high earners is seen as a short cut to achieving this.

There is also pressure to repeal the tax from within the Tory Party. Cameron has a problem with his own right flank, who feel that too many Liberal Democrat policies are on the agenda, that the government has not played hard ball sufficiently with the EU, and that Cameron is not doing enough to protect the international standing of Britain as a great nation. These MPs are also concerned about their own re-election under the Tory banner, and are crying out for some traditional Tory reforms to take back to their constituencies. Cameron’s failure to support the back-benchers’ proposed EU membership referendum has created resentment within his own party, and he needs a bone to throw to them to ensure they keep supporting the continuation of the coalition.

The Tories do have to consider the strong case for keeping the higher tax rate. Firstly, it generates essential revenue at a time when growth is slow and tax receipts are lower accordingly. Another key point to consider is that those who stand to benefit from the repeal of the rate are the very wealthy, and studies have consistently shown that the wealthy save a higher proportion of their income, whereas those with lower incomes spend the majority of their income out of necessity. If the government’s plan is to boost consumption, then conventional logic suggests the amount of money that circulates around the economy should be raised, rather than the amount left inactive in bank accounts.

Aside from this, the government is faced with a moral responsibility that any government should have, which is to help the less fortunate, the vulnerable, and those who cannot look after themselves. This government is failing in that regard as its austerity programme is cutting the services needed most by those whom society is supposed to look out for. To reduce taxes paid by those most capable of providing for themselves at this time would be a failure on a moral level.

If Osborne wishes to abolish the 50p tax band in tomorrow's budget, then he must consider the political fall-out with his Lib Dem coalition partners as well as the wider economic implications. He must also bear in mind that the most obvious logic of cutting taxes to boost consumption does not always hold true. Whatever decision is reached, it will certainly be considered a test of the Tories’ claim that all sections of society must make sacrifices in order to tackle the budget deficit. The Conservatives certainly would love to abolish the top tax bracket; whether they are willing to spend the political capital needed to do so will be a question that can only be answered by Wednesday's budget.

Austerity economics: how we were misled

Hindsight is wonderful thing in economics. Knowing exactly what should have been done at certain cross road in history to avert catastrophe has been the subject of many books and PhD thesis. The Former US Defence Secretary Robert S. McNamara once said that “historians are not interested in counterfactuals. The what might have beens.” Economists certainly are. Economists use the data from lead indicators, current indicators and lag indicators to work out exactly what the state of the economy is and what would be the best course of action. Sometimes this is simple, growth is low interest rates are cut and households have more money. Thus aggregate demand is boosted and there is a spike in growth. Usually it is much more complicated than that and the data shows no clear path to be taken out of a crisis.

In the absence of knowing for certain what needs be done, politics often comes into play in making the decision. In other words, the debate becomes about what should be done. The root of all politics is philosophy. Governments decided on a philosophy of marketization or state intervention and from this their politics and the economics follows. By the time this reaches the public in the form of social pressures it often appears that the facts have been twisted to be in line with the philosophy.

With the benefit of hindsight we can see that the Thatcher government’s curtailing of union powers was philosophical and not economic. It stemmed from her government’s ideological commitment to neo-liberalism and not a genuine need to decrease union powers to make the economy more prosperous and therefore grow faster. At the time it was sold as such but now we can see how the economics flowed from the politics and that the politics had its root in her philosophical views.

It is no longer fashionable for parties to have a clear ideology but there is still philosophy at the root of their politics. Nearly two years into the coalition government, with the benefit of hindsight, we can start to see how the philosophy has guided the economics and where the mistakes were made.

Austerity is the economics of the coalition government. In the campaign there was also a commitment to opening public services to market competition but this has been less forthcoming, especially with the woes associated with NHS reforms. When George Osborne became Chancellor he offered us a simple economic parable, cut the state and the private sector will grow. Two years later with growth lacklustre at best, unemployment higher than it has been at any point under Labour and the country teetering on the brink of another recession this parable seems more like a fairy tale - or a coma fantasy. In years to come Osborne’s austerity program will be seen as a result of his philosophical commitment to neo-liberalism rather than a response to the economic necessity of cutting the budget deficit. This goes hand in hand with his proposals to open public services to competition from private firms. Right now the philosophy is still being sold as economics, but it is politicians who are driving the economics and their philosophy which drives them.

Sociology is applied economics and the social consequence of economics facts - such as rising number of the unemployed – are seen in urban decay and public order offences. Last August’s riots were in essence the application of economic factors to the population and as incomes continue to fall and more and more people are out of work social breakdown becomes more likely.

Social breakdown is also in evidence in Greece were rioting against the government’s austerity program has become a feature of daily life. The Greek coalition government is attempting to impose a gruelling program of public sector cuts in order to secure essential funds from the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund to prevent a default on their sovereign debt. However with the Greek economy entering its fifth consecutive year of recession and the most recent data indicating that this recession is depending and not improving, austerity does not seem like the best course of action. Couple this with evidence from the UK that our recovery has faltered since the beginning of our program of cuts and the case for austerity in Greece looks pretty week. Of course the pressure for austerity emanates from the ECB and IMF and their control of the bail out money. These bodies, the IMF especially, also have philosophical ties to neo-liberalism and use their status as the world’s creditor to pressure their own political agenda. Economic good comes behind a philosophical world view and social consequences to the ordinary Greeks comes last of all. Hence the neo-liberal agenda of the IMF and others leads to rioting on the streets of Athens.

Austerity was sold to the public as economics when in actual fact it is a philosophy; a philosophy which the data – the life blood of economics – does not support. Until economists can see the future, they will always need philosophy and politics to guide them. Yet philosophy and politics need be informed the data of economic reality and must consider the social consequences of their actions. Philosophy and Politics are essential to governance, as they are a vision to aim for and a direction to travel in. Even this blog, ostensibly an economics blog, frequently wonders into politics and philosophy.

Hindsight is useful for knowing exactly which economic policy should have been adopted at a cross roads - like the one Britain and the Euro face. Lacking hindsight in the present we must always be aware that sometimes when politicians are selling us economic necessity they are in fact selling us their philosophical desires.