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A tale of two Rachels

A tale of two Rachels

Rachel Reeves, Labour’s new shadow chancellor, and Rachel Wolf, who co-authored the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto, are both attempting to tackle the essential question facing their respective parties


The two people I find most interesting in British politics today both happen to be called Rachel. 

Rachel Wolf was one of the co-authors of the Conservative’s 2019 manifesto. At a time when we have a Conservative chancellor who is strong on detail but rather short on vision and a prime minister with big ideas but little grip, Rachel Wolf set out an agenda for “levelling up” on the Conservative Home website this week that stood out – stood out for being both ambitious and actionable, a vision in measurable detail.

Rachel Reeves was appointed shadow chancellor last weekend, and she was handed the task – the daunting task, let’s face it – of writing Labour a new recipe for both prosperity and fairness. Labour’s path to Downing Street has, since 1945, most regularly been blocked by the public’s mistrust of the party’s handling of the economy. Jeremy Corbyn made matters worse. But well-known for once promising that Labour would be tougher on benefits than the Conservatives, Reeves, like Wolf, has a willingness to take on the complacency of her party.

And so both Reeves and Wolf are, each in their own ways, tackling the essential question that faces their party. Can Labour win again? Can the Conservatives deliver? 

I’m James Harding, I’m the editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and it’s been a week for political wash-ups, a week which was defined by big promises of change – whether in the Labour party, in Scotland or in a Queen’s Speech in which the Conservative government committed to remake the economic map as much as it has the political one.  

And in the middle of all this, the softly-spoken A.C. Grayling came to a Tortoise ThinkIn to talk with the thoughtful Lucy Winkett, the rector of St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, about the paradox of knowledge, about the realisation that the more we learn, the more we understand that we don’t know. And perhaps that’s why in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, I want to note what we don’t know now about the road ahead for the UK – and how that’s making me think a little differently about political journalism.

Because this week, we’ve been reminded of three big uncertainties:

  • one, is the pandemic coming back? The Covid infection rates in Bolton in the UK have rattled confidence in the return to normality. 
  • two, is inflation going to bite us? The jump in US prices shook the markets and the assumptions that central banks will be able to keep interest rates low – and keep printing money – for years to come. 
  • and three, is there going to be an early election? One reading of the Queen’s Speech, of Labour leader Keir Starmer’s troubles and the economic forecasts is that Boris Johnson may engineer a general election in the spring of 2023, rather than see out the parliament to the end of 2024.

The answer to all three questions is this: possibly. We don’t know. And that raises a bigger question for all of us: knowing how uncertain things are, knowing how we’ve got used to uncertainty – Covid, Brexit, etc – will we ever more vote on politicians’ intentions rather than their reactions, on their promises rather than their values?

Perhaps you can tell from our output this week where we think things are heading. The politics of culture dominated. The week started with a ThinkIn on whether art can save the planet and ended with a Tortoise take on the government’s eagerness to pick phoney fights in the culture wars.

It’s a challenge for journalists – it’s an even bigger challenge for policymakers. For Rachel Reeves and Rachel Wolf, the question is whether policy is going to continue to be a declining force in politics, whether politics itself has become more a business of attitudes than ideas.