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Editor’s Notes: When politicians slip up we miss their real points

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Philip Hammond isn’t..

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Philip Hammond isn’t known for deploying political nuance.

To his critics, he has a tin ear for politics. Blurting out on TV that “there are no unemployed people”, for example, wasn’t the move of a smooth, PR-trained politico.

We all knew what he was trying to get at (that the rise of personal computers hadn’t rendered a generation of typists permanently unemployed) but it’s a reality of modern politics that these little slip-ups matter.

Hammond was at it again recently, when he said that the UK’s low productivity score may be down to an increase of disabled people in the workplace. Ouch. We winced. Not because he’s wrong, but because it’s not kind to point it out. Criticism was swift, particularly from Labour MPs and disability charities. The chancellor’s broad point about how a blunt reading of productivity obscures the complexities of the labour market, was lost in the ensuing row.

The episode took me back to 2014, when I was working at the Institute of Directors. Lord Freud, then a welfare minister in the coalition government, had been recorded telling an event that some disabled people weren’t worth the minimum wage.

All hell broke loose, and as someone interested in the point he was actually trying to make, I found myself defending him on the Today programme.

What he’d actually said, in response to a question from the father of a severely disabled son, was that the minimum wage locked the most disabled out of the labour market, and so denied them the social and therapeutic benefits of work – as it would be illegal to pay them less than other workers even if their disability was so profound that taking them on was more akin to charity.

I felt it was a debate worth having, but it was ditched in favour of focusing on the political fallout. If we want ministers to tackle complex issues, we should be prepared to have uncomfortable conversations.

Adam Smith Institute exec to depart

Last week I wrote about think tanks, and one such outfit that’s enjoyed a particularly good year is the Adam Smith Institute. Boldly embracing the ‘neoliberal’ tag, these free-market radicals punch well above their weight. On issues ranging from planning reform and immigration to executive pay and the sex industry (are those last two related?) they never shy away from evidence-based argument, regardless of the popular trend. One day, they’ll be the mainstream. In the meantime, executive director Sam Bowman is leaving in the new year and he closed a recent event by quoting from Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, with a call for those “whose public spirit is prompted altogether by humanity” to remember that when we “cannot conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion, [we] will not attempt to subdue them by force…” At a time when most of us are at each other’s throats, this is a sound maxim to live by.

Bell Pottinger missed out on bitcoin

For several weeks in September news of Bell Pottinger’s collapse dominated our front pages. For years the firm was a PR powerhouse, but news reaches me from a former employee that before the rot set in the firm nearly landed a major cryptocurrency platform as a client. Being a plucky start-up, they couldn’t quite afford BellPott’s fees and offered to pay in something called ‘bitcoin.’ Alas, they were laughed out of the room by BellPott top brass. Bitcoin was trading at around $30 back then. It’s now flirting with $20,000.

Read more: Demise of a PR giant: The inside story of Bell Pottinger's collapse

David Davis gets fired

The Brexit secretary David Davis has been sacked for failing to turn up to any meetings and for being “quite unworkable”. The news fell just hours before the latest EU Council summit and comes at a critical time in our negotiations. Let’s hope that being fired as honorary chairman of the Warwick University Conservative Association doesn’t throw Davis off his stride. As a Warwick grad, he held the position for years until he was ditched earlier this week. Onwards and upwards, David.

Read more: Davis attempts to smooth ruffled EU feathers after Brexit misspeak

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