The Lords: the chamber where money talks too loud

6 Aug


Last week the identities of 30 new peers were announced, soon to take up their seats on the red benches of the House of Lords. Among them were anti-racism campaigner Doreen Lawrence, former Met policeman and perennial mayoral also-ran Brian Paddick, and the journalist and political egghead Danny Finkelstein. With Paddick and Finkelstein both having sought elected office unsuccessfully in the past, the announcement was a heartening reminder that in Britain a thing as trivial as democratic consent need not be a barrier to a fruitful career in politics.

Perhaps I am being a little unfair. Paddick, as a former high-powered police officer, will no doubt be able to put this specialist knowledge to good use in the second chamber. His experience as an openly gay man rising through the ranks of an institution which was in the past (and perhaps still is) less than welcoming to homosexuals, will also add a valuable new perspective and voice to parliament. The same goes for Doreen Lawrence – who better to give voice to the minorities in this country who feel bullied and marginalised, than a seasoned campaigner with personal experience of the full horrors of institutional racism? As for Danny Finkelstein, though he belongs to a different party to me, I have always found him an insightful and sensible commentator.

What is most disturbing about the new cohort of peers is the depressingly predictable roll call of party donors. Sir Anthony Bamford, boss of JCB, has donated nearly £2.5m to the Conservatives since 2002; new peer Sir William Haughley has given £1.3m to Labour since 2003; and taking the Lib Dem whip is the Ministry of Sound owner James Palumbo, who has gifted £650,000 to his party since 2011.

The three parties of course “totally refute” allegations that donors are rewarded with peerages. A Tory source claimed for example that Sir Anthony’s ennoblement reflected his status as a “leading industrialist who has made a massive contribution to British business”.  And therein lies the essential opacity of our political honours system: if you have enough wealth to splurge cash on a political party, chances are you have achieved something outside of politics which can plausibly be claimed to merit a peerage. So long as there is not an explicit, written quid pro quo negotiated between the party and the donor, such nominations can in this way pass muster with the House of Lords appointments commission, even if rewarding a donor was a factor in the internal thought process of the party leader who nominated them. That a seat in the “Mother of all Parliaments” can be bought for the right price is one of the elephants in the room of British politics.

The continuing passage of party donors into the Lords is however only one of the more striking examples of the wider parlous state of affairs prevailing in the second chamber. Whenever the Lords appears in the news we are reminded of the same extraordinary and embarrassing snippets of political trivia: the 26 Church of England bishops steadfastly guarding your Christian interests in the Lords (whether you’re Christian or not); the 92 hereditary peers still hanging around; the list of fraudsters and convicted criminals warming the red benches (who we don’t have the power to kick out); how, with 836 members (and with no sign of growth abating), the Lords is the second largest legislature in the world after the Chinese politburo.

The House of Lords should not be celebrated as a quaint monument to this country’s long and gloriously messy history: it is one half of the legislature which hands down the laws which regulate our lives. The British people deserve better than this archaic and undemocratic institution, where money still talks to loud. And if anything it is Labour which has the greatest cause to feel ashamed about the lack of progress: when reform was last up for grabs in 2012, they preferred to foment discord in the coalition rather than throw their support behind the Government’s bill. At least the Tory backbenchers who torpedoed that bill believed what they were doing was right: Labour sacrificed principle and the chance to drag the Lords into the twenty first century in favour of a tactical play which most of us have long since forgotten about.


Prisoners are easy targets

2 Jul

Guest blog by Edward George, who has worked within the prison sector and would prefer to remain anonymous. (Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink.) This blog appeared on the Prospect magazine website on 09/06/2013.

Last week the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, outlined changes to the rules regulating prisoners’ privileges. The changes, which include requiring all convicted prisoners to wear uniforms for the first two weeks of their sentences and restricting access to television, films and private cash, are designed to make prison more punitive.

Not many people will lose sleep about prisons ditching their Sky TV subscriptions, or inmates losing the ability to watch 18 certificate films, and rightly so. But other elements of the changes are misjudged to the point of danger. The move is especially depressing because it appears to have been conceived for political reasons, and because it is symptomatic of an unpleasant instinct within the Conservative party to prove its toughness by attacking easy targets.

