Tuesday, 30 October 2018

A very political budget

'Fiscal Phil's' budget was very political and the main target was the benches behind him (I don't buy into the argument that it signals an early general election, the Conservatives aren't going to risk that again). He has enhanced his reputation with the benches behind him and given Mrs May some more breathing space.

It could all still go pear shaped if there is no Brexit agreement, but I still think it is more likely than not that there will be a fudge that will scrape through the Commons, leaving all the difficult issues to be negotiated during the transition period/implementation phase.

What was important was what was not in the budget: no changes to tax allowances on pensions, which cost a lot of money, but would hit Conservative stalwarts hard. Not only were the income tax allowances not frozen, they will be brought forward. Higher rate taxpayers will gain most, but you don't have to be in a top job or earning huge sums to be one of those. Domestic air duty was frozen, as was the duty on beer, cider and spirits, but not wine, drawing a shout of 'Oh no!' from behind the Chancellor.

Public spending is to increase, but not just yet. One billion pounds is going to defence which will please Conservative backbenchers. The £400m for schools will mean £10,000 for the typical primary school and will not help to save a single teaching assistant. It was also delivered with a patronising reference to 'little extras' which has not gone down well with the teaching profession. It should be paid for by the new digital services tax if it manages to raise £400m.

Getting multinationals to pay their fair share of tax has always been a challenge, but even more so now they are not moving goods around in many cases. What is required is international cooperation to deal with tax havens, but that is looking less rather than more likely.

The difficult decisions about where to increase public expenditure and how to pay for it will be deferred until the comprehensive spending review post Brexit. That makes sense, but it doesn't help local authorities teetering on the edge of bankruptcy or the stretched police and prison services. The £700m extra for social care, although welcome, addresses only part of the problem that local government faces.

The corny jokes by the Chancellor diverted attention from the seriousness of the situation: something, but not enough, has been done about Universal Credit which is being used to cut entitlements, particularly it would seem for the disabled and single parents. But there were no apparent gaffes and the antics of feisty Liz Truss provided another amusing diversion.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Why Mrs May and the Conservatives are survivors

For the Conservatives being in power, or at least in office, is the number one priority. An excellent article on why Mrs May and the Conservatives are survivors: Dead woman walking?

If I had a pound for every time I have heard or read that Mrs May was a dead woman walking or would be facing a leadership challenge by the end of the week, I could afford a weekend away in Lynton.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Tech giants are the new lobbying kings

When I gave a presentation on lobbying in Brussels in 2017 I was interested that a number of the professional lobbyists presents complained about the excessive influence of the hi tech giants, notably Facebook, Google and Amazon. You might say this is a case of pot calling kettle back.

Nevertheless, there has been a lot of concern about the near monopoly status of Google and about Amazon's employment practices and the way in which Facebook has been used in elections. They certainly have financial clout: Google spent more than $18m in Washington DC last year.

Now it looks as if they are stepping up their activities in the UK where the regulatory framework for lobbying is generally regarded to be inadequate. A report in The Times on Tuesday pointed to recruitment adverts which suggest they are seeking to boost their lobbying staff.

At the moment it is estimated that the three companies have 50 staff working on lobbying. This, of course, follows the appointment of Sir Nick Clegg as Facebook's head of global affairs and communication, although his main lobbying focus will be the EU where he still has some clout, unlike the UK where he is a busted flush.

Responsibilities for the advertised jobs include 'working with' (i.e., influencing) policy makers and setting agendas 'inside and outside government' (no doubt using social media).

The issue of regulating lobbyists is dealt with in my short book on the topic for Manchester University Press: Lobbying

I have to admit that it's cheaper on Amazon in both the Kindle and paperback versions with a number of used copies in very good condition available!

Monday, 22 October 2018

Jobs for the (mostly) boys after politics

Sir Nick Clegg taking a leading role at Facebook has attracted some predictable venom on social media. I have no one view or the other about Nick Clegg: I have never met him. I think William Hague was right when he said that going into coalition with the Conservatives finished off the Liberal Democrats. That's unfortunate if it is the case as they are a useful balancing flywheel in British politics.

What interests me is the more general phenomenon, the fact that for leading politicians (or even not so leading ones), a career in politics, even a relatively short one, leads to a good job afterwards. Has this become the real objective?

In all fairness it should be pointed out that politicians are dropping out at a much younger age these days. It's no longer the case that all they have time to do is to write their autobiography before they pop their clogs. Harold Macmillan prolonged the process by producing a multiple volume autobiography, but then he did have a stake in a publishers.

Actually, Dave Cameron seems to be having a fairly relaxed time in his shepherd's hut, but he was always one for chilling out. He is also heading a fund to improve transport links between China and its trading partners.

If I had a garden like that, I would want to spend time enjoying it

William Hague is actually also chilling out a lot of the time in his lovely home in Wales with its superb garden and fantastic recently completed library. However, he does write for the Daily Telegraph and is consultant to a couple of companies. I wonder if Ffion will ever go into politics?

Sir Danny Alexander is vice-president of the Asian Infrastructure Bank. But the prize really has to go to George Osborne who has something like seven jobs, admittedly some of them very part-time.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

The budget dilemma

The Institute of Fiscal Studies Green Budget has been a big feature on the airwaves this morning. Understandably so, because it is authoritative and non-partisan and Spreadsheet Phil will be delivering his verdict in less than two weeks: Green Budget

I expect a holding budget with the big public expenditure decisions being delayed until next year. That is only reasonable with so much uncertainty surrounding Brexit. If we crash out, we may need a mild fiscal stimulus.

