Saturday, April 28, 2012

The end of the beginning

Honeymoon period is doubtless an overworked term in politics – but all governments to some extent or other tend to enjoy a period of time in which the prevailing public attitude towards them is one of general goodwill.

Tony Blair was lucky enough that his lasted nearly five years, though that was in part down to the general uselessness of the Tory opposition of the time and the benign economic climate which he had inherited.

The public enthusiasm generated by the formation the Coalition government in 2010 was never quite on the scale of that which greeted Mr Blair’s arrival in 1997, and hence was never likely to last quite as long.

Nevertheless until relatively recently, the government was still widely seen as competent, and though its economic policies may have polarised opinion in some quarters, the press and public were still tending to give it the benefit of the doubt.

All that started to change with the Budget. The granny tax, the pasty tax and the row over tax relief on charitable giving combined to make this the biggest PR disaster to come out of the Treasury since Gordon Brown’s 75p pension increase.

There followed the woeful mishandling of the prospect of an Easter fuel strike, leading to what turned out to be a quite unnecessary spate of panic buying.

The government’s difficulties continued with the fiasco over the attempted deportation of Abu Qatada after the Jordanian terror suspect’s lawyers ran rings round Home Secretary Theresa May.

And by the end of last week, the run of mishaps had even acquired a name: omnishambles.

Things got no better at the start of this week as outspoken Tory backbencher Nadine Dorries tore into Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne, branding them “arrogant posh boys who don’t know the price of milk.”

Then Jeremy Hunt, one of David Cameron's closest Cabinet allies and a potential future Tory leader, found himself accused of operating a ‘back channel’ of communication with the media mogul Rupert Murdoch during his bid for BskyB.

His special adviser took the rap and resigned, but this failed to quell opposition demands for Mr Hunt himself to fall on his sword.

It brought forth the wounding jibe from Labour’s Dennis Skinner: “When posh boys are in trouble, they sack the servants.”

But all of this really pales into insignificance besides the news that was delivered by the Office for National Statistics on Wednesday morning: that the government had, after all, led us into the dreaded double-dip recession.

Months of Labour warnings that the government was cutting too far, too fast were suddenly and dramatically vindicated.

It is too early to say whether it will prove to be a political game changer on the scale of, say the 1992 ERM debacle or Mr Brown’s election-that-never-was in 2007.

But it does, almost certainly, mean the end of a period in which the government’s claims about the economy have generally been given greater credibility than the opposition’s.

The politician whose personal fortunes have most closely mirrored those of the government over the past six weeks is Mr Osborne.

He has gone from being seen as the strategic genius of the Tory benches to being widely blamed for many of the government’s current difficulties.

The corresponding beneficiaries are Boris Johnson – Mr Osborne’s main rival for the future Tory leadership – and of course the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls.

As the former Labour special adviser Dan Hodges put it in the Daily Telegraph: “Ed Balls has won the right to be listened to now. That doesn’t mean people will automatically agree with what he says. But they will listen.”

In the light of the ONS figures though, perhaps the most damaging attack on the government last week came not from Mr Balls or even Mr Skinner, but from Ms Dorries.

The particularly lethal nature of her comments is that they play into a growing preconception about Messrs Cameron and Osborne that is being heightened by the worsening economic conditions.

A Prime Minster can get away with being a posh boy so long as he is competent on the one hand, and empathetic to the plight of those worse off than himself on the other.

On both of those scores, Mr Cameron is currently being found wanting.

1 comment:

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