There are currently three levels of privileges available to prisoners in UK jails: basic, standard and enhanced. When inmates enter prison they are automatically put on the “standard” level, which gives them various entitlements including access to private cash and permission to wear their own clothes. The changes to the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, which come into effect in November, will create a new “entry” level which will be much closer to the austere “basic” level (the punishment for poor behaviour) by denying new inmates access to these entitlements at the beginning of their sentences. After two weeks the behaviour of the prisoners will be reviewed: if they have cooperated with the prison regime and engaged in rehabilitation they will progress to the standard level, and if not they will drop to basic.

Grayling justified the changes on the basis that they will contribute to the government’s “rehabilitation revolution” and reduce reoffending (a theme developed in the Queen’s speech yesterday with a new commitment to extend probation services to all offenders after release). He argues that prisoners are currently rewarded for the absence of bad behaviour (by being immediately placed on the standard level), whereas in the future they will have to earn these perks by positively engaging in activities which will support their rehabilitation. But if his priority is reducing reoffending, the changes are wrongheaded. Research indicates that maintaining contact with family during a prison sentence can reduce the likelihood of an individual reoffending by 39 per cent. Depriving prisoners of the means to maintain these links by reducing the number of family visits they get and limiting their access to private cash (spent on phone calls to the outside world) will not serve the cause of rehabilitation.

The decision to make conditions harsher for prisoners at the start of their sentences is particularly dispiriting. It is well known that a disproportionate amount of self-harm occurs in the early stages of custody, when prisoners are generally at their most psychologically vulnerable—in 2011, 23 per cent of self-harm incidents occurred during an individual’s first month in prison. Cutting new prisoners off from their families and marking them out from the rest of the prison population by putting them in uniforms may well increase incidences of self-harm. This is not evidence-based policymaking: prison professionals know that the priority when dealing with new inmates at the beginning of their sentences is to “stabilise” the individual and help them adjust to the custodial environment.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that these changes to the IEP scheme are in large part motivated by political considerations. It is hardly coincidental that the policy was unveiled just days before a round of local elections in which the Conservatives feared they would be outflanked on the right by UKIP (a fear that turned out to be justified). Talking tough on law and order plays well with Conservative heartlands, where increasing numbers of voters have become disillusioned with what they see as an abandonment of traditional Tory values under David Cameron’s leadership.

Grayling’s prison policy fits into a wider Conservative strategy designed to rebuild the party’s support on the right. When he announced the policy last week his language seemed to have borrowed liberally from the welfare debate, where the party has also tried to improve its reputation on the right by casting a distinction between “strivers” and “shirkers”: “It is not right that some prisoners appear to be spending hours languishing in their cells and watching daytime television while the rest of the country goes out to work.”

But setting one’s face against two groups who are either unable to vote (prisoners) or not politically mobilised (welfare dependents) is no great show of strength or political courage. The Conservatives’ choice of political opponents speaks volumes about their current weakness and lack of self-confidence.

Red Ed vs. Redder Len

17 Jan


Last night Len McCluskey, general secretary of the UK’s largest trade union, Unite, kicked off the 2013 Ralph Miliband Memorial lecture series at the LSE. The event was laced with irony: Ralph, the Marxist sociologist who died in 1994, was of course the father of David and Ed Miliband. Since becoming general secretary in 2011, McCluskey, whose union is Labour’s biggest donor, has often been a thorn in the side of the Labour leader, precisely because he reflects the deeper, redder socialism of Ed’s father. None of this was lost to ‘Red Len’, who wryly observed: “the father spent his life trying to convince our movement that there was no possibility of a parliamentary road to socialism, while his sons have been loyally putting theory into practice, and proving Ralph right.”

Speaking in a soft Liverpudlian accent, McCluskey advanced a fiery but highly literate argument on the need to re-forge working class politics in the 21st century. The McCluskey thesis is that during the 20th century, the working class – spearheaded by the labour movement – won spectacular victories which we take for granted today. As he put it: “The idea that capitalism or the ruling elite would have introduced democracy or social equality or welfare [social security and universal public services] on their own is entirely fanciful.”

His argument is that the welfare state is under threat today because its protectors – the trade union movement and a politically-active working class – have been weakened and demoralised by a neo-liberal offensive which began in the late 1970s but which continues to this day. What’s more, he argues that contemporary discussion of the working class by politicians and the press, who either deny it any longer exists (“we’re all middle class now”, as John Prescott famously asserted) or demonize it as “feckless, criminalized, and ignorant,” is part of a deliberate strategy by elites to crowd the working class out of politics.

