Saturday, October 22, 2011

Victory strengthens Cameron's hand against rebellious party

Of all the many factors that determine political success and failure, there can be no doubt that luck features pretty high on the list.

David Cameron has always been a lucky politician. He had the good luck to be elected to the Tory leadership at just the point when people were starting to tire of New Labour, and the good luck to be battling for power against Gordon Brown rather than Tony Blair.

This week his luck held out again, just at the point when it looked as though it might be finally running out.

Amid continuing fallout from Liam Fox's resignation and a looming Tory backbench rebellion over Europe - remember those? - news came through of the death of Colonel Gadaffi - another enemy in whom Mr Cameron has been fortunate.

When Britain first entered the Libyan conflict on the side of the anti-Gadaffi rebels earlier this year, I have to confess that my first reaction was: "Oh, no, here we go again."

At best, I feared another misguided crusade to foist Western-style political values on an Islamic country with no tradition of democracy, and at worst, a lengthy civil war costing hundreds of British lives.

As it turned out, though, my fears proved groundless. Mr Cameron promised that Britain's role would be limited to aerial bombing rather than boots on the ground - and he was as good as his word.

He also repeatedly stressed the importance of Britain's national interest in the removal of Gadaffi, rather than making the case for Britain's involvement on moral interventionist grounds as Mr Blair might have done.

The involvement of the former Libyan regime in the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher in 1984 and the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 was of course well-documented, even if only one person has ever been convicted of either crime.

What was less well-known until the start of this conflict, was Gadaffi's involvement in arming the IRA and thereby prolonging the bitter conflict that blighted these shores from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s.

In this respect, Mr Cameron was merely following in a much older tradition of British foreign policy - the one first established by Lord Palmerston in the middle of the 19th century.

"We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow." he said in 1848.

The danger for Mr Cameron, as the BBC's Nick Robinson has pointed out, is that having succeeded in Libya he develops something of a taste for military conflict.

In this context it is worth remembering that Mr Blair's first war was the successful intervention in Kosovo, not the later much more problematic entanglements in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Some credit, too, should go to Dr Fox who, whatever his other shortcomings, left the Ministry of Defence with a reputation more formidable by far than any of his short-lived Labour predecessors.

Having faced down Chancellor George Osborne over the spending review last autumn, securing proper ongoing funding for our armed forces may well prove his most important legacy.

Victory over Gadaffi does not, by any stretch of the imagination, remove Mr Cameron's wider problems within his own party.

His enemies on the right are not in the least pleased by the substitution in the Cabinet of the right-wing traditionalist Dr Fox for the socially-liberal Justine Greening, who came in as transport secretary in last Friday’s enforced reshuffle.

They are said to be even more incensed by the elevation of a Cameron 'favourite,' Chloe Smith, to a middle-ranking Treasury job, ahead of what they see as more talented, but also more right-wing, rivals.

And above all, they are up in arms over the imposition of a three-line whip against plans to hold a referendum on EU membership in 2013, due to be debated in the Commons next week.

With mounting concern over the implications of the Eurozone bailout, this last issue has the potential to be as toxic for Mr Cameron as it was in the 1990s for his predecessor-but-three, John Major.

Unless the three-line whip is modified, there may well be resignations in the government’s junior ranks.

But in his calm and authoritative handling of the Libyan conflict, Mr Cameron has once again demonstrated why he is vastly more popular than his party.

And so long as that remains the case, they won’t dare push him too far.

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

A tale of two reshuffles

A couple of months back, I wrote a column highlighting the absence this year of one of the hitherto regular features of the political scene – the summer Cabinet reshuffle.

Partly this could be attributed to David Cameron’s hatred of them. He had made clear he saw no purpose in shifting ministers around every 12 months, and wanted his team to stay in place for the duration of the five-year Parliament.

But while the Prime Minister should doubtless be applauded for such good intentions, politicians are always ultimately at the mercy of events.

And with the departure of Dr Liam Fox from the government yesterday afternoon after a week or more of damaging allegations about his links to unofficial adviser Adam Werrity, Mr Cameron has been forced to have a reshuffle after all – an Indian summer reshuffle, if you like.

Alastair Campbell famously said that if a story about a beleaguered minister ran for more than ten days it constituted a genuine crisis management situation rather than a mere media frenzy, and Dr Fox had already passed this point.

Whether or not he is found to have breached the ministerial code – Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell has yet to reveal his findings – the former defence secretary’s behaviour has been extraordinary by any standards.

I would be the last person to condemn politicians for needing to let off steam occasionally, but most of our elected representatives manage to do that without adding a day onto an official overseas trip in order to stage a boozy party with their mates in Dubai.

