As the Conservatives gather for what is almost certainly their last party conference before the next general election, it is not surprising that their mood is more than usually febrile. And, in some quarters, fatalistic: the product, chiefly, of opinion polls which, for months, have indicated a Labour landslide.
But those polls are based on how people say they would vote if an election were to be held now. Which it isn’t.
Until very recently, Labour’s main attack line has been on the Conservatives’ management of the economy. There can have been few interviews with Labour front-benchers in which the phrase ‘the Tories have crashed the economy’ has not been hammered out. And Sir Keir Starmer had taken to saying that under this lot, ‘Britain is the sick man of Europe’.
Only, it has now become clear that these attack lines were based on false data.
Last week, the Office for National Statistics issued a revision of its previous estimates, revealing that our GDP had grown by 1.8 per cent from its pre-Covid levels, slightly more than France’s did, and significantly better than Germany’s performance (up by only 0.2 per cent).
As the Conservatives gather for what is almost certainly their last party conference before the next general election, it is not surprising that their mood is more than usually febrile, writes DOMINIC LAWSON
The key issues at the Conservative conference this week. It is not difficult to imagine that, if the inflation rate does ease in the way anticipated, Sunak will overturn Starmer’s polling lead on ‘the economy’
This latest report from the ONS follows an extraordinary re-evaluation by the official body last month, in which it declared it had understated the growth in the UK economy, since 2019, by 2 per cent.
Or as the former Treasury adviser, Tim Leunig, wrote in the Financial Times: ‘The rise is good news for the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. They no longer have to cower under the weight of accusations of economic mismanagement.’
I quote Leunig because he is no Tory (he originally entered Whitehall as a Liberal Democrat Special Adviser).
Obviously the Chancellor himself is more effusive, telling the Times on Saturday: ‘We are the fastest-growing large European country, not just since the pandemic, but since Brexit, and since 2010 [when the Conservatives took over from Labour].’
After reading this, I asked the Treasury to send me the figures justifying Jeremy Hunt’s claim. They sent me a chart, based on data from the ONS domestically and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) internationally, showing that since 2010 the UK’s cumulative GDP growth has been 24 per cent, compared to 21 per cent for Germany and 16 per cent for France.
But what about Brexit — supposedly the cause of devastation to our economy?
The same charts show that since the referendum in 2016, the UK’s GDP has grown by the same amount as France’s and by significantly more than Germany’s.
Perhaps even more intriguingly, the UK’s aggregate growth has comfortably exceeded that of each of those two biggest EU economies since we left the Single Market in 2020.
This is not to deny the extent to which many exporters to the EU face regulatory difficulties, which they had not endured before; or the effect on businesses which previously relied on ‘free movement’ to have immediate access to cheap labour.
But it is equally clear that just as the Remain campaign’s scare tactics were ludicrously overwrought in 2016 (with the then Chancellor, George Osborne, forecasting a recession and mass unemployment if we voted ‘out’), so is their continued hyperbole about the economic damage caused by Brexit.
It is true that our productivity growth has been lamentable for many years now, but the reasons for that have little to do with our being in, or out, of the EU.
To the extent that more ‘greenfield’ investment is a key to increasing productivity, there has been some better news. That indefatigable data driller, Julian Jessop, himself a former Treasury economist, observed that recent figures from the UN’s Trade and Development body (UNCTAD) showed the UK had ‘pulled well ahead of the rest of Europe again in terms of the value of brand new investment projects’.
Or as UNCTAD’s document put it: ‘The United States remained the largest host for announced greenfield projects and international project finance deals, followed by the United Kingdom.’
Now, none of these statistics alone will help or enthuse voters suffering from the effects of high inflation — otherwise known as the cost-of-living crisis.
So, it will not be until that rate is down to around 3 per cent that the public might begin to feel less sulphurous towards the Government. (Not coincidentally, the Chancellor was recorded suggesting to a group of Conservatives that reaching such a figure might well be the trigger for Rishi Sunak to go to the country.)
The Chancellor Jeremy Hunt was recorded suggesting to a group of Conservatives that inflation reaching three per cent might well be the trigger for Rishi Sunak to go to the country
Now, a word about opinion polls. The key figures to look at are those in response to the questions asking which of the two main party leaders would make the best Prime Minister, and which is most trusted to handle the economy.
If one of the candidates is ahead on both those questions, then his party will almost certainly win, even if it is behind on the headline question: ‘How will you vote?’
We learned this in both 1992 and 2015, when the Conservatives won even though the final opinion polls had them trailing.
In a detailed poll published on Saturday in the Mail, Sunak was lagging Starmer by eight per cent on the ‘best PM’ question and by just one per cent on ‘which would you most trust to grow the economy?’.
It is not difficult to imagine that, if the inflation rate does ease in the way anticipated, Sunak will overturn Starmer’s polling lead on ‘the economy’. Then, things will become even more interesting.
Lammy overcomes his Christian conscience
David Lammy, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, won a struggle last week — against his own conscience.
It seems to have been an easy victory, announced in a tweet declaring that ‘my commitment to Nato and the UK’s nuclear deterrent is unshakeable’, and linked to a newspaper article under his name with the same message.
This is all part of Sir Keir Starmer’s determination to demonstrate that Labour has broken with the legacy of Jeremy Corbyn, whose hostility to our nuclear deterrent was one reason why so many millions thought it was not safe to vote for the party.
Yet, when a motion to renew Trident, the UK’s independent nuclear weapons force, was debated in the Commons in 2016, who made the most passionate speech against?
Despite previously arguing against renewing Trident, David Lammy (pictured in Canada with Sir Keir Starmer in September) has now declared his commitment to the UK’s nuclear deterrent
Yes, David Lammy. He declared that he was speaking ‘as a Christian … I stand here united with Pope Benedict. The idea of loving thy neighbour and protecting our world for future generations simply cannot hold if we have stockpiles of [nuclear] weapons … I cannot with a clear conscience vote for what is effectively a blank cheque for nuclear weapons.’
But Lammy’s argument was practical as well as principled. He asked: ‘Why do we need to have an independent [nuclear] programme at such a huge cost?’ — taking the line that nuclear weapons were ‘useless as a deterrent’.
In other words, both morally and practically indefensible.
But now he declares that Britain’s nuclear deterrent is part of ‘Labour’s heritage’ — and that he is ‘proud of it’. I imagine that Keir Starmer had made it clear to Lammy, when appointing him Shadow Foreign Secretary, that he would have to make this volte-face. One Labour MP told me that Lammy would not have found this difficult ‘as he doesn’t believe in anything particularly deeply’ (despite all that guff about his Christian conscience).
Lammy is certainly someone with a flexible attitude to history. When he (bravely) competed on Celebrity Mastermind, he claimed that Henry VII succeeded Henry VIII as King, and that Marie Antoinette won the Nobel Physics Prize in 1903. Now, as then, we just have to laugh.