UNLESS SUCH THINGS HOLD A FASCINATION FOR YOU, the details of David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle will be of little or no interest. What matters much more is the logic (if such it can be called) behind what is almost certainly the last big shake-up before next May’s general election.
There are two big ideas behind this move – and both typify the kind of thinking that, over decades, has moved Britain ever closer to an economic disaster. One of these mistakes is a preference for campaigning over governing. The other is the apparent desire to have more women in the cabinet.
Taking the latter point first, I find it astonishing that senior appointments continue to be made seemingly on the basis of gender rather than ability.
The only criterion for appointment to high office should be suitability for the task. If David Cameron is more concerned with what his cabinet looks like than how good it is at its job, he must be every bit as addicted as his inept predecessors to putting spin before substance.
Moving Michael Gove from education (where he seems to have done an excellent job) has been done, apparently, to give him a more prominent role in campaigning.
That’s it, then – the government moves an excellent minister because the Tory party’s immediate electoral prospects are more important than sorting out education.
THIS MOVING OF THE DECK-CHAIRS REINFORCES BRITAIN’S SIMILARITY TO TITANIC, though, even there, Ismay and Smith did not reassign officers’ responsibilities whilst water was pouring into the hold (or, in point of fact, actually move any furniture). The economic outlook is such that Britain simply cannot afford to select its leaders on the basis of anything other than ability. As for putting party politics before considerations of substance, any comment from me would surely be superfluous.
Let me spell out what the real issues are.
First, Britain depends on borrowing to create “growth”, and the increment to GDP this year seems sure to be, as usual, a lot smaller than the additional debt taken on to finance it.
An economic policy which involves borrowing money, channelling it into consumer spending and then describing the outcome as “growth” is an imbecility that has been with us for far too long. It has made us by far the most indebted major economy, with formal debt at close to 500% of GDP even without the inclusion of vast informal quasi-debts, such as public sector pension commitments, PFI and the off-balance-sheet debts of state-owned enterprises.
Britain’s current account deficit, meanwhile, reveals that we are rapidly running out of time. Though we’ve been in the red on trade for three decades, the big change revealed by this broader number is that our previous big surplus on net investment income has gone up in smoke. Profits and interest remitted out of Britain now exceed the amounts coming in, a situation that can only get worse as more assets are sold to foreign buyers, and more overseas debt is taken on.
A recent analysis suggested that, even on the most optimistic assessment of our net asset position, we can only support a current account imbalance of 4% of GDP for a maximum of five years. Given that the deficit is actually well over 5%, we may have less than four years in which to sort this out.
The energy outlook should reinforce a sense of urgency, since North Sea output continues its sharp decline whilst we are years away from commissioning replacements for our ageing nuclear capacity. I’ve long believed that the lights could go out in the winter of 2014-15, and it won’t be long before we find out if I’m right.
ULTIMATELY, THE NEED FOR REFORM goes far beyond the need to shore up our energy supplies, reduce our imports and, more generally, find a growth model that does not depend on borrowing-to-spend.
Britain needs new ways of doing business, and time is short. Shuffling ministers who, for the most part, are unknown to the voters can play no part in this process unless it concentrates abilities where they are needed most.
Titanic, of course, had too few lifeboats. Britain, as things stand, has none at all.