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Mile End Institute

Autumn Statement: After Truss, back to Conservatism?

Following yesterday's Autumn Statement, Dr Karl Pike considers what Jeremy Hunt's economic plan says about the difference between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak's political projects. 

Photo of the front cover of the 2022 Autumn Statement, presented to Parliament by Jeremy Hunt on Thursday 17 November, against a Union Jack background
Estimated Reading Time: 2-4 minutes.

After the rapid disintegration of Liz Truss's political project, Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt are offering something different from the Conservative Party (again). 

The rollercoaster of UK politics this year has renewed interest in Conservative ideology. After Boris Johnson's commitment to 'levelling up' and some tax increases came a different approach with Truss's commitment to tax cuts funded by borrowing - something that went badly wrong.

The current government has changed things once again with its Autumn Statement. Opting for new fiscal rules, and prioritising meeting them, the rhetoric of fiscal responsibility is back - the political objective of David Cameron's premiership - albeit with more emphasis on increased taxation amongst the 'difficult decisions', with spending cuts politically someway off and expected after the election. 

In their analysis of the Autumn Statement, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) says the 'tax burden' - the tax to GDP ratio - will reach a level not seen since the end of the Second World War, before gradually reducing. The OBR has a neat chart - on page 33 of its report - showing the different contributions to this from recent budgets and 'fiscal events'. The tax rises announced by Hunt more often than offset the tax cuts kept from the Truss-Kwarteng plan.

If Truss's economic package was - before it went so badly wrong - 'real' conservatism in the eyes of some friendly media commentators who are now bemoaning tax rises, what is the Sunak government offering? 

The answer is conservatism, just a different kind. Some political scientists would point to 'statecraft' - that is the balance between governing competence, seeking re-election, keeping the party together, and ideas - rather than simply ideology in understanding the Sunak government's actions. And it's certainly part of the story. But with ideology, it's sometimes better to consider less tangible, but nonetheless important ideas and concepts that actually constitute the ideology, leading to different political strategies and policy decisions. 

Conservatism isn't a set of policies. And like other ideologies, it is dynamic and changeable. While British Conservatism doesn't really have an 'official canon' of texts, it does have different traditions that rise and fall over the years, and different interpretations of what it is to be conservative. 

The philosopher Michael Oakeshott - who could be located within this broad tradition - focused on managing change and the appropriate role of government in his understanding of conservatism. Rather than advocating for some kind of 'radical' plan that could be disruptive, governing was about steadying the ship. It was not to try and bring about utopia, which will inevitably fail - so goes this argument. 

Of course, this is a version of conservatism that is in part also a reaction against socialism - the source of the allegedly utopian plans that Oakeshott did not like. When you read this interpretation of conservative thinking, it doesn't necessarily take you to the tax cutting of Truss. Instead, it suggests an approach to the context of the time and is all about judgement. 

From the style of Hunt's statement, it appears that it is this interpretation of conservatism that the current leadership thinks it is attempting. Whether it has the right objectives - or is even achievable - are different questions outside of this very brief discussion of Conservative ideology. For now, at least, the party has settled on this approach. 

Dr Karl Pike is the Deputy Director of the Mile End Institute and Lecturer in Public Policy at Queen Mary University of London.



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