There's good news about UK plc if you ignore the doomsayers

There's good news about UK plc if you ignore the doomsayers

by Miles Saltiel
article from Wednesday 5, September, 2018

IT IS COMMON GROUND that Brexit is going badly. Remainers deplore their country’s theft by rascals who bamboozled an innocent electorate. Leavers lament the betrayal of their hopes by a cabal of duplicitous Brinos. The former continue to push for a second vote, the latter for parliamentary manoeuvres to frustrate May. Resentment inflames partisans: Clegg, Mandelson and Soubry, Banks, Farage and Rees-Mogg, the cast of thousands is back to devote the balance of the year to a rerun of the original campaign.

Worse still: Government has pretty much lost traction with the people - certainly on Brexit and possibly on much else. No doubt it goes back to the original sin of Blair’s “dodgy dossier”. But Osborne and Carney deserve a full measure of credit for their part in “Project Fear”, whose falsification has rendered all government information on the topic disreputable. 

This isn’t just DExEu or the Department for International Trade - readily dismissed as no-account newcomers, let alone the transparently political Cabinet Office; this is former founts of authority, the Treasury and the Bank of England. Their discredit has made it easy to rubbish “No deal” warnings, whether from Brussels or Westminster, both ahead of time and on delivery. Only journalists still pretend to take this guff seriously.

Popular disaffection is shown by the high level of respondents to the most recent YouGov poll (fieldwork 28 and 29 August), who returned a “don’t know” on specific policies, either above or within a couple of percentage points of the strongest party on the issue. This occurred on fully half the topics on which they were asked to comment: Brexit itself, plus immigration, education, tax and unemployment. 

The public continues to see Brexit as the most important challenge facing the UK (64% citing it versus 35% for the number two priority, the NHS). As to which party is best equipped to lead the country out of Europe, “don’t know” at 27% is well ahead of the Tories (23%) and Labour (14%). An overwhelming majority has detected that the government is making a bish of things, with 73% saying it is doing badly, versus 15% saying it is doing well. Perhaps this explains the shift to remorse, with 47% vs 42% now saying that with hindsight they think it was wrong to leave. As for the once key question, “Which of the following would make the best Prime Minister”, respondents are decisive: “Not sure” at 39% wins snappily over May at 35% and Corbyn at 23%. 

But you know what: none of this matters. The statistics tell of a country doing unexpectedly well. The economy grew ahead of expectations at 0.4 per cent (quarter on quarter) in the three months to June 2018. Employment has risen to a fresh record: 32.3m in work in the first quarter of the year, an increase of some 200,000 over the previous quarter and up by nearly 400,000 over the corresponding period last year. The rate of employment rose to 76% in the latest quarter, the highest since modern records began in 1971. Household consumption has risen and fixed investment has rebounded. 

Best of all, government borrowing is down to £12.8bn so far this year, compared with £21.3bn over the same period last year. July also saw the biggest monthly fiscal surplus in 18 years, with receipts outstripping expenditure by £2bn. Enough of the statistics. If I look out of my window, cranes dot the skyline: the country is booming. 

Perhaps this should be taken to reinforce a longstanding suspicion. For two or three generations – I’d say since the dismal Seventies – the rewards of British political life have been insufficient to attract the most talented of my countrymen. Backbench MPs have always been a mixed bag, but not so long ago the Commons had several dozen figures of genuine accomplishment, on or within striking distance of both frontbenches. Fifty years of diminished global reach, salted with a diet of domestic tedium has left the country with a leadership ill-prepared for the unexpected challenge of an existential political question. 

Skills have gone overseas or otherwise away from public life. You’re not so sure? How else to explain the manifest failure of “cometh the hour cometh the man”? How else to explain that palpable lack of traction? I don’t like the answer either. But I’m afraid it means we need to brace ourselves for a trying autumn

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