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Back in the dog days of 2008, I did something I do not usually do: I cut out a newspaper cartoon and pasted it on my door. It was a Steve Bell piece, a portrait of the City of London, at the time resembling Rome under Nero, all harsh sunlight, glass and chrome; in the foreground, and in shadow, was a green wheelie dustbin. In the dustbin, you understand, was Margaret Thatcher.

That Thatcher could still appear in a political cartoon in 2008 – that she appeared in them well afterwards, and will dominate them tomorrow – is, of course, eloquent testimony that she remained the dominant politico-mythical figure of our age. Not only that, but I wasn’t yet eight when she left office – and yet I cut out that cartoon because it seemed to me to capture quite profoundly (if optimistically) a jonbar point, a moment when paradigms were in flux. Her bodily death is neither here nor there, except to those who knew her personally – we could have had shot of her half a decade ago.

Of course, through the back door and without the popular support Thatcher once enjoyed, since 2010 the Coalition has ensured that, like Pavlov’s well-trained dog, we have snapped firmly back to the paradigm Thatcher set. Indeed, hers was a paradigm which has not stood still: in the 1980s, welfare reached its lowest level relative to wages in thirty years; it is now 8% lower. We now spend almost half the amount of GDP we spent on welfare then, and yet the Coalition continue to demonise claimants as the great drag on our economic and social life (and not, naturally, the elite irresponsibility the neoliberal Big Bang helped inspire). The position of those against whom Thatcher’s government was set continues not to erode – the vicious passive voice – but to be eroded.

So, where there is despair, there might seem to be little hope. When a Prime Minister times a statement to appear live on the 6 O’Clock News, as David Cameron did tonight, it is because he believes the potential benefits outweigh the risks; a St Paul’s funeral for Thatcher, and the hagiography which will precede it and ensue, will help the Tories further entrench her vision of society and of her opponents which they are peddling anew. For trades unions read benefit claimaints. For Kinnock read Miliband. For all-powerful self-correcting markets read … well, more of the same.

That’s why, and perhaps here I’d think differently had I the same bitter and immediate political memories of the 1980s as some of my friends, the gloating over Thatcher’s death isn’t just misplaced – it makes the Left look counter-intuitively spiteful, even when they may be that correct that public figures who reject compassion as Thatcher did give up the right to the obligatory respect due to private individuals. No, that schadenfreude is missing the point: Thatcher was an avatar of capital, of its interests and stratagems, and capital has not gone away. In fact, unlike creepily reverential young Tory bucks, it moved on from her long ago except as a sort of fairground animatronic to be wheeled out on special occasions.

Gloat all you like (and, in case I am being unclear, I will shed no tears on the day of the over-emphatic funeral). The Disability Living Allowance will still be gone in the morning.

A graphic depicting not least the heart rate of conference-goers this year.

David Cameron, looking tired and not a little strained, dutifully took to the stage at the Conservative party conference yesterday and proceeded to handwave for a while. “Our plan is right,” he insisted in reference to his government’s economic policy. “And our plan will work. I know you can’t see it or feel it yet.” He went on to describe the plan as similar to, you guessed it, building a house: “The most important part is the part you can’t see – the foundations that make it stable.” In the absence of detail or even underpinning logic, listening to this section of the speech resembled sitting through a sermon: the evidence of God’s existence is everywhere, oh ye faithful. It’s just invisible.

The week before, Ed Miliband hadn’t fared much better: “The tragedy of Britain is that it is not being met,” he intoned. “My mission. Our mission. To fulfil the promise of each so we fulfil the promise of Britain.” This sort of clumsy phrase-making marred and muddied a speech which some have characterised as wildly left-wing but which was in truth less coherent than a piece in the New Statesman by Miliband’s ex-speechwriter. Cameron had a finer turn of phrase, but the hollowness and timidity at the heart of his speech was also what, ironically, make Miliband’s sound scarier and more off-piste. There may be a bone to flesh in the latter’s speech, but all was thin gruel this past month. There has been a wooliness about the conference season that is symptomatic of a political class without the courage to spell out their nascent responses to dumbfounding events.