McCluskey is not the naïve nostalgic of rightwing myth, obsessed by an unattainable dream of reliving the golden days of his youth, when he organized clerical workers in the Liverpool docklands. He is enough of a realist to know that the deindustrialization of the British economy since the 1980s has changed the face of the working class forever. But he is adamant that it is still out there, and his mission is to try to re-forge a viable working class politics by reaching out beyond the unions’ traditional constituency to “the unemployed, the disabled, carers, the elderly, [and] the voluntary and charity sector.” He has some interesting ideas about how to reconnect unions with the wider community: Unite is training activists to work as community organizers, and also has plans to create a new credit union to provide an alternative to usurious payday loan companies.

Nevertheless, working class “consciousness raising” – persuading people they represent a class with common interests, and that the labour movement has the answers to their problems – is as old as socialism itself, and has an extremely mixed record of success. Whether McCluskey is the right man to rebuild a working class mass movement is also questionable. In the past he has demonstrated a remarkable tin ear when it comes to public sentiment – most notably in February last year when he disastrously threatened to disrupt the Olympics to protest against austerity.

Perhaps the most significant thing to come out of the speech however, and certainly the most troubling for Ed Miliband, is evidence that the old divisions within Labour are still disconcertingly alive and kicking. While Miliband has tried to bury the traditional tension between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Labour with the reassuringly consensual ‘One Nation’ slogan, questions from the floor (which were almost exclusively from Unite members) railed against “the rightwing parliamentary labour party” and Progress, the Blairite pressure group which some union leaders (though not McCluskey) want banned from the party.

What’s more, McCluskey seems to be on a collision course with the Labour leadership. When asked what his three “must-dos” for a Labour government in 2015 would be, “trade union freedoms, trade union freedoms, trade union freedoms”, was his defiant answer. He also repeated his view that a “watered down version of austerity” was not an option. But Ed Miliband is very unlikely to relax trade union regulation (imagine the headlines: “Union paymasters get their pound of flesh”), and the fiscal environment in 2015 will almost certainly preclude him from doing anything other than continuing with deep public spending cuts. In other words, the “red line areas” set out by Labour’s biggest financial donor are things which the party’s leadership are not in a position to deliver. As Fred Astaire crooned, “there may be trouble ahead…”

A version of this post appeared on the Prospect magazine blog on 17/01/2013

Leveson, 1695 And All That

3 Dec

On Thursday lunchtime, after 16 months of investigation, including four months of public hearings featuring 337 witnesses, Lord Justice Leveson delivered the findings of his inquiry into “the culture, practices and ethics of the press,” including his recommendations for its reform. Two hours later, in the House of Commons, David Cameron pulled the plug on Leveson’s ocean of ink by rejecting its central recommendation – statutory underpinning for a new press watchdog.

The Prime Minister has been accused of tacitly cutting a deal with the newspapers: Cameron would block the proposal, which is almost universally detested by the press, and reap a political reward of favourable coverage in return. In politics, no decision is made without an assessment of the likely political consequences, but this conspiratorial narrative seems unfair to me. I’ve no doubt that Cameron, (and the majority of Conservative MPs, who support his stance) have sincerely held concerns about harming press freedom by embroiling it in the legislative process. But just because the belief is sincerely held, it does not mean the argument stacks up.

Most people (journalists included) agree that post-Leveson press regulation needs to be voluntary, independent, and to have clout. It must be voluntary, because compulsory regulation raises the disturbing spectre of state licensed journalism. It must be independent, to prevent the regulator from becoming either a vehicle for political interference or from being hijacked by editors (the fate of the ineffectual Press Complaints Commission). And the regulator must have clout, with the power to investigate publications, demand public apologies and impose exacting fines, to prevent the abuses which reached their nadir with the phone hacking scandal.

Statutory underpinning is necessary to achieve all three objectives. To ensure newspapers voluntarily consent to being regulated by the new body, you need to toss them a few carrots. Why would a newspaper agree to be regulated if it will only bring them pain? The answer is that in the short-term, in the aftermath of the hacking scandal, they will agree because they are under huge public pressure to do so. But unless you provide long-term incentives there is nothing to stop them pulling out when public fury over hacking diminishes, as it inevitably will. Leveson’s carrot is for the new regulator to offer cheap arbitration of press complaints, giving newspapers a new opportunity to avoid the costly process of going to court. To make this incentive effective, you need statute: those who did not sign up would not only be locked out of this dispute resolution service but would face exemplary damages in civil claims, and would lose the ability to claim back their costs in libel and privacy cases even if they won. The law needs to change to make this happen.