But if that element of the story was somewhat comical, more serious was the suggestion that Dr Fox had created a parallel foreign policy operation, with the help of ‘advisers’ paid for by a shady bunch of right-wing ideologues.

Dr Fox owed his position in the Cabinet to having come a good third in the 2005 Tory leadership contest, and to his status as the unofficial leader of the ‘traditionalist’ Tory right.

It partially explains why, even allowing for his dislike of reshuffles, Mr Cameron appears to have fought unusually hard to retain the defence secretary, long after his departure had begun to assume a certain inevitability.

It is hard enough for Mr Cameron trying to hold together the coalition with the Liberal Democrats, while also trying to hold together the coalition of left and right, Europhiles and Eurosceptics, social liberals and traditionalists within his own party.

His appointment of transport secretary Philip Hammond as Dr Fox’s successor last night will have been calibrated not to upset that delicate balance, as well as keep the changes in government to a minimum.

In contrast to the Prime Minister, Labour leader Ed Miliband was so keen to have a reshuffle this year that he changed his party’s rules in order to do it.

The changes he announced last Friday by and large succeeded for the simple reason it did what Tony Blair’s reshuffles seldom did - and put round pegs in round holes.

So, for instance, former health secretary Andy Burnham, who had looked lost for ideas at education, moves back to cover his old brief, while the former schools minister Stephen Twigg, who returned to the Commons last year after losing his seat in 2005, takes on the education portfolio.

I am less optimistic about the much-hyped Chuka Umunna’s elevation to the role of Shadow Business Secretary up against Vince Cable, a man more than twice his age and with ten times his knowledge of the business world.

Nevertheless, focusing his changes on these three key policy areas makes good sense for Mr Miliband, as they are the areas where the opposition most needs to make political headway over the coming months.

The government may have won a narrow victory in the Lords this week over its controversial health reforms, but the issue remains a toxic one for the coalition and a potential election-loser for Mr Cameron.

For now, however, Labour will be content to have secured the unexpected scalp of a man who two weeks ago seemed secure in his role as one of the most senior ministers in the government.

How many more unwanted reshuffles will Mr Cameron be forced to perform before he comes to realise they are simply part of the territory.

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Saturday, October 08, 2011

Cameron's glass may be half-full - but the policy cupboard remains half-empty

It is generally true to say that in order to be successful in politics, you have to be capable of conveying a sense of optimism about your country and its future.

One of Tony Blair's key strengths at the start of his leadership was his ability to communicate a vision of a bright 'New Britain' in contrast to the greyness of the John Major years.

Later, David Cameron donned the same mantle, exhorting the voters to "let sunshine win the day" as he pitched himself against a tired old Labour government.

But there can come a time when optimism crosses the line into mere boosterism, and in my view it’s a line Mr Cameron crossed in his party conference speech in Manchester this week.

"Let's reject the pessimism. Let's bring on the can-do optimism. Let's summon the energy and the appetite to fight for a better future for our country, Great Britain," he told the Tory faithful.

And again: "So let's see an optimistic future. Let's show the world some fight. Let's pull together, work together, and together lead Britain to better days."

If, by his own admission, Ed Miliband is no Tony Blair when it comes to speechmaking, then David Cameron is no Winston Churchill either.

And I sense that I was not the only one who was left somewhat unconvinced by the Prime Minister's attempts this week to summon up the bulldog spirit.

To take another of Mr Cameron's optimistic soundbites: "Right now we need to be energised, not paralysed by gloom and fear."

Yet in the eyes of many, it is his government which has produced the economic paralysis by cutting too far, too fast and choking off the fragile recovery that had begun to see us through the downturn.

In this context, the announcement of a mere 0.1pc growth in the economy during the last quarter could not have come at a worse time for Mr Cameron.

Against that gloomy backdrop, his attempts at uplift were no more persuasive than his earlier, now seemingly discarded mantra that "we're all in it together."

The most startling omission in Wednesday’s speech was the absence of any policy detail from the Prime Minister on how he plans to ensure that economic growth in the next quarter does not grind to a halt altogether.

“Here’s our growth plan,” he said. “Doing everything we can to help businesses start, grow, thrive, succeed. Where that means backing off, cutting regulation – back off, cut regulation. Where that means intervention, investment – intervene, invest. Whatever it takes to help our businesses take on the world – we’ll do it.”

Commenting on this passage on his blog, Alastair Campbell wrote: “What was happening in the Team Cameron speech meetings? Did nobody stop and say ‘er, Prime Minister, this is a bit embarrassing, and doesn’t really say anything?’”

