David Gauke: Cameron’s values in government may be out of favour, but they are not wrong

13 Apr

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

The Government’s announcement that it is undertaking an independent enquiry of the Greensill Capital affair is unlikely to bring much cheer to David Cameron. He has endured weeks of bad publicity, and there is little chance that the story is imminently going to ‘move on’.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the former Prime Minister’s actions – and he has acknowledged making mistakes – the furore is all the more painful because his reputation as Prime Minister was already at a low ebb. Critics of his economic policy accuse him of inflicting austerity which, they argue, were unnecessary, stunted growth and damaged public services; he is castigated by Remainers for calling and losing the Brexit referendum and by Leavers for being a Remainer; some on both sides accuse him of deserting his post by resigning the morning after the poll; his electoral successes have been surpassed by Boris Johnson’s thumping majority in 2019. Not unrelated to this, neither the man nor his political values appears to have much influence on the modern Conservative Party.

Defending Cameron’s record in office is deeply unfashionable. So I will do so.

Let us start with the economy. There are few defenders of ‘austerity’ in today’s public debate. Labour still want to argue that the electorate got it wrong in 2010 and 2015, just as they tried to do in 2017 and 2019 (which, incidentally, suggests that this might not be a guaranteed route to success). Johnson, meanwhile, is not temperamentally an austerian and enjoys the opportunity to demonstrate that he is new and different from recent Conservative history.

The economic debate has also moved on. Governments have been able to borrow vast sums of money in the last year without much of a risk of a sovereign debt crisis. Central banks have played a more active role, debt servicing costs have fallen and international organisations have advocated expansionary fiscal policies. This may all go wrong at some point – there is more reason to worry about inflation than for many years – but it hasn’t gone wrong yet.

None of this means, however, that the concerns of fiscal conservatives back in 2010 should be dismissed. The global financial crisis had resulted in substantially higher spending and permanent damage to tax revenues. The risks of a sovereign debt crisis – with consequences for inflation, debt interest costs and consumer and business confidence – were not imaginary. The IMF and the OECD advocated that countries needed to have credible plans to put the public finances on a sound footing, and many countries did just that. In short, the balance of risks and the expectations of the markets in the years after 2010 were very different to where we are now.

Did fiscal consolidation significantly hamper our economic recovery? It is true that economic growth in 2011 and 2012 was disappointing (although not as bad as it appeared at the time when the ONS early estimates suggested that we had had a double dip recession), but it is worth remembering that the independent Office for Budget Responsibility put this down to the lasting effects of the banking crisis, higher commodity prices and the Eurozone – not fiscal consolidation.

Looked at in the round, over the 2010-2016 period, the UK had the joint highest growth for a G7 economy, level with the US. It was also a period of rapid jobs growth, with the highest employment rate in our history and income inequality falling. Had the Brexit referendum gone the other way, there is every reason to believe that the post-2016 UK economy would have been characterised by high economic growth, rapidly rising living standards and strong public finances, as opposed to us falling to the bottom of the G7 league table.

Were public services were unduly damaged? Difficult decisions had to be made, but many of them were unavoidable given that the spending plans that we inherited were based on an over-optimistic, pre-crash assessment of what was affordable. It was possible to drive greater efficiencies and find ways of getting more for less. The British state has been placed under enormous strain in the last year by Covid but there have been some real successes. Just looking at two areas where I have some familiarity through Ministerial experience, HMRC was able to introduce the furloughing system in a matter of weeks, and the Department for Work and Pensions was able to cope with an extraordinary surge in benefit claimants. Neither would have been possible without reforms undertaken by the Cameron Government.

Having said all that, we relied too heavily on spending cuts over tax rises. It was politically easier at the time to cut spending rather than raise taxes and, as time went on, we got the balance wrong. Some areas of government spending – justice, for example, or social care – were squeezed too hard. But a period of spending restraint was necessary and inevitable and too many of Cameron’s critics fail to acknowledge that.

It was the decision to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU and then lose it that hangs most heavily over Cameron’s reputation. It will, unfortunately, always be for what he is remembered and, for many Remainers, this will never be forgiven. The referendum result created huge uncertainty and will, in my view, inflict lasting damage to the UK. But we should not kid ourselves that had he adopted a different approach our membership of the EU would currently be assured.

The Conservative Party was moving in the direction of being a Vote Leave Party – in part because of the fear of UKIP peeling off Tory votes – and the decision to offer a referendum was motivated both by a desire to win the 2015 general election by winning back UKIP voters but also by a recognition that a post-Cameron Conservative opposition would, in all likelihood, favour Brexit.

The best chance of staying in the EU, Cameron concluded, was to settle the issue early with a decisive Remain victory – the longer the issue was left, the greater the chance we would leave the EU. As it turned out, he was wrong to believe that he could deliver a Remain victory but he may have been right that this was the best chance of defeating Brexit.

As for the criticism that he should not have resigned following the poll, one lesson of the last five years is that the referendum did not tell us what exactly ‘Leave’ meant. I do not believe it is plausible to think that the European Research Group would have allowed the leader of the Remain campaign to define the answer.

More broadly, much of his political approach has stood the test of time. In wanting more women and ethnic minority MPs, caring about climate change and the environment and introducing equal marriage he took positions that were controversial at the time but have aged well.

Yes, Johnson’s majority in 2019 – and continued strength in the polls – exceeds anything achieved by Cameron, but it is not clear that a political strategy based on white voters without post-16 academic qualifications is the right long-term strategy for an electorate that is becoming more diverse and better educated.