You also need statute to guarantee independence. Unless you create a robust process to ensure the independence of the regulator (Leveson suggests that Ofcom or a similar body should periodically audit it), the risk is that some time down the line it will be recaptured by the newspapers, who will fund the new body and draw up its articles of association.

Ensuring the regulator has clout is linked to its voluntary nature and incentives: the regulator will wield no clout if a proprietor can pull out of it without facing any negative consequences (like when Richard Desmond withdrew the Daily Express from the PCC in 2011).

So what of the Prime Minister’s reservations about creating a dangerous precedent of politicians legislating on the press? The grave references to 1695 (when state licensing of the press was abolished) and of “crossing the Rubicon” seem to me misjudged. It has been suggested that MPs could encroach on press freedoms by amending the statute at a later date. But if you look at the trenchant opposition provoked by the thin slither of statute Leveson proposes, does it really seem likely that MPs could get away with smuggling genuinely malign press controls onto the statute book on the sly? To argue that statutory underpinning will inexorably take us to wholesale state censorship is mush-brained logic.

Leveson’s recommendations are not perfect. His most serious misstep is to suggest that if publications fail to sign up to the new watchdog they should be automatically regulated by Ofcom instead (this would in effect amount to compulsory regulation and state licensing). But his core proposals are sound. Freedom of speech is precious, and it is absolutely right that parliamentarians should defend it. But they should keep their powder dry for instances when it is genuinely threatened. Do we have so little trust in the sincerity of our society’s shared commitment to freedom of speech, that we cannot countenance any mention of the press in statute? And if so, do we think innocent people having their lives turned upside down by reckless tabloids is the price worth paying for it?

Islam and the West must not let bigots and fanatics dictate their relations

1 Oct

Citizens of Benghazi took to the streets to protest the attack on the US consulate which killed J. Christopher Stevens

Two months ago, the world came to London for a sports event based on values of mutual respect, peaceful competition, and the celebration of human excellence, whatever its country of origin. Fast-forward eight weeks, and the humane inclusivity of the Olympics has been replaced in the news by grim pictures of torched embassies in the Middle East and enraged mobs in Pakistan. A “clash of civilizations,” between East and West, has returned to the media lexicon, as commentators debate the underlying causes behind the violent protests which erupted in response to The Innocence of Muslims – an anti-Islamic film produced in the US.

Renewed talk of a clash of civilizations should not however obscure the fact that the makers of the film, and those who have violently protested against it, are extremist minorities communicating through the language of provocation and violence. The challenge for both the Muslim world and the West is to reaffirm values of mutual understanding and respect, and to prevent the lunatic fringe dictating how our societies relate to one another.

It is no small irony that the extremism which binds together the motley gang of disreputables who produced and promoted the Innocence of Muslims, bears striking similarities to the worldview of the militants who breached embassy walls. Both groups extrapolate from the actions of a handful of individuals that entire communities are hopelessly corrupted: that because there are Muslim terrorists, Islam is innately violent; or that because an American filmmaker mocks Muhammad, the West denigrates Islam. Unfortunately, while in the past the influence of such extremists would be parochial at best, there can be no such hope in the internet age. The ease and speed with which information is disseminated through social media has meant that mischief-making by cranks and crackpots can now reach global audiences: at the time of writing, the 14 minute YouTube clip which is the root of the recent violence has been viewed over 13m times. It is this potential for instantaneous communication (or more accurately, instantaneous provocation) which has allowed a destructive brinkmanship to develop between extremists in the Muslim world and the West – to the detriment of the peaceful majority.

Fortunately, the extremists are not the only ones empowered by social media. A friend of mine – young, Muslim and from the Middle East – recently ‘shared’ on Facebook the status of Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University. Imam Hendi mourned the loss of those killed in the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi (which included the American ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stephens), but also emphasised the “1.5 billion Muslims worldwide [who] chose not to react violently to the Islamophobic propaganda video of one hateful man in California.” After the attack on the US consulate, “Sorry” began trending on Twitter in Libya and counter-protests took place across Benghazi, with homemade signs flashing messages to the world such as “Chris Stevens was a friend to all Libyans,” and “This does not represent us.” Causes, an advocacy application within Facebook, is currently hosting an 80,000 name petition calling on YouTube to remove the video because it breaches its own guidelines. What is clear is that Muslims are harnessing social media to express solidarity with those who were the victims of the recent attacks, while trying to remove by peaceful means a video which they believe constitutes hate speech.