The fundamental problem is, as always, the public demand for American taxes and Scandinavian public services. Actually, the gap between UK and US taxes as a percentage of GDP has narrowed, although, of course, the US spends more on defence. We have surrendered our previous mid-Atlantic position. There is a lot of grumbling about the highest tax take since the 1940s, but tax as a percentage of GDP is still well below levels in most other European countries.

However, the challenge for Phil is to find ways of increasing taxes without upsetting voters (fuel duty levy) or Conservative voters and backbenchers (national insurance charges for pensioners, reducing tax allowances on pensions). As the IFS makes clear, just to pay the NHS bill and stop all other cuts will require significant tax increases. There are many who think that local government, the police, prisons and some aspects of education need more money.

The prime minister proclaims that austerity has ended, but when Phil reasonably points out that this will mean rowing back on some manifesto promises on tax, he gets slapped down.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Why I read the court circular

The marriage of HRH Princess Eugenie to tequila 'brand ambassador' Jack Brooksbank today provides an opportunity to reflect on the whole issue of 'minor royals' or 'hangers on' as they are often called. It is a bit of a mystery why the Princess Royal's children do not have titles when those of the Duke of York do.

Brian has indicated that when he becomes king he will slim the family down. The extended royal family actually need a minibus to get to the Queen's commemorative service at St. Paul's. Sightings of the likes of Lady Amelia Windsor are confined to the Queen's annual Christmas lunch at Buck House. Indeed, she was not invited to the wedding and the arrival of a baby for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex will relegate her from 38th to 39th in the line of succession.

I am an avid reader of the court circular. It is a disappointment when nothing appears in August or just a notification of Divine Service at Craithie Church.

Recently I have learnt that the Earl and Countess of Wessex have been visiting Estonia. Nothing remarkable about that, you might think. What is now largely forgotten is that when Estonia became independent there were quite a few people who thought it should have a monarchy. Where do you get a monarch from? A younger son in an established royal family. Step forward (or not) HRH Prince Edward.

I recently learnt that under the guise of pitch@palace the Duke of York visited Hungary and consorted with various members of this unsavoury regime including the prime minister.

However, one of the most interesting examples of a minor royal is the Duke of Gloucester, the Queen's cousin. It is no secret that his father liked the occasional drink and the company of women. His son is a model of propriety. He was set on a career as an architect until his rakish elder brother (Prince William) was killed piloting a plane and he was called into the Firm to provide additional cover.

On an average day the Duke will perform as many as five or six engagements, including a reception or a dinner. Engaging with people in this way would drive me crazy. The other week he was carrying out engagements in Worcestershire, including unveiling a new statue of Stanley Baldwin. The glamour.

A mysterious entry said that at lunchtime he visited the town centre of Bewdley, but no engagements were specified. So did he pop into Subway for sandwich? Did he check out the charity shops? Or did he pop into Tesco Extra to get something for the microwave that evening?

Incidentally, the Duke and his Danish wife are having to downgrade to a smaller condo in Kensington Palace to make way for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

Finally, it should be noted that HRH Princess Eugenie is the only member of the family to have studied politics in her degree. She cannot match the Grand Duke and Duchess of Luxembourg who met studying in Geneva and are proud of their status as constitutional monarchs and political scientists.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Take a chance on me

Theresa May's theme tune yesterday really should have been 'Take a Chance on Me', although I know that 'Dancing Queen' is one of her favourite tracks. In any event, she didn't meet her Waterloo at the Conservative conference yesterday. Groan, but I couldn't get these jokes into my television appearances yesterday.

It was a well crafted speech and effective because it sounded authentic. (Well done, Keelan Carr - he has been very low profile before now - but other such as Gavin Barwell helped). She returned to some of the 'One Nation' narratives she talked about when she became prime minister.

Of course, rhetoric is one thing, reality is another. She talked of an end to austerity, but where is the money coming from? Fuel duty was frozen again. I appreciate that that is an unpopular tax and that oil prices are rising, but the cost could be £800m in one year.

Spreadsheet Phil looks unlikely to risk the farm at the end of October with Brexit looming. Indeed, according to the FT this morning, the Treasury is already concerned about spending pledges made at the conference. The NHS will get some extra money, but what about cash strapped local councils that have to provide social care? Their failure to do more than the legal minimum impacts the NHS.

The speech was, of course, significant for what was not said. There was no mention of the C-word. The strategy appears to be to stand up to the EU in the hope that they will cave in. 'I am standing up for Britain', 'we must keep our nerve' etc. But any hope of a compromise on Northern Ireland has been undermined by the Democratic Unionists going into 'no surrender' mode.

If she can get a deal, Conservative backbenchers would need to think carefully about voting it down. Some Labour MPs would probably support the Government. However, the risk of crashing out remains real and preparations are still inadequate.

I think the proposed festival is a gimmick. I remember the 1951 one which was fun at the time because of the Battersea funfair and it was a sign that the end of wartime austerity might be in sight. Churchill thought it was an advert for socialism, and I suppose in a way it was.

BTW, as an article in The Times pointed out yesterday, time is running out if a second referendum is to be held before March given the relevant legislation and the role of the Electoral Commission.

If legislation was introduced when Parliament convenes next week, the earliest date on which a referendum could be held would be March 28th: How long would it take