mainly macro: The self-destructive political right


Forecasting which
political party will win the next election three or more years out,
much like economic forecasts of what growth or inflation will be in
two years’ time, is setting yourself up to fail [1]. But learning
from errors can still be useful. Only a year and a half ago, I wrote
a long post
entitled “As things stand, the chances of defeating Johnson at the
next election are minuscule”. It was full of analysis about why
Johnson had won in 2019, about how Labour would have to appeal to
social conservatives to win and how difficult that would be without,
at least, some form of progressive alliance.

I stand by that
analysis, and indeed by being friendlier to the Liberal Democrats and
social conservatives Labour have gone down the route I suggested they
needed to do (given a FPTP electoral system). [2] However the title
of that post now looks embarrassing, with Johnson forced out and the
polls suggesting an overall majority for Labour if an election was
held today.

I made two big mistakes in that post. The first was not anticipating
a global cost of living crisis. I did expect the V shaped recovery we
got. What I didn’t foresee (along with pretty well everyone else)
was the extent of commodity price increases that this global recovery
would bring, now exacerbated by Putin’s war against Ukraine. It was
clear from the analysis in that article that a Labour opposition
do better
fighting on economic rather than social
terrain when economic events were not being helpful to the

The second mistake is what I want to focus on in this post. What I
missed was the ability of a plutocratic populist right of the
Johnson/Trump ilk to self-destruct through overconfidence. In
mitigation I began to suspect my mistake just three months later,
when I wrote
a post
entitled “Will the Trump/Johnson base lead to
its destruction?”.

In the US Trump and large parts of the Republican party, by pandering
to their base through denying the severity of the attack on Congress
and elsewhere, were alienating everyone else. In the UK the political
right’s obsession with wokeness was winning them few votes. But I
made a mistake in that second post too. What I got wrong was that the
growing distance between Johnson (and Conservatives generally) and
expert opinion on the pandemic would also be an own goal. It was in
medical terms, but politically I underestimated how much most people
wanted to believe the pandemic was over.

However it was another part of Johnson’s attitude towards the
pandemic that would confirm the idea of the plutocratic right’s
ability to self-destruct. What still seems extraordinary about No.10
breaking their own rules by holding parties is that they thought they
could get away with it. People tend to focus on Johnson’s own
belief that he was above the rules, but more surprising was that the
very people giving political advice to Johnson were taking actions
that would not only lead to his growing unpopularity, but ultimately
would cost him his job. I suspect that can only come from
overconfidence, encouraged by a large majority and a largely biased
or tame media.

Since then other developments on both sides of the Atlantic have
confirmed the ‘self-harm through overconfidence’ idea. In the US
we had the Supreme Court overturning
Roe vs Wade. Of course the SCOTUS is not supposed to be political,
but the Republican majority on it certainly are. As I speculated
at the time, doing this before Republicans had taken back either
Congress or the Presidency risked bringing out the Democrat vote, and
the polls so far suggest that might happen.

In the UK we have the more recent events of Truss winning the
leadership and her Chancellor’s ill-fated budget. As I noted here,
as has Chris Grey at
greater length
, it was the most right wing, pro-Brexit
MPs that got Truss onto the party members ballot for leader. Letting
party members choose the party leader will not inevitably lead to the
selection of a politician who is far better at pleasing party members
than the wider electorate, but it does seem that is more likely to
happen the more recently that party has been in power. That Truss and
Kwarteng thought they could get away with an unfunded budget that cut
taxes for the better off when most people are finding it harder to
make ends meet suggests self-destructive overconfidence.

In an Annex to that original post, I included a diagram from the
Financial Times of where the majority of voters from different
parties were clustered in the space of their economic and social
views. It was designed to show how the Conservatives had been so
successful in 2019 by attracting the votes of many left wing social
conservatives through the means of ‘getting Brexit done’.
Thankfully John Burn-Murdoch has recently
the diagram, shifting the economic axes to
allow for the election of Truss.

Conservative MPs may be attracted to the idea of lower taxes and
public spending, but as I noted here
this puts them to the right of not only most voters, but also
Conservative voters and even party members. This is the main reason
why both Conservatives and Republicans prefer to fight elections on
‘culture war’ issues. Johnson understood that, which is why he
was prepared to raise taxes and some areas of public spending. [3]

Truss and Kwarteng with their budget not only made this gulf between
Conservative MPs and voters explicit, but it was probably to the
right of where most Conservative MPs dared to go. This is the core
analysis behind why Truss and the Conservatives are now so
unpopular.[5] And if you are going to advertise your small state,
help the rich ambitions, the time not to do it is when everyone is
being hit by higher energy and food prices after a decade of

However, with over two years to go before an election, there is time
for the Conservatives to claw back some support. The likelihood is
that 2024 will see much lower inflation and interest rates. In
addition, it’s possible we may see lower energy prices and a
recovery in the economy. But the economy had been reasonably healthy
for some years before 1997, and the Conservatives still lost. [6] The
big worry for the Conservatives must be that Truss and those around
her seem intent on doing many of the stupid
she promised party members in the summer, and
yet more things that are just politically
. Yet their biggest fear must be that she seems
unwilling or
to bend her policies and those of her cabinet of like-minded
loyalists to the very
different views
of the vast majority of voters.

[1] As ever, we have to distinguish this unconditional forecasting
from conditional forecasting. Conditional forecasting is where you
say how an event will change things, like ‘this budget will reduce
the Prime Minister’s popularity’. Conditional forecasting is
easier, and as Brexit and austerity showed with economics, has a much
better track record.

[2] Social liberal voters are concentrated in big cities, and their
vote is divided among three UK based parties, so an election fought
between social liberals and social conservatives would almost
certainly lead to a Tory majority. As Brexit was supported
overwhelmingly by social conservatives, that is what happened in

[3] Osborne got away with austerity because he reframed it after the
Global Financial Crisis as an issue of responsible budgeting rather
than the desire for a smaller state.

[4] If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, this strategy might have
worked for Johnson. Unfortunately, even without the parties,
Johnson’s wish to ‘live with Covid’ (in practice doing almost
nothing to prevent infection once the country was vaccinated) meant
there was a step up in the demand for NHS services to treat those
with Covid, with no corresponding step-up in resources to do so. Thus
a large increase in NHS spending, paid for by higher national
insurance contributions, turned out to be completely inadequate,
leading to ever growing waiting lists for treatment.

[5] Unfortunately for Truss there is more besides. The market
reaction to the budget shattered what remained of the Conservatives
erroneous reputation for economic competence, much as Black Wednesday
had done before.

[6] In contrast, growth (in wages as well as the economy) did help
Cameron to victory in 2015. However, it is easy to think of many
reasons why the Major loss is a better analogy than Cameron’s

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