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The Prime Minister’s dilemmas

Last Updated: Friday, November 19th, 2010

Here’s a classic dilemma for Prime Ministers.  A Minister is in trouble with the media.  If you back him, the papers and bloggers pile on the pressure.  The word goes around that you’re “stubborn” (not to mention out of touch).  But if you sack him, it’s said that you’re “weak” (or, if matters get really out of hand, “embattled” or, worse, “beleaguered”).

David Cameron didn’t lose a Minister this week.  However, he was faced with “a little local difficulty” over an adviser’s comments over lunch, a personal photographer…and a list of peers.  How he handled the cards dealt to him – and the media reaction – says much about where this Government’s got to, and where it’s going.

Take the personal photographer first, Andrew Parsons.  The Prime Minister never wanted him on the public payroll at all – the two men had worked together when the Conservatives were in opposition – but the civil service rulebook insisted.  Cameron suddenly found himself under fire for apparently trying to enhance his image at taxpayer’s expense.

The Prime Minister once described himself as the “heir to Blair”.  But there’s one sense in which he and his team are afraid of the modernising comparison with Labour’s most successful post-war leader.  They know that a line of criticism of Cameron is that, like Blair, he’s spin rather than substance, and are always wary of it taking root.

The core of the Parsons problem was the appointment of former advisers as temporary civil servants – a consequence of not appointing them as fully-fledged civil service “special advisers”, following Labour’s example.  Here was a classic illustration of the law of unexpected consequences.

So, faced with the choice of backing or sacking Parsons, he sacked him from the public payroll.  Similarly, he swiftly fired Lord Young, a former Thatcher Cabinet Minister and his business adviser, when the latter dismissed the coming pain of the next few years by saying that most people have “never had it so good” (echoing Harold Macmillan, who also minted the “little local difficulty” phrase).

So why has the Prime Minister not been tagged as “weak”?  There are two main reasons – a minor one, and a major one.  The minor one is that Cameron had a stroke of good fortune after dismissing Parsons.  News of his climb-down was buried beneath the breaking – and far bigger – story of the engagement of Prince William to Kate Middleton.

The major reason is more telling.  Journalists like to write that the Government’s “honeymoon is over”.  In some senses, that’s true.  The Prime Minister’s personal ratings have fallen, as has poll support for his partners, the Liberal Democrats.

But Labour has its own problems, with Ed Miliband, its new leader, making an uncertain start.  Furthermore, Conservative ratings have actually risen since the election, and are hovering at around the 40 per cent mark.

Over time, they’ll almost certainly fall.  At that point, losing a personal photographer, dismissing an adviser or even appointing a new set of peers – Downing Street was nervous about the appointments – would have exposed the Prime Minister to charges of weakness, or worse.

But Cameron carried off his two sackings this week.  And his list of peers was a cautious enterprise: for example, Douglas Hogg, a former Cabinet Minister, wasn’t on it, almost certainly because of his difficulties over expenses during the last Parliament.

The Government’s already, of course, lost David Laws, the former Chief Secretary, over his own expenses – and in this Parliament, too.  The Prime Minister’s angling to bring him back.  If he does so reasonably soon, it’ll be a sign that he believes that he still has room for political manoeuvre after this week’s unexpected events, and doubtless others to come.

Paul Goodman

 

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE LAST WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME

 

The Guardian versus the Poor: At long last we have a government wanting to bring new weapons to the war on poverty. Where the Left emphasised redistribution and the Libertarian Right emphasised market forces, Modern Compassionate Conservatism is about active use of government to get people into work, build up the family and improve school standards. Moral superiority is in the DNA of Left-wingers. They lose all sense of proportion when the Right challenges that superiority with an alternative poverty-fighting agenda. Tories are meant to be horrid. They get up wanting to hurt the poor. To concede the possibility that there is a Compassionate Conservatism is too threatening to the Left’s identity and, as a result, the attacks on IDS are so strident and childish.  More: http://is.gd/hpxKg

 

Aung San Suu Kyi’s release is welcome, but by itself is no measure of change in Burma: “Aung San Suu Kyi’s release is welcome, but by itself is no measure of change in Burma”Aung San Suu Kyi’s release is as visually momentous as Nelson Mandela’s walk out of prison in South Africa twenty years ago. There is, however, one key difference. Mandela was released because F.W. de Klerk knew that apartheid was unsustainable. He worked in partnership with Mandela to transition South Africa to freedom, and Mandela’s release was part of that process. In Burma, there is no F.W. de Klerk, and no Mikhail Gorbachev. If the Generals have their way, there will be no change.  Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed not because Senior General Than Shwe, Burma’s dictator, has compassion, but as a public relations fig leaf to divert attention from last weekend’s sham elections, brutal offensives against Burma’s ethnic groups and the regime’s crimes against humanity.” More: http://is.gd/hpHvN

