The great governmental omnishambles

George Osborne and Andrew Mitchell with Sir John Parker, chair of Anglo-American plc in happier terms before the reshuffle when Mitchell was development secretary.

At a fringe event during the Conservative party conference recently, former secretary of state for Wales, Cheryl Gillan said that in order for the party to win the general election in 2015 they needed to restore their reputation for competence.

She said the frequent and painful U-turns and political embarrassments such as the ‘pasty tax’ fiasco and the First trains financial fiasco undermined the Conservatives traditional reputation for order and competence compared with the ideological chaos and woolly headedness of the left.

However, if she told her MPs what she told the grass roots party members in the meeting, then it has obviously fallen on deaf ears.

Since plebgate, the furore over former chief whip Andrew Mitchell allegedly shouting and swearing at a Downing Street police officer who did not allow him access to the street on his bicycle, which was bubbling away throughout the conference season their record has read more like an episode of the Thick of It than the actions of members of the G7.

First there was the surprise announcement from the Prime Minister that the government were planning to force energy companies to put all customers on their cheapest tariff available, a move widely regarded as unworkable and anti-competitive.

Then, his already unpopular Chancellor George Osborne, added fuel to the fire by first dismissing the green lobby as the “environmental Taliban” and then instigated what Twitter called the “great train snobbery” by accidentally sitting in a first class train carriage with a standard class ticket and refusing to move.

What should have been a small piece of gossip for lobby journalists to pass around Westminster soon mushroomed into a minor political scandal thanks to an ITV news reporter, Rachel Townsend who happen to be on the same train and the modern, news hungry and slightly giddy force of hundreds of political journalists, bored and on Twitter on a Friday afternoon.

In the aftermath of Osborne’s ticket trauma, Mitchell was forced to fall on his sword by announcing his resignation despite being given the support of the Prime Minister and the 1922 committee of backbench Tories early in the week. They had previously derided calls for his dismissal as an attempt by the policing lobby to embarrass the government in shelving there cuts to the force.

George Osborne is not the first person to accidental get on a train with the wrong ticket and Andrew Mitchell is certainly not the first person to lose their temper with a police officer (although the typical person faces up to a £1000 fine for doing so in normal circumstances) but the in which they did it has provoked the ire of the public in the exact way the party’s press team was trying to avoid.

The long suffering Conservative party press team and their supporters in the right wing press have been at pains to re brand the Conservative party as a new, nicer antidote to the ‘nasty party’ of years past ever since the comparatively progressive David Cameron became party leader in 2005.

However the effect of their welfare cuts and their supposed assault on access to further and higher education through cuts to the Education Maintenance Allowance and the tuition fee rise has made the public turn away from their tentative (and effectively half hearted, given the election result) support for the Conservatives in 2010 and 2011 now that they the economy appears to be tanking once again with only millionaires appearing to benefit.

While instances of police abuse and fare dodging are not enough on their own to do much damage to the Conservative party image, the class snobbery that has tainted both episodes in a way the rest of the political establishment will not let them forget for awhile. This is especially bad when Ed Miliband and the left wing have controlled the media cycle for the past six months.

In the modern political era calling someone a ‘pleb’ and telling them to ‘mind their place’ is unforgivable (and would have been in poor taste fifty years ago anyway. Refusing to sit in standard class is slightly less of a PR disaster but in this current economic climate, for the man who is supposedly in charge of managing the UK economy it is especially insensitive.

So it looks like the upper class ‘nasty party’ will continue to dog the government until the next election (as Labour will never let them forget it). However, this tag does necessarily spell election defeat in times of economic hardship as the British public is always looking for a scapegoat to blame.

Right before they entered government, Cameron and the conservatives successfully changed the political narrative from the recession being cause by a global financial crisis that was exacerbated by the dangerously reckless actions of the world’s financial industries to a simple problem of spending too much of the government on public sector pensions.

And for at least a year, it worked. So did the proposed cap on child benefit and job seeker’s allowance. These were direct appeals to their middle englander voter base who have traditionally felt put upon by the UK’s tax system.

However, their cuts have become a narrative of ideological bullying of the most vulnerable members of society, particularly the obviously disabled, whilst the richest get away with tax dodging.

Now that the media cycle is against them, their only recourse is their traditional reputation for competence. The Conservatives, and stereotypically the right in general, have always been seen as the party that is strong and steady and not prone to internal chaos unlike New Labour under Blair and Brown.

Regardless of whether they agree with their policies or not, the Conservatives’ reputation as a strong leader is what the public want to believe in, in times of economic and social instability- therefore their constant U-turning and attempts to please will do nothing but ensure that Labour gets a majority in 2015, regardless of whether the economy improves or not.

After all, comparisons to John Major’s government between 1992-97 have been made frequently over the past few months, by 1997 the economy was in rude health but the Conservatives reputation was in tatters.

Cabinet reshuffles and looming election wipeouts

The Coalition Cabinet in the early days of 2010 before the axe started to fall. © The Daily Telegraph

Giving a speech at the 2009 EU elections results night, Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan delivered an eye catching plea for Gordon Brown to resign and call a general election. He had allegedly lost the ‘moral mandate’ and Hannan highlighted the farce of the political situation at the time by quoting popular children’s poet, Dr Seuss.

