In Singapore last week, I was asked: do ministers just come in, reach for the dumbest available policy and go ahead without asking anyone what the consequences will be? I explained the mindset. They do not ask because they do not want to hear the reply. In their minds, they are up against old thinking that just wants to keep Britain on the same declinist path – or ‘cycle of stagnation’ as Kwasi Kwarteng described the record of his Tory predecessors – and if you want to break new ground, don’ t ask the people who will always say no. This is what Labor’s far-left Bennite wing think. Labor ministers didn’t try proper socialism because they were cowed by a combination of ‘experts’, the civil service and the City establishment. Where will this approach to government end up? Without achieving very much, I suspect. I feel (slightly) sorry for Kwarteng. I like individualist politicians who do not come from central casting. Most people have written him off – but he will have to show, as someone once said, whether he is a fighter or a quitter.
As for the rest of his party’s conference, it was a real pleasure being described by Jacob Rees-Mogg as Labor’s Michael Gove. It’s certainly an improvement on some of the things I have been called in my own party.
Tories are desperate to realize their Brexiteer dreams by creating Singapore-on-Thames, based on their idea of what makes the Asian island state so successful: low taxes, little regulation and government that keeps out of the way. Oh dear, what a delusion. Singapore has a different conception of the state. It is smart rather than small. One reason I am skeptical of a bigger role for the state in the UK economy is because I fear in a bigger role it wouldn’t be very leading-edge. We have not got used to mixing ministers with markets as Singapore has. Yet the vaccine procurement taught us that government and private sector can be a formidable force when working in lockstep. If Rees-Mogg, in his new berth at my old department, wants to emulate Singapore, it is to the lesson of our vaccine triumph that he should look.
Before coming to Singapore, I spent two days in Liverpool at the Labor party conference. In these pages last week, Katy Balls quoted a ‘senior’ Labor politician saying ‘We know we are nearly back in because Peter Mandelson came to conference’. Thanks, but I am a lifer. I even attended during Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure, when we could not have been farther from power. But what a difference two years make. It is no longer Corbyn’s party. Aside from the tribute to the late Queen and the singing of the national anthem, Labor was at ease with itself, not riven with factions, entertaining some serious ideas and debating them properly, even rediscovering its sense of humor. This is Keir Starmer’s achievement. I won’t let it go to my head but I was asked for endless selfies by enthusiastic young people who must have been barely born when Labor was last elected.
I can understand why some Labor people think the party is home and dry after the recent opinion polls. I do not want to be a party-pooper but, encouraged as I am, I would not say we are yet in 1997 New Labor territory. There is more support for Starmer, and increasing for Rachel Reeves, than enthusiasm for the party itself. This is hardly surprising given how low we fell under Corbyn and the challenge of rebuilding trust in the Labor brand. The task for Labor, above all, is to restore confidence in our economic credentials, which is a job for the whole of the frontbench, not just the shadow chancellor. In 1997, Gordon Brown was prudence to perfection as well as with a purpose. Nobody dared second-guess him even when he laid down that we would keep to the Conservatives’ fiscal plans. Heaven knows what we will inherit from a Truss government (will she still be there?) but people won’t be looking for a party that wants to bet the farm.
Between Liverpool and Singapore, I returned to Wiltshire for the funeral for family and close neighbors of Tessa Keswick, Henry’s beloved wife and a dear friend to all those who knew and loved her. Her obituaries, while generous, could not do full justice to her intellect, warmth and ready hospitality. She was Kenneth Clarke’s special adviser at health, education, the Home Office and the Treasury. That is exactly the breadth of experience and qualification for which the system of appointment to the House of Lords was invented, and it was parliament’s loss that she was overlooked.
Peter Mandelson is a former cabinet minister and is now chairman of Global Counsel.