Chris Huhne should worry about warming Gran’s house, he can’t do anything about global warming: “There is going to be no progress on combating climate change for the foreseeable future. The climate change lobby was badly wounded at Copenhagen, late last year. Last week, because of the US mid-terms and the election of a sceptical Republican Congress, the lobby is close to death. Yes, we should continue to do green things that have other benefits (e.g. energy conservation). Yes, we should invest in clean technologies (but Dalibor Rohac sounds a warning on this). But no, we should not be doing anything that pointlessly hurts energy consumers, handicaps UK manufacturing and which does nothing to stop China, India and other energy-poor countries from increasing the world’s carbon footprint.  We need to do what Lord Lawson has long recommended. Get richer so we can afford to adapt.” More: http://is.gd/hpIs8

How Gerry Adams is spending Remembrance Sunday: “Why shouldn’t Fianna Fail and Fine Gael be brushed aside, if at all, not by a Party of the hard right, but by one of the hard left (though one not averse to a reactionary nationalism) – namely, Sinn Fein? Admittedly, that party hasn’t soared in Ireland’s polls during the last few turbulent months.  Labour, which is relatively uncontaminated by the Irish degringolade, is performing well.  But Adams sudden move to resign his Westminster and Assembly seats, and fight a Dail by-election, must be seen in this context. Sinn Fein is apparently putting it about that it may not win the forthcoming Donegal by-election which it’s been pushing to have held.  And Adams may not triumph in Louth, either: some see the move as a last throw of the dice by an ageing, sidelined politician.  Over ten years ago, when writing for the Daily Telegraph, I and others were haunted by the vision of “Weimar Ireland” – in other words, of our neighbour’s main political parties being shoved aside by a resurgent Sinn Fein, then on the rise in Northern Ireland.  Ireland’s boom laid that possibility to rest.  Now the bust has arrived.” More: http://is.gd/hpL95

Four appointments that would address Downing Street’s vulnerabilities: “Cameron is reluctant to change his inner team. He’s comfortable with the people around him. But this is part of the problem. Few people say uncomfortable things to him. The Government may be doing ok now but there is a tendency for Cameron’s machine to never operate at more than 70% or 80%. It coasted when it had big opinion poll leads in opposition (not in terms of work rate but in terms of maximising policy and campaigning opportunities) and we know what happened to those leads. It’s not maximising now and it’s not addressing weaknesses. Here are four people who would address some of the operation’s weaknesses: Charles Moore, Ian Birrell, James Frayne, Edward Timpson MP.” More: http://is.gd/hpLTV

Universities must have a role in ensuring that A-Levels remain academically rigorous: “What should have been tests of a student’s performance have been used to judge schools and the government. This has created all sorts of perverse incentives such as focus on borderline students and pushing all A-Levels to be equivalent to each other (for example Further Mathematics should be no harder than Mathematics). We need to take the opposite approach. Standards should be anchored in academic disciplines and change needs to take place in schools and teaching, not shifting the goalposts. In the case of A-Levels, this would be about universities having the power to ensure exams are set to prepare students for university courses (I have found that employers would rather have qualifications approved by universities than by a Quango for students that leave school at 18). This could be maintained with the existing examination bodies system and universities acting as custodian/regulator.”  More: http://is.gd/hpOam

The Conservative Party is dying on its feet. But whose Party is it anyway?: “The Party could decide to junk local fundraising, as well as local membership, and become dependent on a few big donations rather than lots of smaller ones.  This may be the future of party politics altogether, but it’s doubtful.  Westminster village parties with withering local roots leave themselves open to challenge from the left (in Labour’s case) and right (in the Conservatives’). Such new movements and parties probably can’t win enough support to govern on their own.  But they can make it very difficult for the two main parties to do so, either: this, arguably, is what happened at the polls six months ago.  But there are objections to becoming a Westminster village party at the level of ideas as well as that of practicality. After all, the Party now champions localism and devolution.  But is it to preach everywhere else what it won’t practice at home?  The Government envisages the Big Society, in which local people revive faltering institutions.  Is the Party itself to be excluded, perhaps uniquely, from the Big Society, and run from the centre?  Surely not: after all, “we’re all in this together”. More: http://is.gd/hpPyQ

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