Even following Miliband’s mincing repositioning, it’s hard to argue with Dave Osler that the poor don’t have a party: each political tribe, and Cameron chases Miliband even as he mocks him (for instance on the division between predatory and productive businesses Tories had been lampooning all week), have focused on the squeezed middle. The problem, of course, is that the longer our political leaders opt to be mealy-mouthed the more likely it is that many more of us will be poor. They spent the last three weeks desperately trying to ensure nothing actually happened – a boo here, a catflap there were treated as cataclysms. There is much worse to come, and as Steve Richards so rightly comments today, no evidence in rhetoric or deed that we’ll have an answer when it does.

Lib Dem ministers eye up their latest crush

Are Liberal Democrats naive or merely foolish? This seems to be the key question of current British politics: their apparently genuine shock and amazement at the extent of the Tory betrayal on the AV campaign suggests that at the very least the party’s leadership were too credulous when negotiating with the Conservatives, or that the were positively cavalier, ignoring all previous experience in the face of an Old Etonian smile. The Lib Dems are notoriously dirty campaigners themselves; that they have been knocked for six by a Tory-funded No campaign that spared no one’s blushes, and certainly not the terms of some paltry prenuptial, strains credibility.

Labour, of course, were sadly split on the AV issue – not least because the party’s Scottish MPs, who saw their bailiwicks turn to Alex Salmond on Thursday, rely in large part on FPTP to shore up their  majorities. But it seems a trifle rich to blame Ed Miliband, a leader who continues to speak the language of the ‘progressive majority’ despite all evidence of its existence tending to the contrary, for the failure of a campaign  that mattered apparently so much to Lib Dems (though not so much that all the party’s supporters could bring themselves to vote Yes). The blame must fall on whomever under-estimated small-c conservative opinion and large-c Conservative dishonesty – and over-estimated the chances that the public would turn to constitutional revolution at the merest flimsy word from an admittedly cuddly liberal.

Nick Clegg will continue that under-estimation of the electorate at his peril – yet his transparent positioning on the rolling back of Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms suggests that the Lib Dem leader, who is oh-so bravely choosing to do away with a Bill already abandoned by many Tories, including Cameron himself, will forge ahead in the only way he knows how: blindly, but with an increasingly forlorn hope that something will turn up. One might welcome the demise of the proposed NHS reforms, but Clegg will need not to halt Tory policies already in the process of being abandoned by Tories themselves, but succeed in implementing Liberal Democrat policies which people care about. It’s not enough for Ed Miliband to invite Lib Dems into his own party – he should be supporting any sign of a sort of fifth column within the Coalition. But with Labour under-performing and the Lib Dems at such a loss, that Old Etonian smile grows broader by the day.

Over-stated, under-sold

Has constitutional reform ever been so unsexy? It’s hard not to see in Nick Clegg’s acceptance of the Tory offer to hold a referendum on AV the germ of today’s poll numbers: the problem with AV is that it only excites people desperate to stick with First Past The Post. Even the greatest proponent of the Yes To AV campaign can find only lukewarm arguments in favour of the system we will all be voting under should it prevail tomorrow. Most of these arguments have to do with how AV is not FPTP – and a negative argument is rarely a convincing one. The rest – that MPs will work harder, or that it will make every vote count – are various shades of nonsensical.

And this, of course, was always the Tory plan. AV doesn’t change the game so much as add a modifier; and therefore conversion to one side or the other is difficult. This leaves the sort of rallying cries and dog whistles we’ve seen each campaign resort to with depressing ease – because the aim can only be to fire up those already against voting reform, or to enthuse those in favour of it. I believe FPTP is unfar; I don’t particularly believe AV is the silver bullet. Nor do I believe that a Yes to AV will mean further reform soon – though I agree with Ed Miliband that should the result be a No, then there will be little chance of revisiting the issue voting reform for some time to come.

