“In politics, there’s no use looking beyond the next fortnight,” said British politician Joseph Chamberlain. But how much do our leaders really know about the consequences of their actions? Do they really have faith in their economic strategies, or like Dickens’s Mr Micawber, are they merely waiting for something to turn up?
I’ve always ascribed to the latter view, but now I’m not so sure, particularly when recollecting a conversation I had with a leading Conservative politician two years ago.
The occasion was a swanky private dinner I attended in 2012, one where the great and the good of the British establishment were gathered. I found myself chatting to one government minister whom, if not round the actual cabinet table, certainly has a footstool at the end of the room. After an evening of fine dining both his belt and his tongue were loosening. He was in expansive mood. Effortless, suave and with an air of patrician command, he waxed lyrical about the likely outcome of the next UK general election in 2015.
“It’s already won,” he purred as he stirred his coffee. “Sometime early in 2014 the UK economy is going to improve at a faster rate than anyone expects, the government will meet their inflation target with unexpected ease, unemployment will start to drop, productivity will increase and by 2015 the overall picture will be sufficiently rosy to see us re-elected.”
“And what about the coalition,” I asked, intrigued by his apparent powers of clairvoyance. “Will you still require a partnership with the Lib Dems in order to survive?”
An indulgent smile played briefly across his features as he handed me the plate of after-dinner mints I’d been surreptitiously picking at. “I don’t think we need to worry about them,” he replied.
My abiding memory of our exchange was his deadly certainty. Such was his air of quiet assurance that he could have been discussing putting up a shelf in the bedroom rather than the fate of his country. Indeed, musing over his predictions with a couple of other ear-wiggers afterwards, the consensus was that he’d been a bit too cocksure of himself for his own good. Yet now, 18 months on, one by one his predictions seem to be coming to pass as if he’d scripted them himself. Who’d have thought it? Even a year ago the UK economy was in turmoil, output was stagnant, the country was under three feet of snow and wherever you looked the news was bad. Yet the latest statistics indicate that the good times are, just as my friend had predicted, just around the corner.
Figures released in the past few days show that the UK economy grew by 1.9 per cent in 2013, the fastest rate since 2007. The domestic service sector has risen by 0.8 per cent, with manufacturing increasing almost as rapidly; and unemployment has fallen by 167,000 to just 7.1 per cent. On one thing, at least, both politicians and pundits are agreed – these latest figures exceed all expectations, and show beyond doubt that the British economy is creating jobs at a far better rate than anyone would have dared to predict.
In fairness to the coalition government, they’ve done their best to keep a rein on any suggestion that we might all soon be lighting Havana cigars with used fivers.
“I am the first to say the job isn’t done,” announced Chancellor George Osborne carefully when interviewed last week, “there’s plenty more to do but we’re heading in the right direction.”
Yet, while his features may have been set in an expression of suitable gravitas, you just knew that the moment the cameras stopped rolling he’d be dancing a jig through the corridors of Westminster.
In truth, it’s still hard to detect any sense of increasing well-being in the man on the street. The north of the country is struggling with high unemployment and sluggish productivity, while even here in the affluent south-east, businesses and tradesmen report it’s a ferocious struggle to make ends meet.
Nevertheless, if the UK economy continues to improve in the coming year as predicted, we can be sure that David Cameron will lose no opportunity to claim the majority of the credit on election day.
It was Winston Churchill who famously said that “political skill is the ability to foretell what is going to happen, and to have the ability afterwards to explain why it did not happen”. For once, it seems, it’s a skill the current government – and my dining companion in particular – may no longer need.
Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London