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Coffee House General Election 2017

In praise of Nick Timothy

10 June 2017

2:22 PM

10 June 2017

2:22 PM

First, some caveats.

  1. This article isn’t about Fiona Hill. That’s not a comment on her. It just reflects the fact that, for reasons set out here, I can’t claim to offer reasonable journalistic assessment of a friend.
  2. This is nothing to do with Nick Timothy’s personal conduct, management style or dealings with colleagues and others. It’s not my job to judge whether someone is nice or nasty. And too much is written about this stuff anyway. If we’d all paid less attention to office gossip and more to the country we live in, we might not have got the election so wrong.
  3. This isn’t about the justice or wisdom of his departure, though I’ll offer two thoughts in that context. First, it’s being suggested that Timothy (and Hill) were solely responsible for the Tory campaign. That overlooks the involvement of others such as Jim Messina and especially Lynton Crosby. Indeed, a few weeks ago, ‘friends’ of Sir Lynton let it be known that he had ‘taken charge’ of the campaign, sidelining Timothy and Hill; if you want the credit, you have to take the blame. Second, and obviously: advisers advise, ministers decide. The buck stops at the top, as ever.
  4. This isn’t about journalistic hypocrisy, but that’s mainly because I haven’t got time for that. I’ll just say that journalists are a spineless and craven lot sometimes. Among those who have written solemnly about Timothy’s vices and failings in recent days are many who have previously been the willing recipients of briefings and tips from him; other members of the mob baying for his blood once wrote near-hagiographic pieces about him, his intellect, his vision for Conservatism in the 21st Century, and his beard. Suck up, kick down, in other words.

So this article is about policy, the stuff that think-tankers like me spend our days on. And in the 2017 Conservative manifesto, Timothy did a good job on policy. I know it’s now fashionable to deride that document as electoral cyanide, but it was actually pretty good in places, not least thanks to him.

It was good because it was brave. Instead of seeking ways to tell people what they wanted hear and offer them the things they want, it thought about what might be good and fair, for the country as a whole and for people who haven’t always got the best deal from that country. It started to take the Conservatives on a journey towards answering some overdue questions, about fairness and effort.

Social care is a good example. The original manifesto policy was, at heart, a progressive one. It asked middle-class people who inherit their parents’ large houses to pay from that inheritance towards the cost of their parents’ care. It rejected a cap on costs, because that cap means that costs above the cap are funded from general taxation, which means that the working poor contribute to the care of asset-rich older people, who can then pass that asset to their children tax-free. That’s not fair, since it favours wealth over work. Timothy’s plan would have gone a little way to shifting the balance of taxation from earned income to unearned wealth. (Yes, I said unearned. Your parents may have earned the money they used to buy their house. You do not earn anything when you inherit that house.)

Of course, a better way would be simply to tax all estates on death and use the cash to fund care, but the Timothy plan was the start of a debate that might just have helped move Britain away from its harmful fixation on inherited wealth, something that badly impedes any move toward the meritocracy we all say we want.

Likewise the manifesto’s cautious steps towards generational balance: taking winter fuel payments from rich pensioners and drop the triple lock that skews public spending towards older people. Again, the direction of travel here is the right one, yet these things appear at risk in any Tory-DUP deal. That can only vindicate the anger of the young voters who backed Jeremy Corbyn this week, believing the Tories are the party of inherited wealth, entrenched privilege and rich, old people.

Philosophically, the Timothy manifesto got it right about markets. They’re tools, not an end in themselves. And they don’t always work for everyone in them. Falling real wages are proof of that, and generate anger that sensible politicians should want to answer, not ignore. Where markets don’t work, it’s the state’s job to step in and make sure they do. Standing back and doing nothing just generates more of that Corbynite anger, and poses a genuine threat to free markets.

This is a key element of the May agenda that the party would be mad to abandon now Timothy has gone. Yet already the history of the election is being rewritten to fit ideological templates. Some Tories are muttering that Timothy’s ‘socialism’ led them astray; the party must now return to sound Thatcherite economics, promising to cut taxes and shrink the state.

Such people should ask what that platform would have meant for the recent election. Would those voters energised by Mr Corbyn have flocked to the Tory cause if only they’d offered more cuts and a hymn of praise to the unfettered free market?

Mr Corbyn made in-roads in the Tory heartlands, yes. Did he do that because natural Tory voters thought Mrs May wasn’t Thatcherite enough and wasn’t offering big enough tax cuts and enough austerity, so they’d embrace Labour’s fiscal responsibility and free market agenda instead? It takes a very special understanding of the recent election to conclude that to was a sign voters are crying out for ‘untrammelled free markets’, to use the Tory manifesto’s phrase.

Or think of it this way: what do you think will happen if there’s another election in September and the Tories take on Jeremy Corbyn by promising Britain a strong dose of Thatcherite economics?

Timothy wasn’t right about everything. I was never convinced on grammar schools, though his passion to help poor, clever kids get on in life was genuine and should be shared by more people in politics. And I fear he and I will never agree on immigration, and I hope recent events (including his departure) will allow the Conservatives to move towards a more open, sensible migration policy.

But he was the source of original, interesting thinking, a man with a willingness to look beyond his party’s intellectual and political comfort zone.

Politics needs more minds like Nick Timothy’s. And if the Tories use his demise to bury his ideas, they will end up following him out of office.

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