The smirk on the faces of politicians and journalists when they talk about ‘cakeism’ shows how Boris Johnson degraded public life, and will carry on degrading it long after his overdue departure from Downing Street. The Munchkin civil war we call the Conservative leadership contest shows that ‘cakeism’ is the one part of Johnson’s legacy that will survive him.
‘My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it,’ he said in 2016. Instead of laughing at Johnson and saying his desire to have it all ways was one of many reasons to ignore him, they laughed with him as if he were Billy Bunter at the tuck shop. And they’re still going along with it now.
To pick the most egregious of dozens of examples from the leadership contest, Sajid Javid, who was Secretary of State for Health until five minutes ago, promised to scrap the National Insurance rise he voted for only last year (along with nearly all the other leadership candidates, incidentally). You might say that it is outrageous that employers and workers are taxed when one in four pensioners is now a millionaire and capable of bearing larger burdens. But as Javid knows better than anyone else the tax rise is not currently being spent on social care, despite what Johnson promised. It provides emergency funding for an NHS that has a waiting list of 6.5 million, 100,000 vacancies and a tough winter ahead.
How does he propose to fund the tax cut? There is £32 billion of headroom in the public finances, Javid says. But inflation is eating that up and we have huge debts. Like every politician in a corner, he continues with airy mutterings about the deus ex machina of ‘efficiency savings’ doing the job. He then calls for public sector job cuts, when staff shortages are already hobbling the NHS and much of the rest of the public sector. Nor does Javid stop with National Insurance. The Financial Times puts the total cost of all his proposed tax cuts at £49.4 billion. How will that work?
He doesn’t seem to know or care. Worse, Conservative MPs and members do not want to know or care either. They want to be pro-tax cuts and pro-having a working NHS too.
It feels harsh to pick on Javid when every one of Rishi Sunak’s rivals is pounding him for saying that the party should not believe in ‘comforting fairy tales that might make us feel better in the moment, but will leave our children worse off tomorrow’.
I confess to sitting up with a jolt when I heard that too. For God’s sake Rishi, I thought, if you want to win, don’t trample on their dreams. Don’t tell the Conservative party, of all parties, that Father Christmas isn’t real and the Magic Money Tree doesn’t exist. Sunak has to pay for the pandemic, whose cost his colleagues have already forgotten. When Johnson wanted to add increased health and social care spending he behaved as a true fiscal conservative would and insisted on tax rises rather than deficit spending to pay for it. Such is the delirium gripping his party, Sunak’s traditionalist insistence on sound public finances led Jacob Rees-Mogg to call him a ‘socialist’.
Javid, like Truss, Zahawi, and all the others whose names no one can remember, are now in a race to cut, whatever the consequences. After ratting, re-ratting and ratting again, Nadhim Zahawi says he wants 20 per cent cuts in every government department. Kwasi Kwarteng, a supporter of Liz Truss, said tax cuts would require reductions in public spending, but was unable to say what the consequences for the public would be.
Far from dying with the prime minister, Cakesim is running like a virus through the post-Johnson Tory party.
What is missing from the debate is not just hard choices but any connection to reality. Inflation is about to hit 11 per cent. There could be fuel shortages this winter. Even if there are not, there will be hunger and cold. Not one of the candidates has led on addressing a cost-of-living crisis that will hit them as soon as they enter Downing Street. Tax cuts would give people more money (but not those who need help most). But so would wage rises. Why is the Conservative party in favour of the former and not the latter?
The candidates have barely spoken about Ukraine. I assume that they would continue supporting Kyiv, but would like to hear them say so. Even if they do, how will they strengthen and reequip our armed forces? What measures will they take to protect fuel supplies in the winter? And how can they provide additional help to the poorest?
As for the standards in public life Johnson and his gang so comprehensively trashed. I have yet to hear a single proposal to restore them.
Compare the candidates’ fantasies with the justifiably self- confident speech Sir Keir Starmer gave this morning, in which he talked about embracing the technologies of the future. Nowhere in the Conservative leadership campaign has there been discussion about how to help pharmaceuticals, financial services, the university sector, the creative arts – the businesses and institutions where Britain retains a competitive advantage. They cannot be mentioned because this government’s hard Brexit hurt them all, and the EU is a Tory taboo. No senior Conservative can propose easing the economy’s troubles by advancing better relations with the EU without destroying their career.
Cakeism, older readers will recall, began when Johnson claimed we could have the benefits of the European single market, while leaving the European single market. We should have realised it is a lie by now. Indeed we should have known it at the time.
Instead, the British public can only gaze on the Conservative party in wonder. There comes a point in every government’s life when it can no longer handle the challenges of the world as it is. If readers doubt that the Conservatives have reached and gone way past that point, I would urge them to look at its leadership contest.
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