Three years on from this time when the strong, confident Conservatives were looking down their noses with glee as Labour slowly unravelled from within you cannot help but be amused by the irony of the upcoming, unprovoked cabinet reshuffle that is expected in the coming weeks. Or indeed, the news that the Liberal Democrat power base could be wiped out at the next election.

Every day the news seems to report another body blow to the Coalition as the Conservatives are still languishing eight points behind Labour  and the Liberal Democrats are even further behind on a paltry 10 points, only two points ahead of the UK Independence Party. According to YouGov (where the figures come from) if the election was held today Labour would win with a majority of 96.

To make the situation worse, the government has given up the pretence that they all still get along as George Osborne and Nick Clegg lock horns over Clegg’s comments to the Guardian that the rich should pay more tax.

With this government stuck in the quagmire less than halfway through its parliamentary term, its no wonder that the public mood is at dangerously low levels. David Cameron has to act now to break the spell and restore what little faith the country still has in him.

This reshuffle is designed as a shot in the arm for Cameron’s government; to root out naysayers and saboteurs and get the Coalition back on to track to Cameron’s grand plan: getting a majority in 2015.

Of course, the difficulty in this that Cameron is being torn in different directions by three groups with conflicting aims, none of are particularly interested in whether he gets to keep his job.

Cameron’s decision to shelve House of Lords reform may have been a concession to restore party unity but the result is this current deadlock. To friend and foe alike it made him look weak; it was a betrayal of the promises to the people and the Coalition partners that got them into this increasingly kamikaze government in the first place and to his enemies among the backbench of his own party.

Backbenchers have been grumbling over Cameron’s untraditional (for a Conservative) stance on Europe and gay marriage and are unhappy with the party entering into a coalition in the first place. Now that conference season is upon us, rising stars are looking to make their mark on the party and the press with headline grabbing speeches and the respective parties will be looking to consolidate with a policy agenda for the coming year.

Therefore now is the time for Cameron to quell the opposition to his agenda, or indeed his leadership. When he kowtowed to the backbench over Lords reform he demonstrated that he would back down if the party dug their heels in hard enough. Meanwhile MPs like Brian Binley are telling Cameron to mend relationships within the Tory party and stop behaving as the ‘Chambermaid’ for the Liberal Democrats and remind them who the senior partner in the Coalition is.

He is under increasing pressure to promote more right wing members to the Front Bench and get rid of some of the more unpopular figures; Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is reportedly facing the chop despite his claims that he is ‘totally laid back’ about the pending reshuffle. However, regardless of the change to the ideological line up of the Conservative side of the bench, Cameron is honour bound by the terms of the coalition agreement to keep five Liberal Democrats in the cabinet. So Business Secretary and Liberal Democrat hero, Vince Cable and  Minister for Scotland Danny Alexander look set to keep their jobs.

The Liberal Democrats have very different concerns when it comes to this reshuffle. Contrary to backbench opinion, the public feel there is little or no discernible yellow influence on the blue cabinet and that Clegg and his cronies simply decided to sell the young, the old and the ‘squeezed middle’ down the river in order to get a name in the political history books and possible a seat in the House of Lords one day.

Nearly every single one of the causes Nick Clegg championed when he gave the David Cameron the keys to number 10 have been dismantled or postponed and nearly every Lib Dem is getting restless. Since the defeat of Lords Reform, Clegg has declared open season on any and all Conservative policies he doesn’t like, including threatening to sabotage boundary change plans and criticising the Tory’s supposedly lenient tax policy. He needs to prove to his party (and the public) that he still has a backbone to prevent electoral ruin at the election. This uphill battle means he will continue to be a thorn in Cameron’s side and will not allowed his more popular ministers, like Cable, to feel the weight of the axe.

Then the third, and most important, group that Cameron needs to placate are the voters. When the election was held in May 2010 people (if not a majority of people) believed that if the Conservatives could cut the gross overspending by Labour, the economy would right itself and the country could go back to dancing on clouds and rainbows again. Fast forward two years and the economy has actually got worse now that we are in a double dip recession and the ‘deficit reducing’ government had to borrow money to plug a deficit in a month that is normally always supposed to run a surplus. Understandably the people are angry as they are losing their jobs and the props designed to support them when they do are being kicked out from under them. Meanwhile the Conservatives ring fence the rights of corporations and wealthy individuals such as their (politically foolish) announcement that they were going to criminalise squatting when thousands are already facing losing their homes.

One causality of reshuffle that is frequently called for his Chancellor, George Osborne. Having lost the support of several economists who had backed his deficit reduction plan at the beginning of his term, Osborne is increasingly becoming the target for people’s dissatisfaction with the state of the economy and his personal approval ratings have dipped lower than supposed Public Enemy Number One, Nick Clegg.

