David Cameron

Cameron’s False Step

Memo on expenses seen as ‘invitation to deselect’ — The Guardian.
David Cameron has been sailing close to the wind for some time, but, now we see the first (to mix a metaphor) truly false step. There was already suspicion that he was using the expenses crisis to sweep aside the ‘old guard’, and now a leaked memo sent by chairman of the Tory National Convention (and Cameron’s man) Jeremy Middleton, has appeared to confirm this.

The issue is not that ‘bed-blockers’, as they are rather unceremoniously being referred to, should not be moved on. Actually, I would favour a system which created incentives for those whose political careers had essentially finished to vacate the House of Commons. Rather, it is that David Cameron has unmasked himself as an old-fashioned opportunist, willing to make the most of the old proverb about ill-winds, in order to turn a national crisis of trust into a boost for his own personal power.

Tony Blair accomplished something rather of the same sort when he faced down the Clause 4 people. But he did it rather better, and he did it very honestly, and a lot of people who disliked his policy admired his courage in doing so. Lest we forget, this is the Tony Blair before he became Prime Minister who was going to go on to rescue Labour from an 18 year electoral drought.

Are Old Tories the problem? Would the world be a better place if they were entirely replaced by New Tories? It seems to me self-evident that there is value in a mixed House of Commons — not all old, but not all young either. Not all worn-down by experience, but not all fresh-faced and accident-prone either. To my mind — though this is perhaps uncharitable — the acquisition of power and the exercise of its privileges, notwithstanding the opinions of the taxpayer, are the hallmarks of what the Conservative Party has always stood for. Under Thatcher the promise was that a greater and greater proportion of the population would enter this privileged state, which was the promise that lured Middle Britain (coupled with Labour’s abject failure in the Winter of Discontent). Lured it, and kept is skewered. Cameron may wish to take the Conservatives away from their past (although, one wonders, in what sense would they still be ‘conservatives’ if he did), but it is not enough to simply lead people away from something. One must lead them into something else. And it is this ‘something else’ which Cameron has failed to articulate.

To listen to him, one would imagine that New Conservatives are a posh branch of the Liberal Democrats. Green, clean, reformist, interested in the common man. The sort of local party you find in Winchester or Harrow. But — if you read Conservative Home — there seems to be no spirit of warming to the actual Liberal Democrats. The ‘Limp Dems’, they like to call us, accusing us of underhand tactics with out ‘Lib Dems winning here’ campaigns. Hatred of the Lib Dems seems to burn hotter than at any time since the 1930s.

There was a very clear neo-conservative ideology — almost a theology — set out in the Reagan-Bush years, and applied in the subsequent George W years. But that ideology is now largely identified with the trickle down approach of Thatcher-Reagan, and is surely one of the things that Cameron is trying to get away from. There was an older, kinder conservative ideology in the days of Ted Heath. But Cameron is clearly not advocating returning to that.

If he’s leading them forwards, where is ‘forwards’? According to Eric Pickles, 3,000 ordinary members of the public have written to him asking to be Conservative MPs. Evidently, those are 3,000 members of the public who believe they can do a better job than the current Conservative MPs. But what do those 3,000 believe? Do they believe anything, or have they concluded that the life of an MP is so easy that they have all the qualities needed, and ideology can be sorted out later. Because, truly, David Cameron has not told us what kind of Conservative party he expects, except that it will be a ‘better’ one. He has not told us what kind of MPs he expects, except that they will be more ‘honest’. He has not told us what kind of country he would like Britain to become. In as much as he has told us anything, it is contradictory. A Britain where taxes are lower, but spending is the same as Labour’s. A Britain which is more inclusive, but at the same time more anti-foreigner (or, at least, anti-European). A Britain which doesn’t allow banks to pull the economy down, but which simultaneously allows them to ‘flourish’ with less red-tape. Perhaps it is unfair to hang on Mr Cameron the promises he made before the credit-crunch came along. But, equally, if his policies were not suitable for a long-expected (at least by Vince Cable) and much predicted (again, by Lib-Dem Vince Cable) economic contraction, there is a real question about how valid or useful they were to start with. If David Cameron’s policy is no more than saying what is popular at the time he says it, then a Cameron Britain would lurch from one opportunistic position to another. Cameron leading Britain during a recession would be bad enough. Cameron leading Britain through a boom period would be recipe for disaster: he would stoke the economy far more than Gordon Brown ever did, creating the conditions for unwise investment and unbridled risk which have brought the world to its knees. We may not survive another such crisis.

