Saturday, June 02, 2012

Budget shambles bodes ill for Tories' election prospects

It was of course New Labour, in the shape of former North Tyneside MP Stephen Byers' erstwhile spin doctor Jo Moore, who gave the phrase 'burying bad news' to the English language with her infamous email on the afternoon of 9/11.

But to be fair, it was neither her nor even her party which first invented the concept.  Her mistake was simply to be too brutally explicit about a practice that all modern governments have to a greater or lesser extent engaged in.

This current one is no exception, although its methods of news management at times lack the subtlety that, Ms Moore aside, was often the hallmark of New Labour’s.

This week it appeared to decide that the best such method would be to get as much bad news as possible out of the way before the Jubilee weekend, perhaps in the hope that four days of patriotic partying will mean it is all forgotten by Wednesday.

In this sense it reminded me of one of the standard news management techniques employed by governments of right and left throughout my time reporting on Westminster.

Each year, without fail, the last afternoon before the start of the summer recess would see hundreds of parliamentary answers covering all manner of embarrassing subjects dumped in the Press Gallery - just as most of us were preparing to toast the end of the political year over a few jars.

Then again, if you are going to be forced into the embarrassment of conducting no fewer than three U-turns over measures announced in the Budget, you may as well get them out there in the course of the same 48-hour period.

And if in so doing you can also manage to distract attention from the fact that your Culture Secretary sent James Murdoch a congratulatory message on the progress of his takeover bid for BSkyB on the day the said minister was given responsibility for deciding the outcome of it, then so much the better.

Cynical?  Well, it sort of goes with the territory.  But the point is, so is much of the general population when it comes to politics these days, leaving a question mark over whether such obvious news management techniques actually work any more.

Whether it was Chancellor George Osborne who was trying to take the heat off Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt or perhaps even vice-versa, both men have ended the week looking somewhat diminished.

Mr Hunt’s position remains the most precarious of the two.  Although Prime Minister David Cameron continues to insist he has done nothing wrong, Labour is to force a Commons vote on whether he has breached the ministerial code.

He may survive that ordeal, but he surely cannot survive too many more embarrassing revelations about his links with the Murdoch Empire and his obvious cheerleading of the BskyB bid.

But while Mr Hunt’s recent travails have probably put an end to his hopes of one day succeeding Mr Cameron, Mr Osborne’s has undoubtedly been the greater fall from grace.

Okay, so his job is not under any immediate threat, but his reputation as the Tories’ strategic genius - even his opponent Ed Balls once called him the best politician in the Tory Party – is probably damaged beyond repair.

Did no-one tell him it was not such a great idea for a seriously wealthy, Old Etonian Chancellor to slap a tax increase on a product which, rightly or wrongly, is largely associated with the ‘working man?’

Did no-one tell him that cutting off a key source of funding to charities at a time when the Tories are trying to build a ‘Big Society’ was not exactly joined-up government?

For all the sound and fury surrounding phone hacking and the Leveson Inquiry, the Conservatives will not ultimately win or lose the next election over the question of whether Mr Cameron got too close to Mr Murdoch and his lieutenants.

They will win or lose it on Mr Osborne’s handling of the economy, and specifically on whether he has managed to tackle the deficit and get UK plc growing again.

With the current Parliament now approaching its half-way point, this year’s Budget needed to be a success, providing a springboard for the recovery the Tories hope will see them through to victory in 2015.

The fact that it has now turned into a shambles of the highest order does not augur well for the government’s prospects.

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