Thus, of course, the dilemma: faced with a choice between AV and many other alternative voting systems that could replace FPTP, I would not choose the Alternative Vote. Our Tory overlords, however, have connived to ensure I have only a choice between a broken system and a slightly less broken one (or one that’s still broken, but in different ways). Vote Yes, and I risk contributing to the adoption of a system I don’t like that much, either; vote No, and not only do I side with John Reid and David Cameron – I in effect register my disinterest in further debate on voting reform. In the absence of the zeal of conversion, however, both campaigns tomorrow face a referendum set to default – few have been convinced by anything more than their pre-existing prejudices, and the rest have largely ignored the whole affair. Does anyone expect turn-out to be very high? Thought not. Over on Labour Uncut, Dan Hodges didn’t need a crystal ball to call the result as early as yesterday.

Doomed to a forlorn hope and incrementalism, however, I shall vote yes. But as I do so I’ll hear David Cameron’s cackle all the way from Downing Street.

Ed's media strategy has become more complex.

Over the weekend, it was increasingly easy to tell that the Labour Party have invested in some press people. In December, Ed Miliband appointed two stalwart political journalists, Bob Roberts and Tim Baldwin, to his communications team, and their effect is already being felt: it’s not, frankly, that Miliband is saying much of anything that is different or new; it’s simply that he’s having more success in getting the messages placed. From his Fabian Society speech on Saturday to the continued positive coverage of the Oldham by-election victory, Labour are punching about their weight in column inches. Not all those inches are favourable – Melanie Philips today does her usual turn on the subject of Miliband’s supposed turn towards small-c conservatism – but, at a time when the Coalition are being talked about largely in the negative (either from the right or the left), this breadth of coverage is no bad thing.

They are being helped along by a Coalition agenda tottering under its own weight; appearing on the Today programme this morning, David Cameron was unsure on Coulson and under-briefed on the looming fight over the NHS. Nick Clegg, meanwhile, continues to get a bad press. Even Fraser Nelson has to admit it’s going well for the reds. Those rumours, repeated on This Week by Jon Cruddas, of an early General Election in May start to look more tempting from a Conservative standpoint.

After all, the news from Oldham East and Saddleworth was not all good: yes, Lib Dem voters switched to Labour; but Conservative voters switched to the Lib Dems in considerable numbers, and the net impact was, despite an increased Labour majority, a slightly increased Lib Dem share of the vote. That this still wasn’t enough to tip a majority of 103 towards Clegg’s party is a bad sign for them; but any nascent political union between the two Coalition parties is more worrying still for Labour. If, given time, Tories choose to vote for Lib Dems in other marginals, Labour will lose seats; whether Lib Dems will do the same for Tories, of course, remains an open question. Unfortunately for the yellows, of course, most of their own seats are Tory marginals – and it’s difficult to say how comfortable Labour voters will now feel in voting tactically.

So the picture is confused – not least because the AV referendum may now be delayed. But what is increasingly clear is that Labour – ahead in the latest polls by some distance – now have at least some space to make their counter-weight felt. Tactical nous is not strategic victory, however – and the party’s platform remains somewhat dazed and confused. A job for heavy lifting in the background, to be sure – but it means the Coalition yet retains the real, rather than the perceived, initiative.

Purposeful David is Purposeful

The developing view of David Cameron is as a reasonable pragmatist. To confirm this, one need only look at two recent BBC radio productions: 5 Days In May was a rather ponderous dramatisation of the coalition negotiations following the General Election, in which Nick Clegg was cast as a dithering bride, and Gordon Brown as the bombastic, dogmatic suitor. David Cameron, played with a hint of Hugh Grant by Samuel West, was the consensual new man, all understanding circumlocutions and soothing respectfulness. More interesting has been Number 10, in which Damien Lewis has played a bold and unideological Tory PM, a very thinly veiled Cameron stand-in, whilst various other thesps provide a West Wing-lite coterie of well-meaning but frustrated aides.

Both dramas could have easily taken their conception of Cameron and his coalition straight from David Laws’s new book, the rather less snappily titled 22 Days In May. Serialised in the Mail, Laws’s self-serving account of a glorious coming-together saves special spite for Ed Miliband, and depicts the Labour negotiation team not just as under-prepared – as Nick Robinson’s documentary on the topic suggestions – but actively mendacious (5 Days in May had Ed Balls bellowing at the Lib Dems about how they were stupid-heads – I exaggerate, but only a bit). Even Cameron’s humiliating climb-down after appointing Tory party photographers to the civil service payroll was spun as a pragmatist’s response to public outcry; even as student protests plunge the capital into gridlock, Cameron – like Blair before him – can pose, perversely, as peacemaker.

