Failing public services are not helpless — government must step up


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Good morning. Labour has won the Chester by-election, after Samantha Dixon took home 61.2 per cent of the vote and increased the party’s majority from 6,164 in the 2019 general election to 10,974.

Hardly surprising given the polls and the state of the public realm. Some thoughts on the latter below.

Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to

It’s the palpable economy, stupid

Seb Payne has coined a very useful phrase in his column: the ‘palpable economy’:

[Rishi] Sunak needs to focus on the general state and mood of Britain: does the country feel more prosperous than it did at its lowest economic ebb (ie: right now), are the high streets improving, are job opportunities plentiful? And are public services working well?

So, how is the palpable economy doing right now? Uh, not well. Most secondary schools are battling staff shortages and the Department for Education has missed its targets for teacher training recruitment in 13 out of 17 subjects. Enrolment numbers are particularly low in some science and technology subjects, as FT journalist Bethan Staton reports. Here’s the key chart:

Bar chart of Recruitment to teacher training, percentage points above / below target showing Most secondary school subjects have been hit by recruitment shortfalls

Although no government minister would put it quite this bluntly, this is one of the things that the Bank of England is trying to fix: slowing UK growth will mean fewer job prospects, and raise the number of graduate jobseekers of all ages turning to teaching as a white-collar employer of last resort.

Will it work? Maybe, maybe not. In the short term, though, at least there are some obvious levers that the government actually controls here. Pay increases are the most obvious. But if Sunak wants to avoid that for whatever reason, the government could also scrap fees on teacher training bursaries (most of which the state fails to collect anyway because they are levied on income like other tuition fees and very few teachers earn enough to pay these back). Ministers could exempt all teachers from the NHS surcharge (which makes most immigrants to the UK from outside the European Economic Area pay an annual fee of £624 per year).

These wouldn’t solve the problem overnight, but they would do something. Certainly the government has more options here than it does in the NHS, where essentially all the good options are “invent time travel” and “seriously, invent time travel”. A third of all English patients waited more than half an hour in an ambulance to even enter a hospital last week. And the percentage of ambulance handovers delayed by an hour or more is at the highest since data became publicly available, FT analysis shows.

As Seb rightly argues, this stuff is the biggest problem that the government has a decent amount of control over. Getting these charts to go in the right direction is an essential part of how the Conservatives start to turn their fortunes around.

Young and getting anxious about money? Whether you’re finishing education, in work or both, join us on December 12 for an online panel event, moderated by FT consumer editor Claer Barrett, to get practical money tips in the cost of living crisis. Hear from experts convened by the FT and its charity, the Financial Literacy and Inclusion Campaign (FT FLIC). Sign up for free here.

Now try this

I saw Aftersun last night. An astonishingly good film. In a year with a number of very strong films this is comfortably the best I’ve seen.

It’s almost a two-hander between Paul Mescal and 12-year-old Frankie Corio as his daughter. It’s a phenomenal and moving piece of work by any standard and for it to be the debut feature by director Charlotte Wells makes it all the more impressive.

Danny Leigh’s review is here. Raphael Abraham’s interview with Wells can be read here, but I recommend saving it for after you have finished watching Aftersun, which you should do as soon as possible.

However you spend it, have a wonderful weekend.

Top stories today

  • Blackford quits | Ian Blackford, a close ally of Scotland first minister Nicola Sturgeon, announced yesterday he was stepping down as Scottish National party leader at Westminster, in a move that highlighted internal divisions over efforts to secure an independence referendum.

  • City minister cheers Brexit | Andrew Griffith, City of London minister, has insisted Brexit is bringing benefits for UK financial services, saying a government overhaul of EU-era regulation of the insurance industry would unlock investment in the British economy.

  • Rough return | To boost domestic energy resilience in the face of the war in Ukraine shock, Britain’s largest storage facility Rough — whose surface area equals the City of London and Westminster combined — was reopened for the first time in five years. But securing its future will require government support, says Centrica.

  • ‘A bit like the mafia’ | Former and current clinicians at University Hospitals Birmingham (UHB) NHS Trust allege they were punished by management for raising safety concerns, a BBC Newsnight investigation found. The whistleblowers warned of a dangerous shortage of nurses and a lack of communication leading to some haematology patients dying without receiving treatment.

  • ‘Revolving door’ between Westminster and private sector | Ministers and civil servants face being made to sign a legally binding commitment to abide by Whitehall sleaze rules when they quit under proposals being drawn up by the government, the Times’ Oliver Wright reports. Under plans being considered, senior figures could lose part of their pension or severance payment if they fail to get permission for any jobs they take on within two years of leaving their post.

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