I am often ribbed by colleagues on my form in not backing winners in Tory leadership contests. The criticism is misplaced: I’ve backed the winner from the outset in three contests; Boris in 2019, Ian Duncan-Smith in 2001 and Michael Howard in 2003. In 1997 I eventually backed William Hague for his winning final round, having first supported Michael Howard, then John Redwood before they were eliminated. And in 2006 I eventually landed on David Cameron’s side, having supported Liam Fox in the first ballot.
In only one contest have I been on the losing side at the final stage, when Theresa May won in 2016.
I had spent the previous ten days trying to persuade any colleague who would listen, that she’d be a disaster. And was I right…or was I right?
I knew that my ministerial career depended on the result: Some time before, a number of my emails to David Cameron had leaked and filled two pages of the Sunday Times, including one in which I gave my rather too frank assessment of Theresa. She summoned me to what -in the Army- we called a ‘meeting without coffee’ and I knew I’d be ‘terminated’ if she ever won, and so it proved.
I have enjoyed the leadership contest and the commitment that all the candidates made towards core Conservative values, including significantly lower taxes. The principal dispute being not whether, but just when it would be prudent to reduce the tax burden.
I am very glad that the focus of political debate is, once again, on the great dividing line: the size and role of the state; the question of whether the problems that we face are to be resolved by government taking ever greater responsibilities for managing our lives and charging us ever higher taxes to pay for it. Or whether we can re-ignite private initiative, enterprise and productivity to address our challenges.
Of course, a number of constituents have complained about the measure of unpleasantness that has crept into the contest. Frankly, I tell them not to be so squeamish. This is more than a debate about principle, policy, outlook and ideology. It is also about ambition: who gets the top job. The key supporters of each candidate have skin in the game too. If their champion wins they can expect the rewards of office. Of course, this adds an element where sparks may fly as each campaign seeks to maximise -what the advertising profession calls the ‘brand differentiation’ of their respective pitches.
Having first supported Suella, then Kemi, I’ve now given my backing to Rishi. I find him the better performer at the despatch box and the more natural communicator generally.
The key policy dispute comes down to when we can reasonably start cutting taxes. On this question my heart is with Liz Truss but my judgement is with Rishi’s more cautious approach. I addressed the issue of inflation in this column on 15th May Inflation-2 (desmondswaynemp.com) . I am doubtful that any tax cut will increase productivity swiftly enough to avoid inflationary effects at a time when we are already at full employment. I know that Patrick Minford, one of Maggie’s favourite economists, takes the view that interest rates are too low and an increase to, say 7%, necessary to prevent the inflationary consequence of a tax cut, would itself result in more efficient allocation of capital. Nevertheless, I fear the consequences for so many mortgages, and of servicing our debts of such a policy choice.
In any event, we can wait and see if my score in backing the winner improves