Saturday, September 22, 2012

Clegg's apology will not ultimately save his leadership

Broken promises are nothing new in politics.  From the Labour Party’s 110-year-old pledge to introduce an elected House of Lords to George H.W. Bush’s infamous one-liner ‘Read my lips, No new taxes,’ history is full of instances of parties and politicians failing to keep their word.

But there seems to be something about the subject of university tuition fees which brings out the worst in politicians where keeping promises is concerned.

Back in 2001, New Labour went into the general election with the cast-iron manifesto pledge:  “We will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them.”

Less than two years later Tony Blair’s government duly introduced them, in the teeth of a backbench parliamentary revolt in which several leading North-East Labour MPs were to the fore.

If Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg had been more of a student of history, perhaps he would have reflected on this before issuing his similarly unequivocal pledge not to raise tuition fees in the run-up to the 2010 election.

Then again, had he done so he might have concluded that breaking promises is not necessarily politically fatal.   After all, Mr Blair’s original broken pledge on tuition fees did not prevent him winning a third general election in 2005.

By the same token, keeping your election promises is no guarantee of political success.

Indeed, it was Margaret Thatcher’s determination to stick to a promise to reform the system of domestic rates that led to the disastrous implementation of the poll tax in 1988 and indirectly to her fall from power two years later.

But for the Liberal Democrats, there was something about breaking the tuition fee pledge that seemed to strike at the heart of what the party is and what it stands for.

Partly because of its strong activist base in the education sector, and perhaps also because of its level of support among students, the question of tuition fees had become something of a touchstone issue for the party.

It was certainly one of the biggest reasons why, in the North East, the Liberal Democrats had become credible challengers in seats with large concentrations of students such as Newcastle Central and Durham City.

So in this sense, for the party leadership to change its mind over the issue was always likely to be viewed as a betrayal on a par with a Labour leader calling for the privatisation of the NHS or a Tory leader announcing we should join the euro.

But this is not all.    There was also something about the idea of breaking election promises at all that ran counter to the Lib Dems’ self-image as a party.

This is why the broken promise on tuition fees was such a watershed for the party – the moment it gave up – possibly for all time – any claim to be representative of a “new” or different kind of politics.

It is for all those reasons that Mr Clegg issued his videoed apology to party supporters this week ahead of what is certain to be a difficult party conference for him.

Whether it will do him any good however remains very much to be seen.  Many of the party’s supporters are likely to take a fairly dim view of the fact that he appeared to be apologising not for breaking the ‘solemn’ promise, but for having made it in the first place.

Mr Clegg finds himself in a strange kind of political limbo.  Despite the comments by Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott last month that any business that had lost so much market share would now be under new management, the coming conference week will not see any overt challenge to his leadership.

Yet at the same time, it is hard to find many Liberal Democrats who seriously believe Mr Clegg will actually lead them into the next general election in 2015.

The remorseless logic of their plight is that if they are to present themselves to the electorate as a viable alternative to the Tories as well as to Labour, it will have to be without the man who took them into a Tory-led coalition.

But that is next year’s Lib Dem conference story.  For now, Mr Clegg continues to inhabit the ranks of the political living dead.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Hillsborough: The apology still missing

After more than 25 years in journalism, much of it spent covering the political arena, there is little that surprises me any more about the lengths to which some people will go in order to preserve their power, position or reputation.

But in the week that the truth about the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster was finally and dramatically laid bare, even an ageing cynic like me has to confess to being shocked by the sheer scale of deception and disinformation involved.

Of course bad apples can crop up in any organisations, and sometimes, as in the case of the West Midlands Crime Squad in the 1970s or, dare I say it, News International in the past decade, this can extend into institutional corruption.

But the fact that so many pillars of the establishment, from the police, to the ambulance service, the coroners’ service, the judiciary, the government and, yes, the media could somehow collude to deny justice for so long almost – but not quite - beggars belief.

Looking back at that old footage of the disaster, it seems in many ways to have happened in another country, a Britain where football was still a working-class game and where the North-South divide was as much a cultural phenomenon as an economic one.

As Labour MP Andy Burnham put it: “There was an 'us and them' culture in the 1980s where people seen as being troublemakers could just be treated as second class citizens - football supporters, people taking industrial action. That was very evident in the North of England when I grew up."

Some believe it couldn’t happen again, that in the age of email, mobile phones and Twitter a cover-up on this scale would be impossible to carry out even if it were to be attempted.

Yet the battle to get at the truth of what happened in more recent tragedies such as the deaths of Dr David Kelly, Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson suggest that perhaps the country has not changed quite as much as might first appear.

If Hillsborough has been a saga that has showed the best and worst of humanity – and there are many heroes to stand alongside the obvious villains - then it has certainly also demonstrated the best and worst of British journalism.

South Yorkshire Police’s deliberate campaign of misinformation found a ready outlet in The Sun, whose then editor was this week forced, to use his own immortal phrase, to empty a bucket of something very nasty over his own head.