Okay, so Campbell is hardly an objective observer - but he knows what it takes to produce a good conference speech, and he also knows a turkey when he sees one.

The background story bubbling away behind the scenes at this conference was the nascent leadership battle to succeed Mr Cameron.

Home Secretary Theresa May made her pitch for the affections of the Tory Right by inflating a somewhat tendentious story about an over-stayed student who defied deportation on the grounds of owning a cat into front page news.

Then, as always, there was Boris Johnson, the London Mayor lobbing his own hand-grenade into the Tories' never-ending debate about Europe by announcing he favours a referendum on EU membership.

And even Mr Cameron himself felt the need to acknowledge Chancellor George Osborne's leadership ambitions, jesting about his choice of The Man Who Would Be King as an audio book.

But joking aside, the Prime Minister should surely be deeply worried by this outbreak of posturing and positioning among the potential contenders for his crown.

The result of the last general election showed that the public are not entirely convinced by him, and I sense that his party are increasingly unconvinced by him too.

Do the Tories believe that Mr Sunshine’s unflagging sense of optimism will be enough to save them from the gathering economic and political storm clouds ahead?

Or are they already secretly planning for Life after Dave?

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Saturday, October 01, 2011

Miliband shows the extent of his boldness, but the reaction shows the extent of his task

Of all the many soundbites devised by Tony Blair’s speechwriters for their leader’s party conference speeches, among the most irritating was the claim that New Labour was “at its best when at its boldest.”

If New Labour had ever done anything remotely bold, it might have had more of a ring of truth about it, but all it ever really did was to maintain and entrench the political and economic consensus established in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher.

It was this implicit recognition of New Labour’s shortcomings which lay at the heart of Ed Miliband’s conference speech in Liverpool this week, and which gave Labour’s current leader his own, rather more plausible claim to boldness.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that, in setting out explicitly to overturn that consensus, Mr Miliband has made what was probably the most courageous conference speech by any major party leader over the course of the last two decades.

If anyone thinks I am overstating the case here, they had only to listen to the predominantly negative public reaction to the speech in Wednesday morning’s radio phone-ins.

Far from being a platform from which to relaunch his leadership, the speech left Mr Miliband on the back foot for much of that day, forced to defend himself against claims of a “lurch to the left.”

Does that mean the speech was not so much brave as foolhardy? Well, had it been a pre-election conference, then perhaps so.

But what Mr Miliband was setting out to do was not so much to secure a short-term electoral advantage as to change the entire terms of the political debate, and in this respect, he at least has time on his side.

Much of Labour’s week in Liverpool has been a collective ‘mea culpa’ for the failings and missed opportunities of the Blair-Brown years.

The warm-up act for Mr Miliband was provided on Monday by Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, who expressed his own regrets over Labour’s economic record.

But while Mr Balls was talking merely about some aspects of economic management, the scope of Mr Miliband’s admission went far wider. “We did not do enough to change the values of our economy,” he said.

While cleverly branding David Cameron – the youngest Prime Minister in almost 200 years! - as the “last-gasp” of the ancien regime, the clear message was that Messrs Blair and Brown were also part of that failed consensus.

Not the least ambitious aspect of the speech was its attempt to restore the concept of ‘morality’ as a defining feature of our political culture.

Usually when a politician starts banging on about morality it precedes a dramatic fall from grace, but the confluence of the MPs’ expenses scandal, the banking crisis and phone-hacking has created a moment of opportunity which Mr Miliband has not been slow to spot.

Having already made his pitch for the moral high ground by leading the attack on Rupert Murdoch this summer, the Labour leader sought this week to build on that good work.

Now that Nick Clegg has vacated the role, there is a clear gap in the market for a ‘Mr Clean’ of British politics, and Mr Miliband has an authentic claim to the mantle.

Was it a lurch to the left? Well, in the sense that it was setting its face against the centre-right consensus of the past 30 years, then yes.

But on closer inspection there was little in the speech that would fit any traditional idea of left-wingery.

For instance, Mr Miliband said at one point that “government spending is not going to be the way we achieve social justice in the next decade.”

Had Tony Blair said this, everyone would have seen it as further evidence of his determination to bury Old Labour-style tax-and-spend and shift the party several degrees further to the right.

When Ed Miliband fought his brother for the Labour leadership a year ago, he made clear that he thought it was time to move on from New Labour.

At the time, this came over merely an adroit piece of positioning in a party weary of the factionalism of the Blair-Brown years, but now it is starting to look like there was real substance to it.

The largely hostile reaction to Tuesday’s speech illustrates the scale of Mr Miliband’s task – but at least he has a clear idea where he is going.

Now all he needs to do is to take the public with him.

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