Tories miss Andy Coulson

It is easy to hate Alistair Campbell. He was manipulative, aggressive, scheming and deceitful. But Labour needed him. With forceful figures like Mandelson, Prescott, Cook and Brown all carrying mandates, things could have been chaotic. A dip in polls would embolden them to demand quick fixes. Campbell kept Blair focused on long term strategy.  
 
There is no one as good as Campbell at that. But as polls look bad for the Tories, the value of a second class communications director is suddenly apparent.  
 
The response to a bad poll is inevitable. Councillors panic. The opposition enjoy some limelight. Backbenchers demand a harder line on this, and a change of direction on that. Cabinet members push pet projects. Leading figures assert their camp’s agenda.
 
The man the Prime Minister turns to then is his comms director. Andy Coulson’s job is to back the PM’s strategy. He would advise against idiotic quick-fixes and instead stress the long term plan, ideas that fit it.  
 
This is easy for the Tories. The long term plan is on track. They knew as cuts were announced and the economy suffered, government would become unpopular. As the cuts bite unpopularity grows. Then, as the deficit eases and the economy recovers, vindication and credit can be claimed.
 
Without Coulson the PM has been distracted from that and has made mistakes. 
 
A siren probably sounded when some one suggested the anti-multiculturalism speech. Aligning it with a widely reported English Defence League march was clear idiocy. Bloggers, the press, and the English Defence League all claimed Cameron piggybacked on their cause. It appeared incendiary, opportunistic and poorly thought out. Pretending it was a coincidence masked nothing. A Comms Director would have pulled the speech, or better still would never have planned it.  
 
Then came the bank levy debacle. A story loomed about bankers funding the Tories. Coulson would surely have suggested distraction and to let it blow over. Without him they rushed an announcement to make the banks pay more. That stocked the fires ahead of the party funding story – and ahead of a negotiated deal that let the banks off the hook.  
 
Of course anger at the banks is, by nature, targeted at the banks not the government. Multiculturalism likewise is focused on muslims not the Prime Minister. So neither will swing voting intentions much.
 
Instead, the big mistake is the Big Society, which dies this week.  
 
Leading charity figures publicly wrote it off. Eric Pickles quashed plans to make councils maintain their charity budgets. Liverpool “pulled out” of the Big Society altogether, pointing out that it was not funded anyway so quitting wouldn’t hurt residents. Polls suggest the public think it’s a cover for cuts anyway.  
 
So the strategy is simple. Shelve it! No announcement needed. Talk about services run by communities, and a greater say for local people. Just call it localism. Don’t mention the “Big Society” ever again and soon enough it will be no bigger concern than the Dome was for Blair.   

Instead Cameron re-launches it.
 
Telling people, as they grow poorer, to be less selfish and do more for others is utterly stupid. People everywhere dislike like being preached to. They hate being called selfish and lazy. They dislike it most in a country with the longest working hours and fewest public holidays in Europe. Worse than that – the implication is already viewed as being that time spent with friends, neighbours and family is self-indulgent and consumerist.  
 
So lets hope Cameron’s new spin doctor sticks around. It was one thing ten years ago to lament the Tories as weak opposition. It would be worse for them now to be a weak government for much longer.

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Will the real Shadow Chancellor please stand up?

Philip Hammond launched Conservative plans for public service reform on Friday. The announcements received some press coverage, yet one of the most interesting aspects of the morning appears to have been ignored.

Luckily Westminster Village was part of the packed audience at the Policy Exchange event, because the Shadow Chancellor did something very interesting. To our reporter it almost sounded like an admission of his limitations. It might even have been an acknowledgement that the heir apparent to the Osborne baronetcy may not be entirely suited to the role of Chancellor-in-waiting.

The previous day an invitation had been sent to the great, the good, and us, announcing that the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury would be launching Tory plans to ‘do more with less’ at the right-wing think tank. The invite added that George Osborne would be introducing Mr Hammond.

Intrigued at the prospect of the Shadow Chancellor playing a bit-part role in a launch designed in part to overshadow leaked reports of the government’s work on the issue, we went along – curious to hear what the Boy George had to say.

