The Tories have failed on everything – fixing potholes is all they have left

Rishi Sunak with Darlington Council leader Jonathan Dulston (far left), Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen (far right) and Darlington MP Peter Gibson (second from left) in Firth Moor during a visit to Darlington, County Durham where he discussed local issues and how money announced in this year's budget would be spent on fixing the region's roads and repairing potholes. Picture date: Friday March 31, 2023.

In chess, they call it zugzwang. Any legal move that the Tories make now will only drastically worsen their already wretched position.

True, Labour has hardly proved a master at strategy, as it sweeps the board by default rather than dexterity. Still, the final checkmate will be a formality. The Tories are done, defeated, screwballed, spent. They are the political equivalent of the landline phone – an irrelevant relic, that, while a quaintly ridiculous part of the furniture for now, will soon enough be thrown out with the rubbish.

Rishi Sunak may well this week once again call the bluff of party rebels and get his Safety of Rwanda Bill over the line. But as No 10 insiders quietly admit, there is only a 50 per cent chance of getting planes to Rwanda off the ground before the next election, That is because the PM’s “softer” legislation leaves the courts wiggle room to intervene on individual asylum cases.

Even if the PM succeeds in getting one or two symbolic planes off the tarmac, that simply means that the Tories are destined to find out the hard way how abruptly the electorate sour on a “popular” policy, once they suspect that they are being taken for fools. A recent YouGov poll found that only 1 per cent of the public now believes that the Rwanda Bill will deter the boats.

Contrary to the magical thinking of Tory rebels, desperately toughening the Rwanda legislation to maximise its effectiveness isn’t a move permitted in the current political game. This is for the simple reason that, because their amendments risk plunging the UK into a constitutional crisis, they do not have a hope in hell of passing the Lords.
Some of us would argue good riddance. Rwanda is not the answer to the immigration perma-crisis. That will take a Bretton Woods-style moment on the global stage, with Western states coming together to gut the current broken refugee system while also coming up with a plan for rescuing fragile states from the cycles of destabilising violence that are behind ever-greater refugee flows.

In order that European countries can pursue proper border control, Britain will have to also lead on long-term reform of the European Convention on Human Rights, which has metastasised from an early warning system against authoritarianism to a legal empire that threatens the democratic sovereignty of nation states. To wean itself off cheap migrant labour, this country also needs to cut welfare benefits and create more high-skill high-salary jobs.

This is a 10 to 20-year project that should have been initiated the moment the Tories came to power. It can’t be done in a few months. Which is why the Tories have panicked, attempting to mask the stench of long-term failure by cooking up the Rwanda dog’s dinner.

The PM is doubly snookered if his plan is indeed sunk by the rebels, because it is not as if he can simply shift focus to another major issue The party has failed to fulfil its NHS pledges, from building new hospitals to recruiting GPs. In its desperation to garner GDP growth, it has sacrificed its fiscal credibility on the altar of voodoo economics – from the cult of austerity to New Keynesian money printing.

Things have got to the point where the Tories may as well try something totally different. There is an argument that, having been unable to fix Britain’s major problems it should spend its final months focusing on solvable second-order issues, from homelessness and litter to potholes.

True, this hardly sounds like a thrilling plan. But it would arguably be the best thing the Tories could do for the country right now. And who knows maybe it could even help them save a couple of seats.

There are many places the Tories can learn from on this. Helsinki and Vienna are tantalisingly close to eradicating homelessness. Our grasp of how to crush petty and violent crime is evermore sophisticated. Chicago’s Cure Violence initiative has sought to stop the spread of violence by using methods associated with disease control, complementing 1980s insights like broken windows theory (which posits that neighborhoods plagued by visible signs of disorder and vandalism are a petri dish for more violent strains of crime). Switzerland and Germany respectively are experts in litter free-streets and well kept roads.

The politically calculating argument is that learning from these success stories and demonstrably fixing one or two “micro-problems” would do more to restore voter trust than Tory HQ rattling off another manifesto of grand promises nobody believes.

A drive to solve everyday issues in local areas like graffiti, homelessness and potholes may even blindside the Lib Dems with their reliance on slow-burn pavement politics.

But Westminster strategising aside, focusing on the smaller stuff may also be the key to rescuing Britain from decline. Let me explain. Yes, Britain is in decline because it is a debt-ridden, stagnant country that is addicted to cheap labour and challenged by an ageing and exponentially self-entitled population. But it is also in decline because nobody believes that it is possible to change anything.

This is reinforced not just by the politcal class’s defeatism when it comes to the big issues, but our constant neglect of minor, fixable problems – potholes, ever more prevalent homeless people, graffiti that defiles high street shops a week after they have opened.

A hopeless attitude to small problems as well as large ones breeds a sense of all-consuming paralysis and inertia that is characteristic of all societies in decline. Rome’s implosion can be tracked through to its neglect of its once meticulous roads. As the Egyptian New Kingdom became terminal, it proved incapable of clamping down on pesky tomb robbers and protecting itself from internal division and drought.

There is much modern evidence that fixing the small stuff can help rescue societies from deeper malaise. Take Singapore, which under Lee Kuan Yew made clean streets symbolically central to its reinvention as a slick and self-disciplined global powerhouse, or the community libraries that were so psychologically powerful in Colombia’s resurgence as an enterprising and tranquil country after civil war. Tackling Britain’s homelessness crisis could spur an economy-transforming housebuilding drive and overhaul of socialist planning laws.

Some might dismiss all this as pie in the sky thinking. But, with the party on the highway to hell, it may as well try something radically different.

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