I’ve had this thought for a while, and wanted to get it down in case it proves to be an enduring one.
We have seen recently – by which I mean, since I have been paying attention – a number of sharp examples of the conventional wisdom being overthrown. By this, I mean suggestions or predictions like these:
The party that promises and delivers austerity is doomed – “out of government for a generation”. That last quote came courtesy the seldom-reliable Mervyn King, pre 2010, but it felt true enough at the time: governments are popular for spending money, hated for cuts. Gordon Brown really struggled to use the word “cuts” in the months before, and having marmelized the Tories in the mid 1990s during a gentler spell of austerity, you can understand why.
Yet George Osborne et al turned this on its head. Austerity became a dividing line they could actually deploy against Labour in 2015 – the prospect of more cuts to come put the opposition in a worse bind than the Government.
Electing a far-left Trot spelled doom for Labour at the next election This felt utterly obvious at the time. I recall, vividly, the FT editorials out during that 2015 Labour leadership contest as the impossible became possible, became likely and then inevitable. Here are some choice picks.
Janan Ganesh, “It’s as simple as it seems: Corbyn spells disaster for Labour”, with this brave complacency: “If a socialist peacenik becomes leader of Britain’s Labour party on September 12, it is not somehow a problem for the Conservatives, too. Tories high-fiving each other at the prospect of facing Jeremy Corbyn should not “be careful what they wish for””.
Or how about “Labour’s disastrous choice”, the FT editorial lamenting his capturing the leadership, which alongside suggesting Corbyn may be forced to “tack to the centre”, did at least predict that some MPs would break away, and that “with the opposition in turmoil, the risk is that Tory MPs will lose discipline, especially over the neuralgic issue of Europe.” Nor arf. But it basically assumed Labour were now unelectable, bad for Labour, bad for the country.
Yet by 2017 Corbyn had seemingly transmuted into a near-election winner, conducting possibly the most successful election campaign (from 25% to 40%) in my memory, and changing history in the process. That manifesto was incredibly popular; every item listed in those disapproving editorials looked like a winner
An OUT vote will split the Tories I remember being astonished when Janan revealed that up to one third of Tory MPs might support a Leave vote in an EU referendum. What is with these extremists? Then it happened, Theresa May came in, and the Conservatives enjoyed the happiest conference of the past thirty years (this is what I hear from people who attended: activists who had grizzled under Cameron felt blissfully happy to be Citizens of Somewhere again).
Now here we are. The Tories are split over Europe, Labour Party polling in the low twenties and Corbyn the most unpopular Opposition leader since ever, and everyone competing to see who can spend the most money. By many accounts austerity played a serious role in GE2017, and I have a view that Sajid Javid’s harsh spending review choices at BIS in 2015 – scrapping maintenance grants, in particular – cost a good dozen seats.
All the conventional wisdom came true, but with a time fuse. Reality can only be defied for so long.
The latest example of conventional wisdom, temporarily thwarted: the view that you cannot run a government in a hideously partisan way without it horribly fracturing. This divisive character Cummings will tear them apart; Matthew Parris wrote the best column about the new Cabinet:
“That he will fall out with his new master within months is almost certain. That, when he does, the world will know about it in coruscating language, equally so. Not least among the compensations for the chaos that awaits us is the anticipation of Mr Cummings’s blogs, once he turns against Mr Johnson.”
Then August happened, gravity defied, all that Quentin-Letts-delighting decisiveness and suddenly the conventional intelligentsia had a loss of nerve, seeing Cummings Plans round every corner, to the point of self-parody.
The conventional wisdom often rebounds. Not always – we are waiting a long time for Trump to lose favour with his base, for example. But sometimes with extraordinary rapidity. Conventional wisdom was that this sort of government cannot go on like this for long. A general election in 2019 is now a 85% possibility, and Tory private polling suggests they would fail to gain anything close to a majority. Matthew Parris has not been proven right … yet.