Sweeping into the room Osborne took his place at the podium and provided us with a short summary of his conference speech. Again. Thankfully there was no repetition of the Disney-lite catchphrase reminding us how “we’re all in this together”.

Usual spiel over with, the Shadow Chancellor had a complaint to make. Labour, he said, had completely downgraded the role of Chief Secretary to the Treasury during their time in office. All of this would change under his reign, he pledged.

To what extent, we wondered.

Well, George told us, Philip Hammond would be at the heart of the Treasury. His role would be “one of the most important” in government. A quick grin and George took his place in the front row to allow Philip cover what mattered most after the buzzword-filled opening. The detail.

So had George admitted what we presumed all along? That he would be the one holding the red box and grinning inanely for the cameras whilst Hammond poured over the figures and hatched plans to restore Britain to more halcyon times.  

The speech was somewhat light on specifics beyond the ‘transparency, efficiency and culture change’ the party pledged to implement. The biggest announcement was the establishment of a Shadow Public Services Productivity Advisory Board which sounds more than a little similar to the PSA that Thatcher abolished.

Hammond also made some rather lofty claims that Labour had wasted £60bn a year on the public sector which conveniently ignored the state it had been reduced to by 1997.

Regardless of the issues we have with the content, what was more interesting was Hammond himself. He spoke with a confidence and competence that Osborne has yet to demonstrate.

Despite protests that he would never write Osborne’s budget for him, a telling moment followed. Using a rather stretched metaphor, he announced that he saw his role in the next Tory government as that of “ensuring that the machinery in the engine room of government is calibrated to deliver a continuous stream of productivity improvements”.

A convoluted way of telling us he was the power behind the throne? Judging by Friday morning’s performance it appears so.

Of course George Osborne’s credentials have been called into question on numerous occasions. He has also been accused of retaining the job either because of his close friendship with David Cameron or because of the sway he holds within the party due to his vast wealth and useful contacts.

There are even some who argue that Hammond is preparing to do the real work at Number 11 whilst Osborne merely ratchets up his rhetoric. And for the first time both men appear to have tacitly acknowledged there is more than a degree of substance to that.

Floody Tories

Cumbria, in case anyone remains oblivious to the news, is very wet right now. A foot of rain fell in one day about a week ago and many more inches have fallen since. Yet the political storm has yet to hit.

The press has bombarded us with images of swollen rivers and broken bridges, of waterlogged homes and communities cut off. We have even been treated to inspirational story of a dutiful policeman washed away while helping to keep others safe.

So far so apolitical.

Of course weather is sometimes very political. But this is no Hurricane Katrina. This is not a weather pattern tracked over hundreds of miles. White folk were not evacuated from its path while black folk were left to die. The recovery effort has not been fudged with fatal consequence by incompetent federal agencies run by unsuitable pals of an unpopular president.

Instead this is an unpredictable and entirely unprecedented event. And it is literally unprecedented. At no time in history has anywhere in Britain recorded the level of rainfall that Cumbria suffered in one wet day last week. Meanwhile those sent to put up temporary flood barriers and provide supplies to affected communities have done a stellar job.

But none of this can stop the matter turning political.

Letters to editors have started to hint ever so slightly that the public is ready to see the floods exploited. Some have attacked the Government for building homes on flood plains. Others have criticised the blocking of flood prevention plans that would harm biodiversity. More routinely people have argued we could spend more on flood defences if we left Afghanistan alone.

What these letters are not, is a signal to the Tories to go on the attack. Whether the individual points are fair or not, some egotistical nut will always write to the papers with their often ill-conceived wisdom. And in the internet age editors are keen to publish them if they court controversy.

Instead the Tories have a tricky balance to strike here. They don’t want ‘events’ disrupting the normal flow of politics while they have a large lead in the polls. Events are unpredictable. Appearing to exploit them can damage public support and turn people in favour of Governments. However, Gordon Brown’s popularity peaked when the country was hit by terrorism, Foot and Mouth, and flooding all at once in 2007. So events can’t be ignored either, for fear of leaving Labour to pick up easy points.

