In this think piece – originally written for Whitehall & Westminster World – ASI policy director Tom Clougherty explains what he would do if he were prime minister for a day. In a nutshell: reduce spending and scale back government, reform public services, and cut taxes. Would it really be that hard?
I've never been a morning person, but if by some stroke of luck I became prime minister for a day, I would want to make an early start. Most PMs struggle to achieve much in five or even ten years, but I’d have big plans for my day in Number 10, and I'd need all the time I could get.
Over breakfast – something substantial, to keep my hunger locked up till lunch – I'd kick things off with some simple reforms to make everyone's journey to work a little bit easier. For starters, I'd let people turn left on red lights, which would reduce congestion and make traffic flow more smoothly. Then I'd let motorcycles and cars with passengers drive in under-utilized bus lanes, making far more efficient use of our scarce road space.
Getting into my workday now, my thoughts would turn to all those people toiling away in Britain's public services. I'd think of all the doctors, teachers and policemen whose working lives are made a misery by stifling government bureaucracy and I'd want to do something to help. So I'd get rid of all the Whitehall targets and memorandums, those orders from on high, and let the professionals get on with their jobs.
Instead of having to march to the beat of the government's drum, I would make them accountable to the people who really matter, the people they treat, teach and protect. Brits would elect their police chiefs, pick their doctors and hospitals, and choose their children's schools. And all these services would have the independence they needed to innovate, specialize and tailor their services to individual and community needs. Before long people would be asking, why didn't we always do it like this?
I'd watch myself on the news, reflecting on how much better the BBC had become since I privatized it over my elevenses. Then I'd have beer and sandwiches - Number 10 have been good at that ever since Harold Wilson's cosy chats with the unions. They're pretty good at peas too, thanks to John Major. I'd head into the garden for a bit of fresh air, and feed any scraps to Humphrey, the Downing Street cat.
Back to work. Did you know the government will spend more than £600bn of the taxpayers' money this year? That's more than £10,000 per head for every man, woman and child in the UK, and twice as much as in 1997. It doesn't represent anything even approaching value for money.
As PM, I'd have to ask myself, do we really need 1165 QUANGOs, spending more than £63bn a year? Do we need a business department that does nothing for business and spends £5bn a year? Or a culture department that spends £3bn? Does the communities and local government department do anything useful? And why do we still have a Scotland Office and a Wales Office, now that Edinburgh has a parliament and Cardiff has an assembly?
Every government promises to cut waste. Most of them fail. They spend years re-arranging the furniture of government and trying to make things more efficient, but it never amounts to anything. Government just grows and grows. The only way to stop it is by abolishing whole departments, agencies and functions. And if I were PM for a day, that's exactly what I'd do. I doubt anyone would miss them.
Thinking of all the money I'd just saved, I'd get down to cutting everyone's taxes. I'd start by raising the personal allowance to at least £12,000, taking low-earners out of the income tax system altogether. Then I'd create a single, flat-rate tax on all income over that threshold – regardless of its source. Capital gains would have to be indexed to inflation, but apart from that there would be no added complications. While our current 'progressive' tax system hammers low-earners with disproportionate tax bills, my 'flat tax' would put everyone from cleaner to fat cat on a level playing field. All those New Labour zillionaires would be pretty peeved at losing their loopholes, so I'd take the phone off the hook and dodge their angry complaints.
By now my day as PM would be drawing to a close. Running the UK government has got to be a pretty stressful job, so I'd want to head to The Red Lion across the road in Whitehall to unwind. Before knocking-off, however, I'd make one more reform: repealing the licensing laws so that pubs could stay open as long as they wanted. My work done, I'd promote myself to the House of Lords. It would be such a welcome relief from serious politics.