However, as Cameron’s best friend in government, Osborne is likely to survive. He may be the face of the ideology but Cameron is as much an architect of the economy as he is and there would be little gain from his removal. Whilst approval may take a slight upswing if he were replaced with the favourite, Vince Cable, it would not be worth the resulting destruction of Cameron’s power base within the party. Furthermore, Cable’s appointment may create a small respite for the economy as increased confidence in the Chancellor begets increased confidence in the economy which in turn begets growth; it is unlikely to have much long term effect if Cable is forced to pursue the same or similar policies to Osborne.

The whole situation is a political deadlock and it will be interesting to see if Cameron can get out of it, or at the very least keep his party together. Whatever happens in the long term public opinion is unlikely to be rosy. We can only wonder if any Labour MEP will be quoting Dr Seuss at Cameron come the European elections in 2014.

House of Lords reform and the coalition’s house of cards

A Broken Marriage? Cameron and Clegg
A Broken Marriage? Cameron and Clegg

In years to come, when Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg sits down with his ghost writer to pen his memoir reflecting on his time in power, he will undoubtedly remember the past few days. Its the kitchen sink moment, the hanging out the washing line reflection; the realisation that the marriage is over and there is nothing more you can do.

The people around him have known for a while, there are already rumbling over a potential leadership challenge from the left wing of the party led by Vince Cable. Given the way the Lib Dems have seemed to shed its leader every few years since the resignation of Charles Kennedy in 2006, Nick Clegg has done well to survive at the helm, especially since the beginning of the coalition in 2010.

The question is however, not how he survived this long, its whether he’ll survive in future. The ever controversial Tory MP Nadine Dorries, who has never shy about her contempt for the so-called ‘Posh boys’ of Westminster, said he and his counterpart David Cameron probably won’t last until the next election. However, this is probably premature as the Coalition is still unlikely to fall for at least another year or so.

The only thing that has died is any notion that this government is anything more than a marriage of convenience that is only sustained by the fear of reprisal from the masses in the event of an early election. Of course, this comes as no surprise to the majority of the country but the Cabinet can no longer pretend to play happy families when husband and wife are so openly attacking each other.

Nick Clegg and his Lib Dem ministers’ threatened revolt over boundary changes that would favour a would be Conservative MP is reminiscent of a wounded animal striking out fruitlessly in the hope of doing some damage. They stand to gain little from their revolt, this act will do little to regain the public’s respect or indeed trust, and will only destroy what little tolerance the Conservative back bench have left for them.

Clegg’s little act of spite will no doubt be an attempt to win back a small part of the respect of his party and prove himself as more than just Cameron’s lap dog. Whether or not it’ll do anything to earn back his party’s trust remains to be seen, but he still has a long way to go before he can hope to start earning the country’s forgiveness.

So what serious change will come about in both parties as a result of their respective scheming this week? Although Cameron’s failure to fight for Lords Reform has demonstrated he’s afraid of his own back bench which will do him no good when he tries to push through any more progressive legislation (a notable example being the Marriage Equality Act)designed to modernise the party’s image, he is not likely to face a leadership challenge. Whilst he may not be popular within his own party, their only remotely popular figure with the public is currently running London.

Furthermore, for all his faults, Cameron’s position on the Left of the party (relatively speaking) is what enabled them to (almost) get back into power in 2010. The years in the wilderness during the glory days of New Labour were compounded by the view that the Conservative party, and its then leaders; William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, were stuck in the mud and often just plain old. The ‘Soft Tory’ brand created by Cameron after his election to Party Leader in 2005 detoxified the Conservatives’ image as the party that helped Thatcher run amok in the eighties, the party of privilege and ducks houses, the party that favours the old and rich over the young and poor.

Cameron may not have been able to win them an election, but they still need him to prevent them from a crushing defeat.

So what about Cameron’s partner-in-crime? Clegg has fallen a long way since his brief (and more than a little premature, I thought, even at the time) crowning as the ‘British Obama’ by the Guardian back during the election campaign. From his position now as the biggest turn coat in British politics many would presume that his position is under threat from the increasingly mutinous members of his own party. However he is still likely to hang on till the next election simply because no other major politician is going to want to become the face of the coalition and man the sinking ship. Whatever happens, the Liberal Democrats are still likely to be crucified at the next election so the ordinary members will be looking to their own position. They hope they can convince their constituents that they are different from their party by making as much as noise as possible now and hoping things get a bit better if they wait until May 2015.

The biggest danger Clegg wants to look for is that the more left leaning Lib Dems that may even resort to crossing the floor and becoming part of the Labour party. Although this is a drastic measure, (the last Lib Dem MP to do was Paul Marsden in 2005 who returned to Labour having left in 2001 over the war in Afghanistan) because it means you sacrifice your local party base in your local constituency (those in safe seats wouldn’t dream of it for instance) but for those facing a challenge from Labour, especially in the student constituencies, it may be worth the risk. Clegg has to be careful of losing its MPs to the other side of the floor because every MP lost is a chip away at the slim majority the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats share. If one or two Lib Dems desert, Cameron may view it as a wave and see no point remaining in a harmful coalition when it can’t even guarantee him a majority.

Currently both Conservative and Liberal Democrats cards are balancing against each other, it only takes one to fall and the whole house of cards grumbles.