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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Could Clegg stitch up his own party?

 

Lib Dems are biting their nails. Party activists, local councillors, and millions of committed voters are all very nervous. And here is why. Their MPs are talking to the Tories and they don’t like it.

Of course talking is fine. Nick Clegg promised to talk to the biggest party and has stuck to that promise. The horror for Lib Dem supporters is this. The talks should have failed by now. There should have been too little common ground to last this long. Instead the talks might now succeed.

This is an horrific thought for most Lib Dems. They genuinely didn’t believe Mandelson’s jibe that a vote for Clegg was a vote for Cameron. I didn’t believe it either, and I’m no Lib Dem.

While the Tories have moved to the centre ground, they are still a right wing party. They want a small state, less redistribution of wealth, and withdrawal from many aspects of the EU. Some of their MPs remain homophobes, pro-life, and want to bring back hanging and flogging.

The Lib Dems on the other hand are left wing. Their leaders pretend to transcend “old style” left-right politics. But that was always a lie and the voting masses largely know it. Their success in recent elections has been about keeping the Tories out where Labour can’t, or about attracting disaffected young Labour voters who hated the Iraq war and tuition fees.

All of that means any deal to support Cameron as Prime Minister could see Clegg’s party collapse. Many members and voters would simply vote for Labour next time to get the Tories out. Others would leave for the Greens who they trust never to betray their individual principles so utterly to the right. The party might take a generation to rebuild. Worse still the damage could be irreparable and it might just die.

And then there is electoral reform.

Electoral reform is perfect self interest for Lib Dems. They want a more proportional system so they can get more MPs elected. They also, by happy coincidence, genuinely believe that this would be fairer and so better for the country. So in return for that real change members might hold their noses and support the Tories.

But that is a fantasy option. Electoral reform is after all, also perfect self interest for Tories. They need First Past The Post to shut out small left wing parties so they can win elections. They also, by happy coincidence, genuinely believe FPTP makes for stronger government and so is better for the country.

That means that if a deal is to be done, Clegg has to be very clever, very cynical, and very devious. In other words he needs to be an old style politician, and a very good one at that.

First things first, the issue of electoral reform needs addressing. The Tories won’t offer real change. So the demand needs to be watered down. Then the importance of it needs diminishing in the eyes of Lib Dem supporters.

Clegg has already started this process. Lib Dem MPs have stopped talking of proportional representation and instead talk of electoral reform. That is now giving way to talk of wider political change. On top of that, the Lib Dems should talk more about higher priorities like the economy and environment. The press is doing this for them, but the Lib Dems have to do it themselves and do it a lot.

All of that paves the way for telling members they should think of the worthier aim of serving the country, than specific demands like electoral reform.

Then he would need some fig leaf. This is where he should jump at the chance of a special commission or something similar. He should extend it to wider political reform too. And he should talk it up as a great move in the right direction.

Obviously such a commission is a stitch up. It is a pleasantry that will resolve nothing to the Lib Dems’ satisfaction. That is why the Tories suggested it. But that doesn’t matter. It would enable Clegg to pretend in four years time that he was tricked by the Tories. He could argue that he didn’t sell them out, he was just naïve. It would be a lie, but hey, this is old style party politics at its most traditional. And it works.

A rose by any other name?

Because too few Lib Dems would buy into such an obvious con-trick as a commission for electoral reform, a formal coalition may be off the cards. Fortunately a coalition by any other name might smell less pungent.

Clegg should rule out a formal coalition. Instead he can agree to back a Tory minority government. The policy direction of that government would probably be just as abhorrent to his members, and he’d probably get less of what he wants too. But this isn’t about good governance. This is about party politics.

Supporting a minority Tory Government would be easier to spin. Certainly the lack of real political change would be easy to explain away. After all, the Lib Dems wouldn’t be to blame. The Government (Tories) would be.

Likewise Clegg might be able to convince his supporters that he only supports Tory policies that Lib Dems like. He would claim that the Tories hold off from their worst impulses if the know they need Lib Dem support in the Commons. Again, at best that would be an exaggeration and worse a bare-faced lie. But genuine accusations of the inevitable horse-trading might even rally his supporters rather than hurt him. Attacks from outside often do that.

And that is key. Any deal with the Tories would betray his support and everyone knows it. Most of all his supporters know it. Many will leave despite any tactical effort on his part. So he needs to help them pretend this is the least bad option. And they need to remain convinced, despite all the evidence, that their vote was not the vote for Cameron that Mandelson warned it would be.

