Every Prime Minister has a defining utterance that sticks and stinks like dung.
The Sun wot done it for Jim
Jim Callaghan was doomed by something he never actually said.
On January 10th, 1979, he arrived back from a conference in Guadeloupe in the middle of a strike by lorry-drivers. He was asked by an Evening Standard reporter about the “mounting chaos” in the country. Callaghan rersponded:
Well, that’s a judgment that you are making. I promise you that if you look at it from outside, and perhaps you’re taking rather a parochial view at the moment, I don’t think that other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.
That gave The Sun its headline next day:
Crisis? What crisis?
Rail, lorry, jobs chaos—and Jim blames press
Women’s Owning up
Margaret Thatcher’s defining moment came in an interview of 23 September, 1987, given to Women’s Own (and published on 31 October). She started from little more than the Kennedy keynote (which itself may derive from Rousseau) of “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” This soon degenerated into her typical ungrammatical, gushing rant.
… no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation …
If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.
Again, the expression has to be ripped from its context to become truly grotesque.
A minor Major moment
Two isolated phrases came to doom the John Major government. It was Norman Lamont, the Chancellor who perpetrated the first one in 1992:
If higher unemployment is the price we have to pay in order to bring inflation down, then it is a price worth paying.
That was quickly conflated in the general consciousness with Major’s own gloss (possibly borrowed from a passing PE teacher or a Jane Fonda work-out video):
If it’s not hurting, it’s not working.
Aw, bless! In this case, there can be little exoneration.
The Gordon Brown moment derived from his first pre-Budget statement of 1997:
For 40 years our economy has an unenviable history, under governments of both parties, of boom and bust.
So, against a background of mounting uncertainty and instability in the global economy, we set about establishing a new economic framework to secure long-term economic stability and put an end to the damaging cycle of boom and bust.
In his last Budget, before becoming Prime Minister, the same phrase was there again:
We will never return to the old boom and bust.
Despite Brown’s claim that he consistently referred to “Tory boom and bust” (as he did to Labour Conference in 2000), the mark has to be against him.
And now, Dave Cameron?
Today, in PMQs, Cameron has laid down a marker:
The figures published today show 2 million more private sector jobs. They show 1.4 million [more —Cameron, by the way, is 200,000 out on his mental arithmetic. See below.] people in work at the end of this parliament. They show unemployment falling every year… [actually, they don’t.]
… unemployment is going to be falling during this parliament and in terms of publishing the figures, we have published the full figures, but is not now us publishing the figures it is the Office of Budget Responsibility.
So far, so good?
Except that sounds like one of those rash commitments that come back to bite its committer in the most pain-bearing parts of the anatomy.
Cameron has admitted that the Guardian “leak” is correct in seeing 600,000 public sector jobs annihilated. His wishful thinking (and it cannot be more than that) is to have more than three times that number created in the private sector.
In one respect he has a faint hope of some improvement. If the “nationalized” banks can be re-privatised in this parliament, there goes a bit of the shift. That presupposes a rapid upturn in banking shares; and a willingness of someone, somewhere to buy the script. General feeling, though,is this is definitely not a racing certainty before 2014-5.
Jim Pickard, doing his blog for the FT this afternoon, tried to pull Cameron’s nuts out of the fire:
The Guardian had an eye-catching splash this morning warning that the Budget would “cost 1.3m jobs”. Particularly striking was the premise that more would be lost in the private sector than the public sector over the next five years as a result of cutting the deficit.
Read the story in detail, however, and it also emerges that 2.5m jobs will be created in the private sector in the next five years. The result (even presuming no new public sector jobs): a net increase of 1.2m jobs. This explains how the Office for Budget Responsibility can still predict unemployment to peak this year at 8.1 per cent and then fall to 6.1 per cent in 2015. (You may or may not find this all a little optimistic).
Every year – with or without recession – there is “churn” in the workplace. That is, some companies and institutions take on thousands of staff. Others axe posts. Therefore we should not necessarily be quite so alarmed.
As John Philpott, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, tells me:
The rule of thumb answer is that in a ‘normal’ (i.e. trend growth) year around 500,000 jobs will be lost (as a result of productivity improvements) to the economy and about 750,000 created, enabling some amount of net job creation.
There are a couple of telling umms in that piece already. Pickard was instantly challenged:
Perhaps if you provided some detail on how realistic the jobs growth figures are this post would make some sense.
Wouldn’t it be helpful if you told people how many times in the past the sort of employment growth has been achieved? (Once.) Or when? (1966.) And then maybe you explained that the Budget assumes the government has to do it three times in a row? Do you think that might have been a bit more illuminating?
Pickard did not resile at that, but came preciously close:
… the Guardian article only makes sense if you consider the net number of jobs created, not the gross created/lost. (Given that there is churn every year in the jobs market). I do agree with you, however, that the employment growth forecasts seem heroically optimistic.
How would Jim Hacker react to Sir Humphrey declaring his statement heroically optimistic?
Actually we know:
… ‘controversial’ will lose you votes; ‘courageous’ will lose you the election.
Expect the unemployment commitment, from PMQs today, quickly to be nuanced as an “aspiration”.