Cameron represented fiscal conservativism, social liberalism and internationalism. These values may be out of favour but they are not wrong. It is too early to say to what extent his personal reputation will – in time – recover but the dismissal of the achievements of his Government is undeserved.

David Gauke: Without a proper state aid regime, the UK is unlikely to make a deal with Brussels

1 Aug

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

Within the next three months, Boris Johnson is going to have to make the decision that will define his premiership and determine the future of British politics – especially the Conservative Party – for a generation. And the subject matter of this momentous decision? The previously obscure issue of the regulatory regime constraining the ability of the Government to provide taxpayer support for private sector companies. In other words, state aid.

Before turning to the issue in hand, let me set out a little context. My last two columns (here and here) have made the case that there is an electoral logic that points towards the Conservative Party moving in a leftwards direction economically but in a rightwards direction when it comes to social issues or, to put it more precisely, issues of national identity. Politics appears to be realigning as the biggest dividing line ceases to be about economic class or ideology but in relation to cultural issues.

The consequences of such a dividing line – and the Conservative Party unambiguously placing itself on one side or the other – is an uncomfortable one for those Conservatives with a desire for intellectual consistency.

At least since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the Conservative orthodoxy has been in favour of sound money and free trade. That is not to say that the State had been banished from making any kind of intervention in the economy – no recent government could accurately be described as laissez faire – but that any such intervention would be made carefully, recognising that the market was, by and large, a rather good way of allocating resources.

As for cultural issues, the Conservative Party has been a broad church consisting of social conservatives and social liberals, tub-thumping patriots and committed internationalists. Generally, we rubbed along alright.

These Conservative traditions were abandoned in 2019, resulting in the Prime Minister’s electoral triumph in December when he won previously safe Labour seats. He did so by promising an economic policy that involved more spending and greater government intervention. He also promised to deliver Brexit at whatever cost. It was an uncompromisingly Leave prospectus that appealed to patriotic/English nationalist working class voters.

This brings us to the UK/EU negotiations over a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. Contrary to promises of an oven-ready deal, discussions have not yet made a lot of progress. There are two sticking points. The first is fish. This is a matter of economic irrelevance (our fishing industry contributes less to GDP than Harrods) but of disproportionate political importance. As one can make a similar point about the EU, it would be an extraordinary failure for this matter to prevent a wider deal being reached.

The more substantive issue relates to the level playing field provisions. These are the EU’s requirements that the UK will not engage in “unfair competition” by undercutting the EU’s social and environmental legislation, nor provide anti-competitive subsidies.

The UK Government’s response to these demands has been to argue that this is an outrageous attempt to fetter the actions of a newly-independent nation. Given that (1) free trade agreements inevitably involve accepting some restrictions on a country’s ability to determine its own rules and (2) the UK accepted the principle of level playing field provisions in October’s Political Declaration, the EU is less than impressed by the argument.

The particular focus of the dispute has been state aid. At one level, this is surprising. The UK has traditionally eschewed state aid spending, seeing it as market-distorting and a wasteful use of taxpayers’ money. We spend less of it than the French and Germans and, as EU members, consistently argued against its use.

Nor has it traditionally been a touchstone issue for Eurosceptics. From my days in the ERG, I recall plenty of conversations about how the EU imposed regulatory burdens on businesses, prevented trade deals with rising economies like China and resulted in too much power in the hands of the unelected (oh, happy innocent days). Restrictions on bailing out private sector companies were not so much of problem for us Thatcherites.

This issue could have easily been de-escalated if we had put in place our own, independent and robust state aid regime, perhaps enforced by the Competition and Markets Authority. Such a regime is probably necessary (albeit not sufficient) in order to reach a compromise with the EU on this topic.

Instead, we have refused to set out our own domestic regime and there is much talk of how we can use our new freedoms as ex-members of the EU to support our own companies, like the rather odd acquisition earlier this month of a £400 million shareholding in a failed satellite company.

According to the Financial Times, Dominic Cummings is digging in against anything other than a “minimal, light-touch” state aid regime, believing that once you have left the EU “you should just do whatever you want”.

This brings me back to the nature of the Conservative victory last year and, in particular, the new supporters. If the Government’s focus is appealing to nationalists who favour an interventionist state, it would want the ability to back national champions or other businesses in favoured locations.

And if you are temperamentally inclined to think that any constraint on your ability to “do whatever you want” (whether by the EU, Parliament or the legal system) is an affront to democracy, then you will be all the more the likely to resist a robust and independent regime.

There are, however, consequences. First, it is very hard to see how the EU will agree to a deal if the UK does not have a proper state aid regime. I wrote in February how there may be a political case for not getting a deal (any deal will be very thin in any event, some parts of the economy will suffer as a consequence of leaving the Single Market, better to collapse the talks and blame the EU for the consequences) and that argument still applies.

But, as a consequence of the handling of Covid-19, the Government is more vulnerable to the charge of incompetence. In addition, a no deal Brexit would be a gift to the SNP, thus weakening the Union yet further.

Second, even putting aside the EU dimension, there are very good arguments for having in place a robust state aid regime. The Treasury will be arguing the case. Both as a finance ministry (ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent wisely) and as an economics ministry (wanting resources to be allocated productively in order to maximise economic growth), it institutionally hates state aid. Presumably, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, well-regarded by his officials, will have similar views and will be making the case forcefully. At least, he should be.

It will be for the Prime Minister to decide. Go for the purist view of Brexit (“you do whatever you want”), embrace the new political alignment and splash the cash in order to play to the Red Wall voters. Or keep open the possibility of a deal, look after the interests of taxpayers and maintain some kind of consistency with economic orthodoxy. Whichever way he goes, it will be a hugely consequential and revealing decision.