How governments hit trouble – and how one US President, sort of, showed what to do

Last week, a Conservative MP rebelling against his government said “crap.” Philip Dunne admitted it was not a word he intended to use in parliament, but he used it in its literal sense, not as an expletive. He was concerned that “we do not treat the arteries of nature, which is what our rivers are, as the cesspit of humanity”—and believed the government was doing too little to tackle the problem. He was one of 22 Conservative MPs who backed a Lords amendment, against the government’s wishes, that would impose a legal “duty on sewerage undertakers to take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows.” Already, the government has announced a partial U-turn with a duty on water companies.

But the saga is not over. With media interest rising by the day, this could be one of those issues that seem to emerge like thunder from a clear sky, take the government by surprise, make it look uncaring and incompetent. Indeed, the metaphor is relevant: part of the problem is that climate change is causing occasional storms of a ferocity that overwhelms our drains and sewers, and adds to the already-serious problem of untreated sewage flowing into our rivers and the sea.

This is far from the first time that an issue a long way from the top of the political agenda has rocked government ministers. Remember the “pasty tax”? In his 2012 Budget, George Osborne proposed what he thought was a minor change in the rules to simplify the way hot takeway food was taxed. Fish and chips attracted 20 per cent VAT, but Cornish pasties did not. Osborne proposed that customers should pay VAT on all hot takeaway food.

To any Treasury mind, this was an eminently sensible, overdue reform that parliament would endorse with little fuss. Not for the first time, the clever Treasury minds misjudged the politics. “Pasty tax!” cried Labour. Tabloid papers got excited. Tory MPs became nervous and started to wobble. A few weeks later, Osborne was forced to retreat. Pasty eaters could continue to indulge tax-free.

An earlier chancellor saw another apparently minor issue become a major headache. In October 1999, Gordon Brown basked in the glow of good economic news. The economy was growing and inflation was falling. It seemed reasonable to suppose the pensioners would be especially pleased, as inflation was cutting into their incomes far less than it used to.

Here was the problem. The basic state pension was linked to inflation. The faster prices rose (boo, hiss), the more pensions would rise; but if prices rose more slowly (hooray), the less pensions would rise. And that autumn, the inflation was just 1.1 per cent. This meant that the basic pension needed to rise by only 75p per week. But pensioners, far from doffing their caps in gratitude to a chancellor who was presiding over such stability, complained that 75p was an insult to the older generation.

In a way, their complaint was justified. Most years, earnings rose faster than prices, so the state pension gradually fell relative to earnings. Three years later, Brown changed the system so that the basic state pension would rise by at least 2.5 per cent a year. But politically, the damage had been done. Labour acquired the reputation of being “anti-pensioner”—in part as an unintended consequence of giving Britain stable prices.

We shall see whether the government does a full U-turn on sewage and agrees to impose the stronger duty on “sewerage undertakers“ (in practice, water companies) to “take all reasonable steps” to keep our rivers clean—or whether it will plead that the expense would be too great. Ministers say it would cost anywhere between £150bn and £650bn to sort out Britain’s sewage system completely.

Whenever ministers wish to stand firm in future, they could perhaps learn from the United States. One president, returning to his home state, faced complaints at a town hall meeting from local farmers. They told him that by blocking a new bill that would help farmers, he was costing them ten cents a gallon on the milk they sold. Did the president retreat? Far from it. He said: “Yeah, I screwed you on that one.”

He went on: “You got hosed. And not just you. A lot of my constituents. You guys got rogered but good. Today for the first time in history, the largest group of Americans living in poverty are children. One in five children live in the most abject, dangerous, hopeless, back-breaking, gut-wrenching poverty any of us could imagine… I voted against the bill because I didn’t want to make it harder for people to buy milk. I stopped some money from flowing into your pocket. If that angers you, if you resent me, I completely respect that. But if you expect anything different from the president of the United States, you should vote for someone else.”

The year? 2000. The president? Josiah Bartlet. Yes, it was The West Wing showing one way to conduct grown-up politics: employ brutal candour.

I would be pleased, but astonished, if life, in the form of a political leader confident in the decisions they took, imitated that particular piece of art anytime soon—in Washington or London.

This blog was first published by Prospect