Not surprisingly, it was the regional press which demonstrated that journalism can be a potent force for good as well as harm.

It was The Journal’s sister title the Liverpool Echo which, as Labour leader Ed Miliband acknowledged on Wednesday, was primarily responsible for keeping the issue on the political agenda during the long 23-year fight.

But amid all the relief of the campaigners at having finally prevailed, there is, however, one aspect of the truth that is still to come out – the role of Margaret Thatcher.

The documents released this week by the independent inquiry panel make clear that the then Prime Minister was briefed by her aides over the level of deceit by South Yorkshire Police - yet she chose to do nothing.

Is it possible she may have felt she owed them one for helping her win the Battle of Orgreave in 1984 – a decisive encounter in the year-long conflict which ultimately led to the rout of Arthur Scargill’s miners?

She certainly cannot have been expected to show any instinctive sympathy for the victims, having previously been on record as linking football fans to the IRA and the miners as ‘the enemy within.’

In the midst of delivering his “profound apology” to the victims’ families this week on the nation’s behalf, the current Prime Minister David Cameron maintained that the Thatcher government had done nothing wrong.

Well, he had to say that, given the continued emotional hold that the Iron Lady retains over the party which he now rather precariously leads.

But it is nevertheless odd that in the week that has seen everyone from Kelvin Mackenzie to the Football Association to Boris Johnson forced to swallow a large slice of humble pie, there is still one apology missing.

From the woman who sat at the apogee of that complex, interwoven 1980s establishment, there remains an eerie silence.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Was reshuffle the beginning of the end for Cameron?

Much has changed for David Cameron over the course of his seven years in charge of the Conservative Party – but there are two aspects of his leadership that have remained pretty much constant throughout that period.

The first is that he has tried to avoid reshuffles as far as possible. The second is that in his efforts to detoxify the Tory brand he has, by and large, continued to lead the party from the political centre.

Well, it had to end sometime I guess. Two and a half years after taking up residence in Downing Street, he finally summoned the nerve to move some of his more middle-ranking Cabinet members around the political chessboard.

And in so doing, he tilted the balance of power within his government decisively rightwards – and away from that fabled centre ground he has spent so long trying to cultivate.

On the face of it, this looks like pretty poor judgement on the Prime Minister’s part. To win an outright majority at the next election, his party will have to win approximately 2m more votes than it won in May 2010.

Yet history shows that every time the Conservative Party has lurched to the right in recent years – most notably under William Hague in 1999 and Iain Duncan Smith in 2003 - its support has gone down, not up.

Mr Cameron's entire political success, such as it is, has been built on persuading people that he is not like those Tory leaders of old and that his style of politics, like Tony Blair's, is about reaching out to those who are not his natural supporters.

On no issue is the change in Mr Cameron clearer than that of the environment. The man who once rode a bicycle to work to show his party’s new-found commitment to the green cause has now appointed a virtual climate change denier as environment secretary.

Sure, the changes announced on Tuesday may well bring about some superficial advances in terms of both service delivery and presentation.

On the latter score in particular, new health secretary Jeremy Hunt will surely be an improvement on the hapless Andrew Lansley who, in the words of one commentator, “could not sell gin to an alcoholic.”

But these are trifling gains when set against the central strategic error of failing to recognise that parties struggling to hold onto their support rarely solve their problems by retreating into their ideological comfort zone.

Indeed, it is tempting to believe the entire exercise was less a considered piece of political strategizing than an act of petulance designed to put the Liberal Democrats in their place following the spat over Lords reform and the boundary review.

With the forces of the Tory right now ranged even more formidably against him, there is no doubt that Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg will now find it even more difficult to persuade voters that he and his party are actually making a difference in government.

Meanwhile Labour leader Ed Miliband continues to make mischief by teasingly holding out the prospect of a post-Clegg, post-election Lib-Lab deal with ‘continuity SDP’ leader Vince Cable in the deputy PM role.

But inept as it may have been to drive his Coalition partners further into the hands of the enemy, even more ham-fisted was the Prime Minister’s treatment of his erstwhile transport secretary, Justine Greening.

Mr Cameron’s decision to remove her, apparently for having reaffirmed the government’s policy to rule out a third runway at Heathrow, has handed his real enemy – Boris Johnson – both a key weapon and a key ally in his campaign to replace the Tory leader.

The long-simmering battle between the two men has now moreorless descended into open warfare, with the London Mayor angrily denouncing Ms Greening’s demotion and demanding a statement ruling out a third runway for good.

Ms Greening – a former Treasury minister, take note – must now be odds-on to become Boris’s first Chancellor if he ever makes it into Number Ten – a double case of Blond(e) Ambition.

Hence a reshuffle that was supposed to relaunch Mr Cameron’s premiership has simultaneously risked alienating floating voters, angered his Coalition partners, and handed his main internal rival a big stick with which to beat him over the head.

From that perspective, it is tempting to see it as not so much a new dawn for his government, but the beginning of the end.