The rebranding of the compassionate Conservative party is in trouble. "Too many people in Britain," argue five ambitious Tory MPs in a new book, "prefer a lie-in to hard work." As an analysis of the economic problems of a country in double-dip recession, it lacks credibility. As an argument, in a book that seeks to confront pessimism, it lacks logic. As a piece of political positioning, it is too clever by half.
Its authors, Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss, offer a lively tour of the economic success of China, Brazil and Canada, and suggest that they offer lessons in how Britain could complete the Thatcher revolution. They start, however, by insulting us: "Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor."
Not only is this factually doubtful, but it would also be a poor starting point, even if it were accurate, for explaining Britain's comparatively weak economic performance. Average working hours for full-timers in the UK are the highest in Europe apart from those of Austria and Greece. Germany, the most successful economy in Europe, has one of the lowest full-time averages. Britons retire a little later on average than Germans and Americans. As for productivity, no two economists can agree how to measure it, so it is perhaps unsurprising that five Conservative MPs should settle merely for wishing it were higher.
Even if the analysis were confined to the problem of unemployment and economic inactivity, which is undoubtedly a problem in Britain (although it is worse in many other European countries), to ascribe it simply to laziness is, well, lazy. There will always be a small minority in any population that is work-shy, but there is no evidence that the British population is genetically or culturally more prone to lying in than working. There is a specific problem of "troubled families", in which habits of worklessness and poor parenting are passed from one generation to the next. And there are some young people whose attitude to hard work compares unfavourably with that of the keenest immigrants from central Europe.
That said, however, the vast majority of British people who are out of work, or working fewer hours than they want, are keen to work and to work hard. As one of the unions said, they will find the MPs' arguments "deeply irritating". Not least because the book is being published in the middle of a seven-week parliamentary recess, which will be followed, after a two-week session next month, by another month off for party conferences. Also, it is August. And there is a heatwave.
There is nothing wrong, or surprising, in a group of MPs praising the work ethic. But there is more to government's role in stimulating economic activity than exhortation. The Independent on Sunday believes that the scale of public spending cuts has reduced demand too quickly, which is a more important explanation of unemployment than laziness.
If only the five Conservative MPs had devoted more of their energies to setting out policies that stimulate growth, provide more incentives for people to set up their own businesses and prepare young people more effectively for the world of work, we could have praised them for their productivity as well as for their hard work.