These are the voices of the overwhelming moderate majority, and we need to hear more of them – in the West as well as the Muslim world. What we do not need is politicians exploiting flashpoints for their own ends. Mitt Romney flunked the responsibilities of leadership when he attacked the Obama Administration for its condemnation of the film. The Republican presidential candidate claimed it was “never too early for the United States government…to defend our values,” and that the White House had “sympathised” with militants. This sort of point-scoring intervention is dangerous because it risks fixing the event in the public mind as a contest between the Muslim world and “Western values,” when it is more rightly seen as a struggle against backward and destructive minorities in both societies. By way of contrast, the decision by the US embassy in Pakistan to pay for adverts showing Obama condemning the video is sensible diplomacy because it restores this critical distinction.

When it comes to relations between Islam and the West, we cannot allow bigots and fanatics to call the tune – the stakes are too high for that. A return in American foreign policy to a polarising, “with us or against us” attitude to Muslim states, would be a backwards step. But in the age of social media, the work of improving relations is actually no longer just the responsibility of national governments: isolating the extremists and preventing their shrill narrative from gaining currency, is a project in which we can now all be involved.

Boris is the Zaphod Beeblebrox of British politics

14 Aug

Boris bears many similarities to Douglas Adams’ Zaphod Beeblebrox, and not only because the latter was voted “Worst Dressed Sentient Being in the Known Universe” seven consecutive times

It was with uncanny inevitability that Boris Johnson creaked to a stop, 20-feet above the ground on the Victoria Park zip-wire two week ago. Cynics who have seen Johnson fluffing up his trademark mop before meeting cameramen might have momentarily suspected that it was the invisible hand of premeditation that had brought the Mayor of London to a halt: it was almost unbelievably perfect vintage Boris, and another PR triumph for a man already surfing the waves of public adulation.

Political commentators, deprived of much to talk about by the games, have taken to speculating about whether the Olympics could help Johnson to one day capture Number 10. After the Opening Ceremony, Toby Young opined in the Sun on Sunday that a successful games might make Boris’ “ascension to the top of the Conservative Party…begin to look inevitable”. Forgive me for mining the vein a little further: during the Olympic fortnight Boris performed the role of cheerleader for London, Britain and the games with creditable gusto. But in doing so he has also revealed the limitations that have dogged his political career and must surely rule him out from ever claiming the top job in British politics.

Toby Young strikes on something in his column when he says that his first thought upon seeing Boris on TV at the Opening Ceremony was “Thank God it’s not Ken”. I disapprove of much of Johnson’s politics, so it was a particular surprise to find I couldn’t help but agree. From rallying a nervy capital on the eve of the games with a tub-thumping speech in Hyde Park (blowing a huge raspberry to Mitt Romney in the process) to patenting the “Boris wave” at the beach volleyball, Johnson has performed the role of chief cheerleader for London and the Olympics superbly well, whereas Livingstone would not have had the capability or inclination to do so. Together with the phallic Wenlock and Mandeville, Boris has basically been the third mascot of the games. In contrast Ken backed the Olympic bid not because he was a sports fan but because he was an urban planning enthusiast (he has admitted as much). Having him represent London on the world stage for two weeks in which the capital and the country have been gripped by a sincerely-felt Olympic fervour wouldn’t have felt right.

The implausibility of Ken presiding over the games hints at one of the key strengths which helped Johnson to win the mayoral election. To put it simply, Boris makes many Londoners feel better about themselves and their city than they would under Ken. Johnson has the physique of a latter day John Bull, and during the games he has given the impression of wanting to recast himself as a modern avatar of swashbuckling Britishness (particularly visible when he took to the zip-wire suited and booted, and brandishing two union flags). The idea that Johnson is representative of modern Britain is of course ridiculous, but through his mixture of charm, eccentricity and humour he nevertheless manages to project an image abroad which many Britons are comfortable with.