This is some considerable feat, and is achieved largely by force of personality. If Blair was warm and winning, though faintly studied and oleaginous, Cameron is cool but in control, though faintly aristocratic. Cameron’s strength, then, is his appearance to be driven by ends rather than means; his weakness will likely prove to be the very distance that approach implies. Fow now, though, what’s most interesting about his premiership is that, unlike Blair, he does not command his party: the radio dramas and reality alike depict, yes, a pragmatist – but one struggling to hold together a party often anything but.

Both Lord Young and Lord-to-be Flight have, in successive weeks, given voice to the right-wing passions and prejudices which animate Cameron’s party, to gasps of outrage and rapid rebuttals from Number 10. But this, too, is inevitably part of the PM’s public persona – the sense that he is constantly keeping the lid on the true motivations which lie beneath his party’s policy. This is a tension of public identity which Blair better managed to neutralise: all those ‘New Labour, New Danger’ smears didn’t stick. If Cameron can’t do the same (and it is this blog’s opinion, of course, that he can’t and shan’t), he won’t, alas, last as long as his forebear. Shame.

In happier days.

Labour Party members this week await with baited breath their leadership ballots. In less than a month, we’ll know the identity of the new Labour leader, and it is therefore no great surprise that the mainstream media has suddenly started taking notice. The papers were full this week of claim and counter-claim from the various camps (although Burnham’s and Abbott’s remain curiously silent). Most notably, the right-wing press has been having its say, and making not a little mischief: in the Sunday Telegraph today, Matthew d’Ancona encourages Labour to vote for their own Dave; anonymous Tory sources have been briefing the Guardian’s Nicholas Watt that Cameron is practically quaking in his boots at the prospect of facing the elder Miliband; and at the Spectator’s Coffee House, Fraser Nelson adds to the emerging Tory consensus that the only man for Labour is the former foreign secretary.

Nelson is honest enough in his piece to admit that, however under-reported the contest has been, it remains acutely relevant: Labour retain too many seats to be discounted as a political force. Indeed, going on precedent, it would be more unusual for them to lose the next election that it would be strange for them to win it. This alone makes one pause when considering the right-wing noises: do they really believe David Miliband is the best leader the party has to offer, or do they fear another in their secret moments, talking up the nobbled favourite in an attempt to ensure a cakewalk?

This was certainly Sunny Hundal’s view, and it’s gratifying to think that Labour remain such a fighting force that the Coalition puts such time and energy into fixing its leadership race. But Hundal’s belief that Cameron truly fears the younger Miliband seems to me wishful thinking. Ed’s article in the Observer today is thin gruel indeed: he’ll make capitalism work for the people; he’s for wealth creation as well as redistribution; the environment, about which he was once so passionate, merits an afterthought of a sentence; he attacks (rightly) the Coalition for having no plan for growth, but his own seems to consist largely of platitudes about diversifying the industrial base. None of these ‘policies’ – more properly, platitudes – is aimed at anything more than winning the Labour leadership; it isn’t a credible programme for opposition, let alone government – and feels in some way confected, to boot.

Compare this with Ed Balls’s speech to Bloomberg, also delivered in this week of increasingly targeted attacks amongst the candidates: Balls’s campaign slogan has become ‘There is an alternative’, ostensibly referring to the dreary Coalition consensus, but in truth surely aimed at voters thinking Labour is now a subsidiary of Miliband Bros. “Adopting the consensus view,” he argues, “may be the easy and safe thing to do, but it does not make you right and, in the long-term, it does not make you credible.” This is an obvious attack on David Miliband’s campaign, but it is supported by a depth of reference and policy which beats Ed Miliband into a cocked hat. Balls, however, remains hostage to his unbreakable alliance with Gordon Brown, and has little chance of winning.

