Thursday 29 April 2021

Mr Duncan Smith is incompetent and must go

In 2003, a thrusting young libertarian intellectual, or "incel prat" as we now know them, a certain Dominic Cummings, threw a cliché grenade or two into the jumble of what then passed for modern Conservatism.

Here he writes in the Telegraph, setting out his stall to lead to a land of libertarian milk and privatised honey. He got the power, for a while, and we got shafted.

The thoughts of Chairman Dom follow:

After the anti-euro campaign's advertisement, with Bob Geldof et al last year, the Tory high command gathered. "It's a piece of stupidity," said one current leadership candidate. Another said, "We need another 'Save the pound' day." I said that the prospect of another "Save the pound" day could only confirm that we were clueless about effective political action. Iain Duncan Smith said: "We all agree. It'll keep the members happy - but the media won't notice."

(I clutched my head, but reflected that it was not as bad as a recent meeting in which the same cast of characters had described the party's salvation as: "Labour's computer system in the 1997 election - we need one"; "a campaign to persuade people Railtrack is good"; and "we need a blizzard of attacks"; then - the inevitable - "We all agree.")

The proposer of the "Save the pound" day asked, "Is this PMQ territory, Leader?", which was the daily reminder that we would achieve nothing. Afterwards, Conservative Central Office's top officials clutched their heads and said, "They'll have forgotten about it by tomorrow and we'll do nothing anyway." Thus, another shocking day began in Tory-world.

Mr Duncan Smith is incompetent, would be a worse prime minister than Tony Blair, and must be replaced. He is, however, the symptom rather than cause of a party desperately short of the political essentials: understanding, talent, will and adaptation. Even the most acute observers ask, "Why did they do that?", searching for a rationale. But they ought instead to think about Soviet institutions: when one considers these, one emerges thinking not, "Why did they do that?", but, "Given the people and structures, how could they do anything other than fail?"

There are many talented people working for the party who have been failed dismally by the leadership. The party is a joke - around the country, people increasingly laugh at "the Conservative Party". Senior figures do not try, which makes it impossible to motivate a successful team. The management structure is institutionally incompetent. Their language defines them as a separatist caste rather than national representatives. They do not understand that Mr Blair's failure is a necessary but insufficient cause of people saying: "The Tories are preferable". They do not understand modern society, communications.

When I arrived, there was no forum whatsoever for discussing medium-term planning - they literally had no idea what they were doing, and it took me a month just to initiate a group to discuss the point of the party. They dismiss the concept of building intellectual and political coalitions behind policy - a long, hard slog involving huge effort. "Events, dear boy, events" has been elevated to a management principle.

The meltdown of the Tories has occurred in parallel with the historically necessary pre-condition for a generational shift in opinion - the practical experience of failure, of "tax and spend", centralised public services, the EU, welfare, and "modern" policing. In all of these areas, the Tories should be transforming conventional wisdom and building new coalitions. Instead, we have failed in every area.

Tebbitites and some Portillistas have stuck us with a series of false dichotomies: the answer is neither "gay candidates", "soft on drugs", "be nice", and "image" - nor "tax cuts", "be proper Tories", or just "whack Blair". Success requires a synthesis of structural, policy, and communications transformation, as with all successful machines. It requires modernising communications and candidate selection - and the point is that these political techniques allow one to be tough on tax, Europe, and asylum. Mr Blair did not stop talking about the NHS and President Bush had a tax cut, but both knew that this was not enough. There is no magic bullet that will blow Mr Blair away.

All parties are suffering a talent blight because the crucible of democratic society - local civil society - is being destroyed by centralisation in Westminster and the EU. In the short term, the Tories must promote young, talented MPs. In the medium term, only if local politics becomes as important as it is in America (and was here) will a democratic renaissance be catalysed and services improved, via tough local competition for money, people, and ideas.

The theme of "trust people", which I proposed to Mr Duncan Smith in January last year but which has barely been developed, cuts across Europe; the Union; why services are failing and how to improve them; party reform (primaries) and constitutional reform; how we can cut national taxes and devolve services (such that local mayors can kick police out of their cars).

We need a moral explanation of why things are failing and why locals and families need to be empowered more and taxed less ("If you're on below average income, I'll send you a cheque for X"). The Right has, as Hayek pointed out, consistently failed to appreciate the critical importance of politics' moral front. Education and corporate governance reform ought to be the centre of the new leader's message (also necessary, since we will depend in coming decades on the exploration of new science and the survival of liberal markets).

We need a shift from trivial attacks to a coherent alternative; from reactionary whining to Reaganite optimism; from self-justification to adult honesty; from members' priorities to national priorities. We need an injection of intellectual thought and marketing talent, fused into a transformation of the policies, and constitutional change so non-MPs can fulfil executive functions.

The Tory collapse is particularly damaging given the threat we face from the transfer of enormous powers to an EU institutional matrix doomed to demographic collapse, economic decline and political extremism. We ought to be able to connect the ever-greater threats (new science, new powers, new terror) and political opportunities.

It is time for an alliance of serious Tories, donors and members to reflect on the maelstrom sweeping the globe and the party's true situation, and dictate a series of reforms that gives a chance of revival. When somebody said that nobody was capable of coping with the chaos of 1917, Lenin replied, "There is such a party!", and how right he (unfortunately) was. Who now will say the same?

Dominic Cummings is a former director of strategy for the Conservative Party


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