John Hewson
The problem with reheating leaders

It is accepted in some circles that you can’t boil cabbage twice. Yet apparently this thinking doesn’t apply to recycling political leaders – or rehashing their worst ideas – irrespective of how hopeless they have been in government and of the damage they have done to the national interest. 

Two cases in point are the threatened resurgence of Donald Trump in the United States, and Boris Johnson’s soggy pitch to reclaim Britain’s prime ministership. And they have lessons for us here. 

Trump’s prospects for joining the 2024 presidential race are still unclear, though his support in the Republican Party seems to have suffered little so far from the Capitol riots hearings and his various legal entanglements. He retains all the promise of an unmitigated disaster, born out of electoral fraud built on Russian interference, which provided the opportunity for him to demonstrate complete incompetence in most aspects of government. 

As for Johnson, we have just watched the consequences of his incompetence play out in Westminster, as Liz Truss inherited a mess and quickly ran afoul of markets and the Bank of England. There is little doubt about the damage her predecessor inflicted – delivering Brexit was the beginning of Britain’s decline. It was a strategy based on the fallacy that Britain would continue to thrive outside the huge European market, ignoring the fact that each was one of the other’s most important trading partners. 

The Conservatives also hoped Brexit would reframe the discussion of immigration according to their scare campaign, which implied that Britain could be swamped by refugees from northern Africa and the Middle East. 

The last thing Britain can afford right now – teetering on the brink of recession, after an implosion of the bond markets and a collapse of the pound, and probably facing recession in the US and Europe as well – is a leadership squabble that puts new and appropriate policy responses further out of reach. Britain is still at risk of disunity as a result of Brexit, and this is a pivotal moment. New Prime Minister Rishi Sunak always looked the most likely to step up as Truss melted down, and he has won, for now. 

There are important policy lessons to be learnt from Truss’s experiment. These include recognising the need to work along with the central bank, the need to take the voters and financial markets with you, and the lack of a substantive economic case for offering tax cuts to the wealthy, funded by even more debt. The claimed economics of Truss’s plan were based more on ideology and prejudice than hard evidence, and were feudal in their faith in a trickle-down solution.

The important lingering question is whether a change in Tory leadership would really move much beyond more of the same old, same old thinking. The Sunak policy agenda is still pretty much a blank canvas, although there are some hints from his time as chancellor of the exchequer and as a Brexiteer. The economic support he provided during the pandemic was heavily criticised for leaving many behind. I see little to inspire in terms of likely policy responses for these difficult times. Changing the jockey will achieve little if it’s the horse that’s crook, which certainly seems to be the case. It may well take an election for the essential British reset but, as noted, that’s still some way off.

Here, an election has delivered change, but there’s little sign of lessons being learnt by the new opposition, which is as beholden to its same old thinking as ever. That’s been particularly evident in the weeks surrounding the new Albanese government’s first budget. The Peter Dutton–Angus Taylor strategy has been, again, to rely on their sycophantic media mates to sustain the myth that they were the better economic managers, and to promote their false claim to have left a strong economy and a strong budgetary position. 

Shadow Treasurer Taylor has been peddling the line that this budget was a “vanity project” with no credible plan to help people with the cost of living. 

He’s implying that a Coalition government would have taken action, while refusing to acknowledge that when in power the Coalition’s own activity locked in the energy price increases that will weigh so heavily on households. 

He and Dutton are still living in denial and sticking with their ideological fixations. What is their plan? 

This budget does implement what Labor had planned to do, and their pledges for childcare in particular are likely to have a significant impact in lowering costs for families. 

It’s a tired argument that you can’t trust Labor with the budget. And it’s a nonsense equivalent to Johnson singing the benefits of Brexit, or Trump claiming to have made America “great again”. Scott Morrison, like Boris Johnson, expanded the size of government while ignoring the need to fund it; Johnson blew out government debt to roughly 100 per cent of GDP. Both poisoned the waters for those who followed. 

And we can’t feel ourselves so removed from Britain’s misfortunes – Australia has seen two attempts to reboil the political cabbage. John Howard’s was successful in longevity terms (he always liked to describe his comeback as “Lazarus with a triple bypass”, something I have never really understood, unless the bypasses were Andrew Peacock, myself and Alexander Downer?); Kevin Rudd’s was less so. Both had difficult legacies. 

While some may credit Howard with delivering a stable government, there has been much criticism of his prime ministership in policy terms, most notably the price paid for the GST package, the unnecessary involvement in the Iraq War, and the evasiveness with the truth and divisiveness on issues such as asylum seekers. Rudd was reinstalled to “save the furniture” but little was actually saved. His loss to Tony Abbott had catastrophic consequences for our climate policies and international standing, for our fiscal integrity and in many subsequent political and social attitudes.

In pulling out of this latest rerun of the British leadership contest, Johnson may have done the right thing for the party and the nation, but I doubt it was for their sake. His career has always been Boris first and I doubt he is finished. More likely he is biding his time, working to build back support for another run sometime next year, well before the next election, which is slated for January 2025.

For perspective, I note a conversation with a London cabbie. My wife and I were in London when Johnson assumed the leadership from Theresa May, and we had noted a strange mix of bewilderment and acceptance. Despite her faults, May was seen as a substantive person, which made it difficult for many to accept that this fellow who was widely accepted as a bit of a clown had actually won. Making small talk on our ride, we remarked to the cabbie on the change of prime minister. He seemed surprised and asked who it was. 

The response left him nonchalant. “Well, this is England, innit, they come and go. We’ve had kings that were mad, we’ve had a queen that never married and led the Golden Age. We’ve had good ones and bad ones. Everything and nothing changes.” 

This resignation is nothing new, and it is understandable. Perhaps voters simply don’t believe that people seeking leadership are really going to make much of a difference in the national interest. They’ve switched off. Unfortunately, this is the most dangerous time in our history to do so. 

Imagine the damage that could be done with a reboiled Trump, Johnson or Morrison in a world facing the ambitions of the Vladimir Putins and the Xi Jinpings.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 29, 2022 as "Reboiled, rehashed, regretted".

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