David Miliband, meanwhile, was never a true fellow traveller of Tony Blair’s – described by the ex-PM as his Wayne Rooney in the dying days of the Blair premiership, Miliband was nevertheless replaced as soon as practicable as head of Numb er 10’s Policy Unit by the true Blairite, Andrew Adonis. He escapes, therefore, easy attachment to destructive factionalism. It’s in one way to his credit, however, that he hasn’t attempted to wash his hands of the government of which he was such a prominent part. With or without the support of Jon Cruddas, however, and laudable grassroots focus aside, can Labour afford to elect be led by another politician in favour of the Iraq War, or one who communicates in the same technocratic language the electorate have so clearly come to despise?

The decidedly cuddlier Ed Miliband currently seems a compromise between the likeable-but-sullied David and the combative-but-comprehensive Balls. But he is the sort of compromise which feels watered down rather than balanced out. We have a government whose supporters condemn the Institute of Fiscal Studies as a pinko outfit as soon as it disagrees with them (even Nick Clegg had a go); it’s even unkind to animals. Its approval rating dipped into the negative this week. Labour needs a leader who can capitalise on that: Sunder Katwala has some timely thoughts on not buying the usual right-wing warnings about alienating the ‘middle’, and the question is whether the siren voices on the right are playing canny or straight when they say David Miliband is the best man for the job. Alistair Campbell, for it is he, has his own thoughts on this topic. But whatever the case, the left shouldn’t elect his as yet under-developed brother just to be ornery.

Just good friends.

Once upon a time, accusing a politician of being messianic was thought of as a satirical attack. Tony Blair suffered more than many from the suspicion that his government was driven less by intellectual analysis and more by blind faith. The enthusiasm of many for the Coalition, however, begins to approach the reverence of a mystery religion. It’s reported in the Telegraph today that Cameron and his band of closest advisers prefer the Coalition to a Tory majority. This we have long suspected, but news in James Kirkup’s more detailed piece on the first 100 days of our saviours that Nick Clegg has been wining and dining right-wing Tories is more telling yet. There is a thrill for the new, a vaguely revolting smugness, about the Coalition, a ruling elite given the keys to government in a new and exciting way.

It wants voters, too, to believe that there is something new and fresh about it, but if there is it is only in its potential to secure a new Tory hegemony. The only real means of avoiding that is if Liberal Democrat votes change, and it appears that they may already be doing so. Even as their leaders are slowly co-opted into Tory circles – “We’re united by a common enemy – the civil service,” says one aide in Kirkup’s piece – Liberal Democrat voters will slowly come to see that the priorities of this government are not necessarily their own.

The indefatigable Mehdi Hasan put it well this week: Cameron’s emphasis on benefit fraud (it will be the “first and deepest cut” his government makes) makes only ideological sense; The Economist may applaud a ‘radical Britain’ tackling the defecit further and faster than any other leading nation, but this Coalition is no pragmatic union of counter-balancing instincts. Even where the Coalition can claim the highest moral ground against the Labour government – on civil liberties – they are turning their ire onto the poor, with forced credit checks proposed for benefits claimants.

That this is a divisive government is already clear: where Kirkup sees a brave and bold first 100 days, Hasan sees them as chaotic and embarrassed. But the most important division will be within the Liberal Democrats. Many Lib Dems still hope, messianically, that the Coalition can represent bold ways forward and positive, incremental change. The next Labour leader must be one whom those voters can trust, as their faith turns to apostasy.

Two People Separated By A Common Government

Nine months from now, we will be asked the following question: “Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the ‘alternative vote’ system instead of the current ‘first-past-the-post’ system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?” Nick Clegg will, in what is becoming his habitual manner, claim this as a great victory for his party with an uncomfortable mix of bashfulness and pugnacity. This was a shtick which stood him in poor stead for his debut at Prime Minister’s Questions this week, which hadn’t even ended before Tory spokesmen were insisting that the Liberal Democrat leader was not speaking for the Coalition when he declared the Iraq War illegal (and probably in anything else he said, were they to be pressed). Liberal Democrats everywhere must be heartened by the news that their Cabinet moles do not speak for the Coalition in those moments when they disagree with the Tory leadership.