If that is too hard, perhaps he can still walk away and deal with the rest of the Left. But don’t underestimate the role time plays. The longer the talks go on, the more Lib Dems will cease to be shocked. The more they will resign themselves to what may start to feel inevitable. And as that happens their desire to think well of their party and view their own vote positively will lead them to find their own mitigations and justifications for the betrayal.

Political climate change

America has been abuzz with talk of tea-party moments this week. Obama’s gloss has dulled and his party took a pasting on home turf. In England, maybe because we can’t stand to think of all that wasted tea, there are slower changes underway.  

In the last few years I can think of just one tea-party moment; one moment at which politics changed instantly. That moment was the cancelled election. Brown was popular and about to consolidate power with a snap election in which a divided opposition had little hope of success. Then he was weak and feeble and clinging to power until the newly united Tory party inevitably swept to power.

That has been the established climate for a couple of years now. The weather changes from day to day, but the backdrop has stayed constant.

Until recently.

Gordon Brown has been “winning” Prime Minister’s question time for a few months now. He has been more confident in public appearances. Highlighting how in touch the Tories aren’t has also helped a little. But all of that is superficial.

What has really changed is an atmosphere. Labour have changed, subtly and without announcement, from no-hopers to underdogs over the course of a few months.  

Part of that change is inevitable election upswing.  

Firstly pundits get nervous. Most political hacks can be summed up thus. They are politicians who lack the courage to face the scrutiny of a ballot box. Two years before an election they can declare the result with a certainty and pretend to be experts. No one will call them to task if they are wrong years later. With an election looming they get nervous. They edge their bets and muddy the waters so they sound expert but can’t be out and out wrong. So Labour are no longer dead in the water. Instead nothing is certain and “elections are unpredictable.”   

Secondly, the public start to care. People generally drift along with an all-knowing air of negativity. Those who argue that, for example, NHS waiting times have come down, sound endearingly naïve or awfully corrupt. But with an election coming the default setting shuts off. That waiting times have fallen becomes important. People weigh the good against the bad instead of just weighing the bad and ignoring the good. So inevitably that benefits the government.

This seasonal upturn for the Government would mean little normally. But Labour are capitalising. 

The attempted coup a couple of weeks ago fell about as flat as a coup could. It was led by two transparently bitter former ministers. It was backed by the usual gaggle of marginal misfits. Ministers who might be future leaders all backed Brown. Even those of us who love insider intrigue couldn’t sound convincing as we said this weakened the Prime Minister.

Likewise, pick up a paper and you’ll find talk of energy, Iraq and economic upturn. What you’ll see little of, surprisingly, is David Cameron’s latest policy announcement.

Campbell had a simple doctrine at the height of his powers. Stay in the news. Whether it was a new initiative, a response to some disaster, or being confronted by an angry voter at a hospital, he wanted the press to always look Labour’s way. 

That was a good strategy. It took the old adage that you don’t talk about your opponents – and extended it. It is no accident that since he re-entered the fray for Brown, Cameron has been relegated in column inch terms. Politics at the moment is focused on Iraq, energy, and the economy. And Labour are happy to keep things that way. The economy seems set for recovery, all be it a slow one. Iraq is long in the past and electorally of little importance. And energy is an area that Government can act on while the Tories are split about climate change. 

In short, Labour are the main story again. Campbell is clearly back in charge. 

And it is working. Snipes at the Tories are sticking, especially about their social status. That they are all rich and mostly born to money is now an accepted fact even if it isn’t quite true. That would mean little if their tax plans weren’t a list of hand outs to the super-rich. But they are.   

Likewise the Lib Dems are being used well. It is not uncommon now to see newspapers carry a Nick Clegg and a Labour story on the same double page spread with no mention of Cameron. Not so long ago Clegg was a story alongside Cameron while the Government was reported elsewhere. 

The change was signalled somewhat when Brown stated, with no mincing of words last weekend, that he wants a referendum on electoral reform. 

That is music to Lib Dem ears. And it is something the Tories could never offer them. In short, a hung Parliament would now almost certainly involve a Lib Dem and Labour pact, if only a short one to push a referendum. 

And that talk of hung parliaments is good for the underdog. It plays down expectations while playing up hope that no monumental defeat is coming. That is an improvement on six months ago. And it runs well alongside the edging of bets by newly cautious pundits. It raises spirits among Labour supporters. And it ensures wavering Lib Dems have a reason to vote against, not for the Tories. 

None of this will win Labour the next election . For what it’s worth, I still expect Cameron to enter number 10 in May. (no muddying of waters here). But it is good to see a fight being made of it. Labour led for years without opposition, and that can make for poor scrutiny. The Tories should not be so free for their five years in charge now.

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.