These are not trifling talents: acting as an ambassador for London is an important duty of the mayor, and neither is cheering people up in gloomy economic times to be sneered at. But needless to say if you aspire to be prime minister it is not enough. The Olympics has not only demonstrated Johnson’s strengths but his weaknesses. His penchant for spectacle is mirrored in his administration, which bereft of big ideas, has tended to focus more on decorating the capital’s physical and cultural landscape (the Thames cable car, the Orbit tower, the remastered Routemaster etc.) than on improving the lives of Londoners in key areas such as transport and housing. While Johnson’s clowning is refreshing, he occasionally risks overstepping into absurdity, and his thirst for attention raises the question of whether he stands for anything other than his own self-advancement.

Boris Johnson may have reached his high-watermark. Being a good figurehead is central to the mayoral role, and this plays to Boris’ strengths, but he will rise no higher without a convincing political programme behind him, a firmer grasp of policy detail, and a bit more seriousness. He is in many ways strikingly similar to Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed extrovert and sometime Galactic President in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Hedonistic, narcissistic, and irresponsible, but with charisma to spare, Zaphod excels in his role because the presidency exists to attract attention away from those who are really in charge: Boris is a brilliant national mascot, but would you want him pulling the strings from Downing Street?

Osborne should put his money where his mouth is

27 Jul

After a few gloomy weeks in the press, you can be forgiven for wanting to block out Wednesday’s bad economic news. Fed up with last minute media chuntering about preparations for the Olympics, who wouldn’t want to instantly forget that the economy had shrunk by a further 0.7 per cent in the last quarter? Damn the double dip and roll on the games!

If you feel this way you’re not the only one. George Osborne is no doubt counting down the hours to the Opening Ceremony and the disappearance of politics from the headlines for two weeks. The Chancellor however cannot afford to put his feet up and watch the beach volleyball: to restore a damaged reputation he needs to unveil policies for growth in the autumn which are backed up with cash and which mean something to the public.

News that Britain is experiencing its longest double dip recession since the Second World War (three quarters of contraction) cranks up the pressure on a Chancellor who was already feeling the squeeze. Never fully recovered from the ‘omnishambles’ budget, conservative commentators like Trevor Kavanagh had already called for Osborne’s demotion even before Wednesday’s dismal figures, which showed that the economy was 4.5 per cent smaller than at its peak in 2008.

Osborne’s attempt to regain the economic initiative has been lacklustre: ask a member of the public who is not a close follower of politics to name a single government growth policy and you’re unlikely to get an answer. Instead we get wheezes to encourage private sector investment without the government making any commitments which would threaten Osborne’s inviolable national balance sheet. Witness for example ‘credit easing’ for small and medium sized enterprises, or the Chancellor’s announcement last week that the government would underwrite £40bn of investment by guaranteeing bank loans to infrastructure projects. When politicians promise to solve a problem by quoting fabulous sums of money, people are instantly suspicious, but this scepticism increases considerably when they discover that the figures refer to guarantees rather than direct investment.

If Osborne wants to regain public confidence on the territory of growth he needs to present them with policies which are directly funded by government and which people can relate to. When the last Labour government was confronted with collapsing growth they introduced policies like the car scrappage scheme and the VAT holiday – schemes which individuals could easily understand and see would be of benefit to both them and the wider economy. Direct investment in housing or infrastructure, making full use of Britain’s historically low borrowing costs, might do the trick this time round.

It is obvious what is preventing the Chancellor from doing this. Osborne has become trapped by his own rhetoric and repeated assertions that any deviation of course or loss of face with the bond market will invite catastrophe. He should know better: his inflexibility is not dissimilar to that shown by his arch political foe, Gordon Brown, when the latter insisted on banging on with a tired narrative of “Tory cuts versus Labour investment”, long after it had become plain that Labour would soon have to make cuts of its own. When Brown was eventually forced to admit this, it was a humiliating climb-down which conceded the initiative to the Conservatives: Osborne risks making the same mistake in reverse this time round.

The Chancellor is faced with a heinous choice. If he puts government money on the line to try to revive growth he might be accused of inconstancy by the bond market and lose Britain’s triple-A credit rating. But if he sticks with his present course Britain might lose the rating anyway if his deficit reduction plan is made redundant by a shrinking economy. The benefit of the former is that it at least has some chance of restoring short-term growth. Ever alive to the political opportunity, Osborne might also recognise that tangible pro-growth policies – which are backed up with cash and actually mean something to voters – perhaps represents his best chance of restoring a diminished reputation. One thing is clear: once the feel-good hiatus of the Olympics and Paralympics has passed, the Chancellor will not have long in which to act.

A version of this post appeared on the Prospect magazine blog on 27/07/2012.