In fairness, it is not just Liberal Democrats who are being shot down – if Vince Cable must still be smarting after summary and rapid dismissal of his graduate tax proposal, Liam Fox can be no less wounded by Cameroon insistence that his comments to the Telegraph this week that the UK can no longer defend itself against all threats were bobbins. Only Cameron – who this week seemed to suggest on his visit to Barack Obama that in 1940 Britain was the junior partner to a USA which had not yet entered the war – is allowed to make mistakes without condemnation being delivered swiftly and severely.

The criticism instead comes from outside the Cameroon Coalition. At the Coffee House, David Blackburn underplays today’s reports that David Davis has been calling the government the ‘Brokeback Coalition'; Blackburn’s probably right to do so on one level, since one senses a sixth-form joke about Cameron and Clegg somewhere in this. On another, though, it’s the sort of soundbite – a ‘from Stalin to Mr Bean’ – which can gain wider traction. More interesting, and yet along the same lines, is Chris Patten’s suggestion in a Straight Talk interview this weekend that the government risks seeming ‘breathless’. Patten is ideologically no die-hard enemy of Cameron’s project; his criticism is constructive, but hints that the competing messages, and messy initiatives, which have begun to characterise what had at first seemed a solid start by the government risk coming to define it.

The Telegraph profiles Francis Maude this morning, suggesting that, in his position at the centre of the Cameroon networks, he resembles a Tory Mandelson. If this were true, one might detect a greater intellectual centre of gravity in the government. The Coalition is in a rush to dismantle things – Labour’s legacy, the state, what it perceives to be civil rights infringements – but no coherence is emerging out of the babble. If this continues, then nine months from now we may answer that question in a radically different context.

"Look, ma - no proles!"

“Public-sector pensions are like lollipops for kids.” If a quote from a figure in the new Tory (sorry, Coalition) administration has revealed more about the way in which it conceives the world, I’ve yet to find it. Quoted in today’s Telegraph, Richard Balfe explains the government’s approach to public sector negotiation. Mr Balfe is – ha – David Cameron’s envoy to the unions, and his position is simple: pensions will be used as a cosh with which to force unions to accept the swingeing cuts (£100bn over 5 years) George Osborne announced in this week’s Budget. We’re not so much all in this together as all under the same thumb.

This week’s Budget still didn’t please everyone on the right – two blogs at The Spectator, one from Andrew Haldenby and another from Matthew Sinclair, expressed early on the insatiable lust on the right for unravelling the state. But coverage from the Tory press was largely swooning – the Torygraph’s sketchwriter, Andrew Gimson, has never been quite so panting, for instance. Indeed, it’s hard to see the Liberal Democrat influence in the programme detailed by Osborne – one might emphasise the rise in Capital Gains Tax, except that it is so woefully far from being in line with income taxation that it makes a better argument for the strength of Tory backbenchers. If you were so minded, you might also point to the lift in the lowest rate of income tax. Certainly, Clegg was tugging his forelock in gratitude in the chamber. But this is small recompense for the party and its supporters.

Certainly, Cameron has made it known that, when he goes on holiday in August and on paternity leave in September, he won’t be continuing the ‘carry-on’ of Prescott taking over from Blair. Nick will not be let anywhere near the levers of state, whilst his erstwhile deputy, Vince Cable, will be sent on to the first BBC Question Time following the Budget to defend the indefensible. Cable was a sorry figure on Thursday night, all downcast gaze and half-hearted, irritable retorts. The audience gave him a much rougher time than they did Ed Balls, who turned in a pretty creditable performance which will help his profile in the Labour leadership race. The hapless Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, meanwhile, was let loose on Newsnight on the evening of the Budget to be comprehensively bested by, of all people, Liam Byrne. The Liberal Democrats are providing inimitable political cover, but what are they getting in return if not power and influence?

Because you don’t have to take David Miliband’s word for it – the Institute for Fiscal Studies made it plain that this Budget will hurt the poorest hardest. It’s no great surprise that Simon Hughes has already indicated he might vote against the rise in VAT – Liberal Democrats representing constituencies like his, from Sarah Teather to Lynne Featherstone, will be loath to cut benefits, freeze wages, and raise VAT. If they don’t, Hopi Sen’s mischievous theory will surely be the only one which fits all the facts.

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