06 January 2011

The perils of a diffident prime minister

Almost everyone has noted that Cameron is using Clegg as a lightning rod for discontent about coalition policy, enabling himself to float free above the fray in quasi-presidential mode. Cameron has been universally praised for doing this, even by his enemies, but I am not at all sure it is a good idea for him.

One of the most potent criticisms of Cameron, both as a politician and prime minister, is that the wealth and privilege of his upbringing, together with his scant experience of the working world outside of politics, leave him too detached from the everyday experiences of most UK voters. He doesn't understand the stresses and pressures that most ordinary people labour under, nor does he connect with their aspirations. Indeed, it was noticeable that most of his attempts to reposition the Conservative party - to de-nastify it - were aimed at the young socially liberal metropolitan upper-middle classes: cycling to work, photo opportunities with hoodies and huskies, and so on. Nothing about aspiration or struggle for betterment there.

The danger for him of continuing to position himself above the dirty day-to-day work of government is that he will entrench the already well-established image of him as elite, out of touch and indifferent to the lives of UK voters. It also shades into another emerging idea of him - given force by the brief appointment of a photographer and film-maker to the government payroll - as more than usually vain.

He is at his best and most credible as a politician when attempting to communicate his ideas with energy and passion. The patrician thing, by way of contrast, plays to his weaknesses: all too often he ends up speaking with the sort of polite condescension - touched with contempt - he might otherwise reserve for a young sommelier who mispronounces Puligny-Montrachet.

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Cameron's folly

Fraser Nelson's recent article in the Daily Telegraph on the prospects of a Liberal-Conservative merger at the next election has got me reflecting again on the wisdom of Cameron's decision to integrate the Liberal Democrats so thoroughly into government.

Cameron is attracted to the grand gesture. He likes to think of himself as a bold leader, in much the same way as Brown evidently regarded himself as a wise one, and often seems indecently keen for the chance to show it. The coalition agreement must have seemed an excellent opportunity for such positioning; moreover, there was - and is - certainly an argument that binding the two parties so close in government - sharing ministries, communications teams and so on would make the coalition stronger and therefore more likely to last. He may also have had his eye on the corrosive, government-wide divisions of the previous administration.

But how much time was given to thinking through the implications of such a move? The net result, as it must surely have always been, is to blur the identities of both parties in government, something Cameron - another hostage to fortune - has actively embraced with the erasure of Conservative identity from the party conference. (For a salesman - and all party leaders are that - he doesn't seem to have much confidence in his brand.) There has arguably been a short-term gain in coherence; but the pressure is likely to exacerbate in the longer term the significant fissures that will always exist in such an arrangement.

The Liberal Democrats may have suffered most from the loss of a coherent political identity in the first months of the administration, but there is also clear and understandable discontent in Tory ranks, and that is only likely to deepen. Why? Well, for one reason, whatever Cameron likes to suggest, this isn't a government of national unity brought together by a shared sense of crisis. (Does anyone who isn't paid to say it, believe it is?) Members of both parties therefore spend their time picking through the entrails of policy for electoral spoils, things they can wave to the voters and claim are their own, while - implicitly or explicitly - rejecting what they leave behind. That is a messy business, and John Redwood, for one, has noted with some bitterness the Liberal's fondness for claiming all the "nice" government policies as their own, even when they were, in fact, Conservative in origin. As the administration beds down, and policy successes and failures become clearer - and as elections edge nearer - the fight for ownership must intensify, threatening a far greater government implosion further down the line.

A better solution would have been to give the Liberal Democrats control of a number of ministries. The divisions in the coalition would not have been papered over, as they have been: they would have been clear and in the public eye - indeed they would have been articulated in the structure of the administration. Yes, it would have made some aspects of government difficult; but it would have made the long-term functioning of the administration easier, because everyone, including the voters, would know who stood where and was responsible for what.

