Earlier today on this site, Andrew Gimson interviewed David Burrowes. The MP for Enfield North is a significant figure, not so much for what he does, but what he stands for. He is a constructive rebel. Nearly all the time he supports the Government, but some of it he does not. Sometimes he wins (Sunday trading) and sometimes he loses (refugee children). Very often, he ponders an issue that interests him closely – such as Ministers’ intention of reversing the recent court judgement over disability benefits – and decides to tow the line. His voice helped to sway the Government over sex and relationship education. Unlike Sajid Javid, his comrade-in-arms as a Conservative student at Exeter, he is not a Cabinet Minister – indeed, he is not a Minister at all. But he has more influence on events at Westminster than many of those who labour long and hard on Theresa May’s front bench.
The point about Burrowes is that although his worldview is distinctive, his attitude is not. There are plenty of others like him on the Tory backbenches, in the sense that they will not simply do as they’re told. David Cameron had to back down on his plans for tax credits, personal independence payments, academisation, pensions reform plus, as mentioned, Sunday trading – and more. Theresa May has learnt from his experience and is minimising legislation. Proposals are floated through papers rather than slapped into Bills. Javid’s plans for housing are in a White Paper. The industrial strategy itself, a core May policy, is in a green one. She is bending the knee to the rule of Commons arithmetic. Jeremy Corbyn may be leading the weakest opposition Britain has seen since the war, but nature abhors a vacuum. Burrowes and company already fill part of the gap. As this Parliament grinds on, they will fill more.
May has a working majority of 17. Sure, she can usually count on the Democratic Unionists (when they are not grappling with their own problems) and on opposition MPs not all being in Westminster at the same time. But her small majority is a fact of life that those of us who scribble for a living sometimes overlook – even if our views are centre-right. If we are hostile to the role of the state, we want real cuts in public spending, slashing reductions in tax, a bonfire of red tape, and so on. If we are more sympathetic to it, we might want spending increases for social justice – longer tapers for universal credit, higher borrowing for infrastructure, more public sector housebuilding, and so forth. These two sets of views are far apart, but in one way they come together: both can make riveting copy for newspapers and the blogs. No-one ever sold an article to an editor by arguing that a Chancellor should be timid.
Which brings us to Philip Hammond and his Budget. The brutal truth is that he has arrived at the Treasury at the most uncertain moment for the British economy in living memory – and that four factors combine to leave him with little room for manoeuvre. The first is what we might call the Burrowes Test. A significant chunk of the Budget was crafted to head potential rebels off. It remains to be seen whether £2 billion for social care, spread across three years, and £300 million for councils hit hardest by the rates revaluation, does the trick. A section of Tory backbench opinion is opposed to the grammar schools policy. And then there are Hammond’s NIC plans. Whatever you may think of the arguments either way – and the effects of the growth in self-employment on the tax base certainly suggests some revision – they present a big political problem.
This isn’t so much that NIC rises were ruled out by the last Conservative Manifesto – though a common sense reading of it suggests that this was indeed the case – but that Ministers are arguing that they weren’t. Tory Ministers and MPs are already having their NIC words from 2015 thrown back in their faces. The Liberal Democrats moved quickly to label the Chancellor’s plan an OmNICshambles Budget. Hammond’s calculation may be that, since many of the less well-off self-employed will gain from the change, the better-off will have nowhere to go. It proved otherwise at the Richmond Park by-election.
Why can’t the Chancellor cut a programme rather than raising a tax? Many Conservatives will ask the question this evening. It runs slap into the second factor – the stubborness of the structural deficit, the lack of appetite of Tory MPs for spending reductions, and the interplay between spending and Brexit. We accept that the uncertainties of the latter make this the wrong time to reduce further the growth of the former. But the sum of those recent rebellions suggest that the Conservative Parliamentary Party has gone soft on deficit reduction. The third factor is the need, given Brexit, to keep business onside. It is essential to the future of post-Brexit Britain as an enterprising country that business horses are not frightened. That has already meant the watering-down of May’s ideas about putting workers on boards and a rowing-back from her conference rhetoric of last October.
The fouth factor is Brexit itself. More Remain supporters have come to terms with it in the aftermath of the referendum. But there is a danger that the robustness of the economy since last June, and the easy passage of the Article 50 Bill through the Commons to date, has dulled the alertness of Leave supporters to what lies ahead. This is not so much turbulent negotiations, though these are certainly likely. Rather, it is the sheer scale of Brexit itself. It is like a great painting seen so close that one cannot grasp its size. It will require a supreme national effort by government – applied to everything from the talks themselves to the restructuring of Whitehall to decisions about how much of the EU corpus to junk to how Parliament will cope with the sheer mass of legislative requirements. Downing Street doesn’t want Brexit to define this Government, but tough: that’s the way it’s going to be.
Furthermore, it is far from clear that the senior ranks of the Tory party are ready for the job. If a top-rank politician is a combination of real vision, low cunning, experience in office, command of the Commons, skill with the media, persuasiveness with colleagues and (perhaps above all) luck, then the Cabinet is running a bit short of them: we would count in Hammond himself, the Prime Minister, David Davis, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, Damian Green, Michael Fallon and Jeremy Hunt. The task of rising to Brexit leaves this small band neither the governing nor the political space for radical tax reform nor, we are sorry to say, a social justice crusade, close though that is to the heart of this site. That would have to be led from the top and, though Theresa May sees the need for social reform, her focus is bound to be fixed elsewhere as soon as the Article 50 Bill is passed.
To say so is not – or shouldn’t be – to fall back on masterly inactivity. There is much that government can do which doesn’t need legislation at all. For example, the jury is out on whether the enforcement mechanisms in its plans for more homes will work. And Number Ten’s policy wonks should already be thinking about the manifesto for 2020 – whether in terms of further intergenerational justice by, say, scrapping the pensions triple lock, or filling the gulf where families policy should be. And it is fair to say that if the content of the Budget was necessarily humdrum, the framework in which it is set can be visionary – but was not. It is striking that the Chancellor shied away from telling a story of how each of his plans relate to the post-Brexit Britain which the Government wants to see. Perhaps he is downcast by being hemmed in. So it will be until 2010 – unless an early general election upsets the apple cart.