Jeremy Hunt’s Budget Didn’t Crash the Economy Again. So Why Aren’t Tories Pleased?

They crave chaos.

by Tom Peters

16 March 2023

Jeremy Hunt at Downing Street. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Jeremy Hunt at Downing Street. Hannah McKay/Reuters

Jeremy Hunt wanted yesterday’s budget to be boring. In contrast to his predecessor, the new chancellor stuck to policies that wouldn’t upset bond market traders, or accidentally tank a pension fund. The package garnered a tepid reaction in the press, no doubt bringing relief to a Treasury still clearing up the mess left by Kwasi Kwarteng.

Hunt received a muted response when he took his newly announced ‘election winning’ budget over to the 1922 Committee the most powerful group of Conservative backbenchers. One Tory MP told reporters that the budget was “fine”, another described the room as “three quarters empty”, while a BBC correspondent reported “mutterings” among attendees. It’s a far cry from the rapturous applause offered by the group to recent, ill-fated Conservative budgets. And after months of scandal, reshuffles and sliding in the polls, one might have expected Tory MPs to be pleased by a period of calm to be backing Hunt’s boring budget.

So why are they circumspect? The downbeat response speaks to a psychological shift within the Conservative party: it has become addicted to domestic instability, both as a route to retaining power and a way to govern. Tory MPs believe that Hunt’s ‘steady-as-she-goes’ approach won’t keep them in office, because this approach never has.

Each election victory of their four terms in government was plucked from a major public crisis. In 2010, Cameron and Osborne used the global financial crash to sweep Labour out of power. In 2015, they secured a majority by playing on the recent Scottish independence referendum, generating fear of a Labour-SNP coalition and ‘chaos with Ed Miliband’. Both the 2017 and 2019 elections were defined by the Brexit vote – a huge, uncertain and all-encompassing national crisis.

Any notion that democracy is premised on parties winning the right to rule through good governance and policies with mass appeal has long been abandoned by the party. Instead they believe their power springs with the ills from Pandora’s box. This was admitted by the Conservative’s Deputy Chair, who openly says that his party will have to “think of something else” at the next election – “probably a mix of culture wars and [the] trans debate”. 

As far back as 2007, Naomi Klein identified that governments see opportunities for political advantage in exogenous shocks. Her book The Shock Doctrine detailed how America’s ‘free market’ policies have come to dominate the world – through the exploitation of disaster-shocked people and countries”. But what makes this Conservative party’s approach new, and more sinister, is that it not only seeks to exploit external shocks for electoral gain, but actively pursues new forms of instability.

Over 13 years, with the help of Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings and Nigel Farage, and lessons from Trump and his adviser Steve Bannon in the United States, the party has become an electoral machine fine-tuned to pursue and exploit domestic rupture. To this end, it has publicly attacked our civil service, education system, judiciary, NHS and public service broadcasters. This is an astonishing record of destabilisation from a party in power.

It’s not just what the Conservatives say but what they do. Look at the ongoing attempts to enforce further large pay cuts on millions of public sector workers, and the nationwide industrial action that has ensued. Or the way a miniscule number of people taking huge risks to come to the UK in small boats has been escalated by the government into a national crisis – now engulfing the BBC – which threatens the wider international framework for refugees. Note the absence of policy to address the climate emergency in yesterday’s budget, an omission that allows the critical window in which humanity might act to pass us by while the effects of the climate crisis are already being felt. Or yesterday’s ramping up of social security sanctions upon our very poorest citizens, those who are already forming long queues at foodbanks or sleeping rough.

These divisive policies are the basis of a Conservative culture war fought to split voters between new electoral fault lines determined by the party. But in failing to mitigate our economic and environmental woes, they are also a government guarantee of further instability and decline to come.

This addiction to instability has its roots in recent UK policies of austerity, with which the financial crisis was exploited to shrink the state for ideological purposes, undermining its capacity to buffer flood, pandemic or social degradation. In 2010, all the way back at the start of the public spending cuts, then Conservative minister Nick Boles told us that “chaotic… in our vocabulary, is a good thing.”

It reeks of the ‘boomerang effect’ detailed by Dr Kojo Koram in his book Uncommon Wealth, which outlines how the tactics of political destabilisation, tried and tested upon colonial populations under empire, end up returning home to maintain power here.

Hunt’s budget demurred from these excesses now conquering his party: The big bang economic instincts that ended up pitting Truss and Kwarteng against the financial markets which they claimed to exalt. Whether Sunak and Hunt’s calculation that a Stop the Boats policy will provide sufficient red meat to their wider party to buy political space for a technocratic approach to the economy remains to be seen.

Regardless, Sir Keir Starmer’s opposition has adopted caution in full, under hopes that sitting quietly on the sidelines will be enough to secure a majority from a country seeking to be soothed after 13 years of malaise. Though the current polling reflects positively on this strategy, Labour’s assumption that all voters prefer calm to chaos may require interrogation. One study by the Royal Society, for example, showed that 20% of UK voters express some desire for disruption and chaos, either as a necessary step to rebuild the country anew, or out of a hard-right form of nihilism.

Labour would be wise to call the Conservative’s new mode of chaos governance what it is. To lift the veil of purpose-built tumult and reveal a Conservative political strategy beneath. Standing by to watch the UK burn will leave them only ashes to inherit.

Tom Peters was a political advisor to the Labour party between 2016 and 2020.


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