James Butler

12 March 2020

The Chancellor’s Grin

Given the economic orthodoxy over the past ten years, the smiles and sunshine approach is hard to swallow. The chancellor proposes deficit spending, and by the end of the parliament expects the national debt to hit £2 trillion: the measures that the longer-serving Tories have grizzled, harrumphed and waved their papers in support of in the Commons since 2010 have vanished. Debt numbers that once seemed sacred are swept away like plaster idols. What, then, was the last decade for? The stagnant wages, the shrunken services, the slashing of the social state? George Osborne’s apparent claim – that austerity paved the way for the new munificence – is in no way credible. The NHS is about to discover that a few extra billion now can’t make up for frayed investment over a decade; new intensive care services, and trained staff to run them, cannot be conjured from thin air.

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14 February 2020

Cummings’s Bootprints

Cummings’s triumph over Javid illuminates the government’s likely trajectory. Burke Trend – a career civil servant in the Treasury before he became cabinet secretary in 1963 – once remarked that whatever the prevailing economic theory, the general ethos of the Treasury was fixed: ‘Spending money, like eating people, is wrong.’ This entrenched conservatism has occasionally been praised – Keynes thought it a bulwark against madcap governmental wickedness – but has more often frustrated politicians of both left and right intent on reshaping the economy. Bringing its political wing under his influence suggests Cummings is eager to break the Treasury’s taboo, and serious about realising the Conservatives’ so far vague spending pledges, to firm up their potentially volatile electoral coalition. If he is serious about Whitehall reform, he also underestimates its complexity and intractability. The Treasury’s inertia is not caused by a few indolent spads at the top, easily replaced.

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13 December 2019

Labour’s Defeat

I think of the young canvassers – thousands of them – who were out on the doorsteps for the first time, in cold and miserable weather, lit up by a politics that spoke to them and for them as no political party had done before. They will be told they were wrong to believe in it. They were not. I think of the woman, a carer for her disabled brother, who said that her life had got worse for years and years, and politicians always promised it would get better, and it didn’t, and how could she trust Labour? I think of the man who voted Labour in 2017, but wouldn’t now, because his Polish partner was scared of living here much longer. And the man who said you can’t change anything anyway, because ‘it’s all fucking rigged even when you win, look at Brexit.’

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10 December 2019

‘Hijacked by Marxists’

‘Hijacked by Marxists’, promised the Sun: Corbyn’s ‘hardline cabal’ exposed! On Saturday, the paper published a network map it claimed was drawn up by ‘former British intelligence officers’, detailing a web of ‘hard-left extremists’ supposed to lie behind the current Labour leadership. It had even coded a natty little chatbot to help its readers decipher the sprawling chart. ‘Who is James Butler?’ I asked it. It told me I co-founded Novara Media, which is at least true – though it got the dates wrong – and that I was connected to various people I’ve never met. I have yet to be invited to any cabal, hardline or otherwise.

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6 December 2019

Broader Horizons

Despite their far-reaching consequences, the horizons in elections can seem narrow, confined to the five-odd weeks of the campaign, strewn with invocations of the recent past. Zoom out, though, and one thing that comes into focus is that the anti-austerity movement in the UK – the chief engine of the rise of Corbynism – is the last in Europe to reach its major electoral showdown. It does so in unique circumstances, forced to grapple with inimical constitutional questions that warp its electoral calculus, and later than its sister movements in other countries, which, though they found more immediately amenable political vehicles, either burned up on contact with the might of the ECB or were neutered in wider political coalitions.

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2 December 2019

On London Bridge

Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were killed at London Bridge on Friday, at a conference on prisoner rehabilitation. Their murderer, Usman Khan, had been imprisoned for terrorist offences, and was released last year; the Guardian warned at the time that the police and probation services lacked the resources to deal adequately with a wave of prisoner releases. Khan was electronically tagged, and had been given permission to go to the conference. It seems he planned the attack, making himself a fake suicide vest. He was stopped from further bloodshed when members of the public, including other former prisoners at the conference, intervened to stop him. Police, responding to the hoax vest, shot and killed him. Merritt’s grieving father made this plea: ‘My son, Jack, who was killed in this attack, would not wish his death to be used as the pretext for more draconian sentences or for detaining people unnecessarily.’

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29 November 2019

A Snapshot, Not a Prediction

YouGov has released the results of its MRP (multilevel regression and post-stratification) model. It shows the Tories taking 359 seats, Labour reduced to 211 – losing significant heartland constituencies to the Conservatives – and Boris Johnson winning his party’s first substantial majority, of 68, since Margaret Thatcher’s in 1987 of 102. The political impact of such a result is hard to overstate: it would mean a reworked Conservative Party in parliament, singing in unison from Johnson’s hymn sheet, clearing the way for his Brexit deal to pass without a hitch – along with everything else in the manifesto.

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25 November 2019


Boris Johnson launched his manifesto yesterday in Telford. Both document and event were marked by only the lightest dusting of the Conservative brand: everything was instead blazoned with ‘Get Brexit Done’, the recurrent theme, too, of an otherwise flimsy manifesto. ‘As a blueprint for five years in government,’ the IFS noted, ‘the lack of significant policy action is remarkable.’

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20 November 2019

Arid Exchanges

Last night’s head-to-head debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn did not scale Socratic heights. There were few surprises. When TV debates emerged during the US presidential race in 1960, a canny understanding of the medium gave the telegenic Kennedy an opportunity to shift past Nixon in the polls; modern debate rules are subject to interminable inter-party negotiations, which usually seek to tamp down any risk of actual debate breaking out.

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15 November 2019

‘We can afford this’

With both parties competing over spending, the strategic calculus for the election alters: whether or not spending is a good thing matters less than where the money is spent, who it will benefit, and whether the parties can be trusted to keep their promises. Serious questions await the Conservatives on how sustainable their spending can be without raising taxes on the wealthy, or with the economic dislocation of a hard Brexit. It’s difficult, too, for them to resurrect 2010’s attack lines on the economy when austerity has vanished from the policy lexicon; Harold Macmillan warned his party in 1959 not to talk of Labour ‘spending sprees’ – for people who have lived through a straitened decade, spending may sound rather appealing. The last true disciple of Coalition-era doctrine turns out to be Vince Cable, grumbling about a ‘raid on Santa’s grotto’. 

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