Various Tory MEPs, councillors and other bods have thus started calling for flood related inquiries. Their list of issues includes flood defences, the speed of response, planning, house building, and more besides. It is possible that this is testing the water ahead of a more focused line of attack. But it feels premature and disorganised, as though the individuals involved might just have got a little carried away with themselves.

If so that should worry David Cameron. His party is not on solid ground if a policy debate arises. After all, it was only a month ago that they ruled out the promise of a flood bill in their first term.

And consider that for a moment. Would anyone really blame any party for prioritising Afghanistan, crime, education, the NHS, banking, climate change and unemployment over costly preparations for weather conditions never before seen in Britain?

When the flooding subsides I suspect the answer will be no. And so does the Tory leadership. Hence their headline announcement today is on recycling, not rainwater. But they are now asking questions. They may do so quietly. And they don’t want answers. But they are asking so as to hint at Government failure and to foster a small degree of public discontent. And that is a shame.

It is a shame because the Tories want the public to stop looking to Government for answers to every problem.  And surely the weather is a perfect illustration of the state’s limitations.

Breaking a promise is rarely this easy

David Cameron broke his cast iron promise of a Lisbon Treaty referendum on Wednesday. And since then everything has gone his way.

The promise fell apart this week because the treaty was finally ratified. It is now the basis of EU law. Un-signing would thus need a time machine or, and this is even less worthy of serious consideration, withdrawal from a trading block that makes up most of Britain’s trade.

So the Tories got off lightly with their common sense and widely expected move. While the Mail and Express whinged from the sidelines, the Sun rewarded Mr Cameron with a double page spread in which to recast a new pledge. And this one should prove less brittle.  

Refusing to hand over new powers is easy with no grand new treaty in the offing. So he promised that.

A Sovereignty Bill to equip English courts to interpret European law will amount to little in practice. So he promised that.

And attempting to negotiate a repatriation of powers need go only so far as ‘attempting’. So he promised that too.

Promising future referenda if another treaty crops up is also a headline grabbing pleasantry. It won’t bind the future governments who actually face new treaties, but it does at least maintain a popular euro-sceptic tone. So he promised that easy to keep and ignore pledge too.

But the real boon for David Cameron has been the response from his party.  

The Expenses scandal saw a lot of the old guard stand down to be replaced by fresh-faced central-office-friendly newbies. And that posed a problem. It was too clean and too easy. The dodgy wing of the Conservative Party that the public didn’t like and didn’t trust was swept aside without a fight. All very fortuitous. 

This matters to Cameron because he wants to be more than the lucky General of misinterpreted Napoleonic fame. He wants to be bold. He wants to be strong. He wants to prove his will and determination to modernise his party himself. In short he wants to be Tony Blair facing down left-wing cliques in the 1990s.  

Lisbon has given him a chance to at least appear that way, though without the risk of defeat that came attached to a simple vote on Clause Four.

A large part of his party still wants a referendum. And they have, in small but noteworthy numbers, publicly suggested voting on a renegotiation mandate.

This would of course be a high profile waste of time and money. David Cameron always refused to extend his pledge beyond ratification for that reason. He knew the rest of Europe could and would just ignore it. And he doesn’t want his Ministers hamstrung by, or his Government judged against, such a mandate.  

So this can help his image.

Right wing oddballs from far and wide can condemn him as often as they like and he will relish them doing so. Lord Tebbit for example is appalled, while MEPs David Hannan and Roger Helmer stood down from frontbench positions in protest. Mr Hannon, for those who forget, was briefly but widely hated by the public for his outspoken desire to scrap the NHS.

David Cameron can stand firm against these people with little risk to his electoral prospects as they make him look all the more moderate. A greater concern will be losing votes to UKIP at the next election. But the impression that he’ll sacrifice votes to take a much needed “tough” decision will probably win round more people than UKIP can steal.  

So for all the pain that Europe has caused the Tories in years gone by, it seems David Cameron is well in command of what the issue means for him, and how to turn it to his advantage.

Oh, and being insulted as ‘autistic’ by a French politician hardly goes down badly with English voters either.