But how do they know where they’re going? Spikes! Stop eating them!

I am currently reading a wonderful book – An Immense World by Ed Yong – which I am certain will feature in much of my writing over the next few months. Today I want to talk about what Ed’s book has to say about ants and, in particular, ant pheromones.

Pheromones override all of an ant’s other senses. An ant will walk itself to death if its pheromone trails are laid in a circle (“the army ant death spiral”). And if an ant happens to get covered with one of the pheromones that signal that it is dead, it will continue to be treated as if it is dead however much it protests.

Compared to ants, the current Conservative Party leadership candidates obviously bestride the world like colossi, but I think I have spotted a similarity in the contest so far. Public First have attempted to put all of the policy announcements by each of the candidates together on a single spreadsheet and what is noticeable is that there is only one row which has an entry for every candidate: tax and economic growth. More popular than immigration, Brexit & Europe or any of the other issues one would expect any Conservative leader to have an immediate policy on. And, with one exception (the architect of the current economic policy which has been going in a different direction, Rishi Sunak), they all seem to be proposing a variation on generating economic growth as a result of tax cuts. I will not comment further on whether this is a coherent policy, as that has been done very well here.

However it did occur to me that tax cuts might be doing the same job for Prime Ministerial hopefuls as pheromones do for ants, ie something which, once emitted, makes everything else about your policy positions irrelevant. The problem of course is, whereas the success of an ant colony depends very largely on the coordination of a huge number of individual insects to follow a path, recognise an individual (or more likely a member of a group), identify their own young, etc, the leadership race is supposed to be giving the candidates a chance to differentiate themselves from each other. Even allowing for the fact that many in the race have no expectations of making the last two, but are merely indicating their level of ambition in a way designed to be noticed by one of the two who do, it does seem as if they have already coalesced into two teams – Ready For Rishi and Not Remotely Ready For Rishi. And noone running appears to be obviously looking for a job from Rishi Sunak.

The dangers of making policy a reflex rather than a reflective activity, particularly with respect to the economy, are obvious. Because the pheromones act on all of the ants, including those emitting them, this doesn’t suggest an eventual winner who is likely to be able to change economic direction beyond usual Conservative Party instincts, whatever is actually going on in the economy. Ed Yong has already used the army ant death spiral as a metaphor for the United States’ response to the pandemic.

It should all become a lot clearer tonight when the ones who cannot get 20 MPs to support them will drop out. It would be great if one of them would make a break with Elgar and use Ant Music as their campaign song instead. Then we would all know where we stood.

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