Cameron has always struck me as a man with his eyes set on short-term tactical wins, and too easily seduced by wishful thinking about longer term planning. Lazy, in fact. It's one reason he failed to win the last election. Will he come to regret the terms of the deal he offered Clegg back in May? Act in haste, as they say...

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22 December 2010

Another thought on Vince Cable...


Cable seems to regard himself as a sort of one-man opposition within the coalition, heroically keeping the forces of conservatism at bay - an ageing Harry Potter wielding the wand of justice in his lone struggle against the-one-who-can't-be-named.   

Indeed, perhaps Potter - half human, half wizard, stumbling towards maturity - might be a good metaphor for the Liberal Democrats in the coalition, baffled by this mysterious arcane world of Conservative policy and practical governance.

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The Cable riot

The Daily Telegraph has come in for a surprising degree of criticism from commentators across the political spectrum - from Mehdi Hasan in the New Statesman to Bagehot in The Economist - for the sting operation it has mounted against Vince Cable, the Business Secretary.

Both in essence question the Telegraph's "public interest" defence in using what is widely regarded as a dubious and underhand technique against a cabinet minister.

This is Hasan's take: "Where's the public interest argument for undercover journos secretly recording the gossipy views of an MP inside his constituency surgery? I can't see it."

And Bagehot: "The balance between subterfuge and the public interest is like a finely-balanced pair of scales. The more subterfuge a newspaper uses, the weightier the public interest defence that is needed... I am not sure the import of what he said... was so great as to justify their skulduggery."

The implication is that undercover reporting like that used by The Telegraph here is, or should be, a kind of journalistic nuclear option, to borrow a phrase from the unfortunate Cable. It should only be used to uncover criminal activity on the part of the victim, or expose major issues surrounding great matters of state. Cable's amusing views on the abilities, policies and ethics of his Conservative colleagues in government, no less than his entertaining estimation of his own importance, clearly do not meet such criteria.

Did he deserve to be exposed therefore? I still think the answer has to be yes. Members of the public do not necessarily expect or believe members of a governing party (or parties) to sign up to every last dot and comma of government policy - nor to like or trust all of their colleagues. But for a senior member of a government to support his administration when speaking formally and to be so caustic and dismissive in informal conversation is simply not acceptable. If he has such serious qualms about his colleagues and their ideas, he should not be on the front bench and, indeed, should not be using his vote in the Commons to keep it in power.

Was Cable entitled to regard the conversation with his constituents as private? Hasan, for instance, invokes the right to privacy and confidentiality inside the constituency surgery. But surely that right, to the extent that it exists, is there to protect the constituent not the MP. Democratic accountability breaks down if a minister feels no obligation to defend his own government policies to the people who voted for him.

Moreover, to what extent could the conversation be described as private in the first place? Cable would certainly have reason to feel aggrieved had The Telegraph miked up a couple of his friends and lured him into indiscretion that way; but he was speaking to his alleged constituents in his public capacity as their MP. That is some way from private.

If cabinet government is to mean anything, it surely means that there is collective responsibility for decisions; the alternative is to deceive the public about who stands for what, when, with the political equivalent of smoke and mirrors. (Simon Heffer has developed this point, too.) We cannot accept a situation where a minister publicly opposes a government policy but nevertheless votes it through. On what are we to judge someone in such circumstances? In part it is a practical matter, but it is also a moral one. If the Business Secretary does not accept such responsibilities to the public, it is in the public interest to know, and The Telegraph is justified in exposing it. Cable is attempting to delude us - and, looking at the transcript, perhaps even himself - about his support for the government of which he is a key member.

Alastair Campbell says in his blog on the subject, "someone should tell him that once you reach a certain level in politics, it is wise to assume encounters with complete strangers are ‘on the record".'

Someone should also tell him to grow up. There is honour in both front bench responsibility and back bench opposition. Indeed, both are responsible positions. But where is the honour when you shrug off your responsibilities to both colleagues and constituents so lightly?

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