No, ultimately, Cameron’s false step is not that he has angered time-served Tory backbenchers, but that he has revealed himself as a political opportunist.

Amid all the furore over expenses, it is political opportunism which we, as a nation, can least afford.

We should reform now, but we cannot transform until we agree what politics is for

Something odd and deeply ironic is happening. People who have never voted are telling us we voted for the wrong people. People who have invested their lives in being famous are suddenly deciding that they have the attributes necessary to run the country. Meanwhile, politicians that most of us have either never heard of, or not heard from for a very, very long time are coming out of the woodwork, blaming the system for their faults, or the public for its jealousy.

Reform is long over due, and the question is not really any more whether it will take place, but how far it will go. At the one end, David Cameron would like to change as little as possible and shift the bulk of changes away from MP remuneration. At the other end, persons such as myself believe it is high time for a fair voting system, a ban on MP second jobs, an expenses system which pays genuine expenses and nothing more, public accommodation for MPs, and an outright ban on profiting from the public purse. These are largely the views shared by Nick Clegg and Vince Cable, names which are curiously untarnished by the current crisis, and who therefore doubly should be listened to.

Reform is all very well (and, very, very essential), but we are missing something more important and more profound. Even if the Daily Telegraph had only been able to point to light bulbs, trouser presses, scotch eggs and the costs of genuine mortgages on second homes which had never been flipped, where the mortgage arrangements had been made to place the least burden on the public purse — even if this had been the case, many people who still have been very angry.

As a general rule, people are angry at politicians, and (in my experience) even angrier at people who are trying to get elected as politicians but who have not yet succeeded. Last year a man stopped me and asked me if I was opposed to some local piece of Tory nonsense. I said I was. This did not satisfy him. “Would you be opposed to it in all possible circumstances?” He asked. I asked him what he meant by that. He insisted that I give him what he called a ‘straight answer’. I tried to explain to him that he could probably come up with some kind of circumstance in which I would change my view, but that I was, as things were, completely opposed, and in any probable circumstance, likely to remain so. He wasn’t at all satisfied, and told me that it was typical of politicians not to give a ‘straight answer’.

But the truth is, I gave him a straight answer straight away. He then changed the question to the point at which no meaningful answer could be given. Why? Possibly he’d seen Paxman do this on television, but, deep down, I think he was secretly disappointed that I had given him a straight answer, and wanted to find some form of the question for which there could be no straight answer, which would then justify his belief that, if I was in politics, I must be trying to trick him.

The funny thing was, this was a man who had never voted, and probably has not voted since.

Do we somehow, for some cathartic sociological reason, need a class of people who are always in the wrong, no matter what they say? Now that people are uncomfortable about sexual, racial, gender, disability or religious stereotyping, are we down to the ultimate outcasts, who can comfortably be blamed in all circumstances without the risk of the critic being criticised for his criticism?

There must surely be more to it than that.

I went to have a meeting about the budget a few weeks ago, with none other than Vince Cable. The first thing he said was that MPs really don’t get to comment on the budget. The budget is set by the government, and either accepted or rejected as a single piece of legislation. Here was the man who probably (and by popular agreement) understands more about our economy than anyone else in Britain, and yet he can have no useful input in setting the budget which is the government’s fundamental economic instrument.

The truth is that parliament is still locked into a medieval mindset, where the will of the crown is put forwards by legislation, and the only restraint on the power of the crown is also legislation. Therefore, all that parliament can do is make laws. In practice, the group in parliament with the greatest number of votes also gets to be the government, which has essentially limitless executive powers (since we have no written constitution), except as limited by parliament’s legislation, or, more likely, by the constraints of time, money, and a guess about what will play well with the electorate.

But very few people, when they talk to would-be MPs on the doorstep, enquire about what legislation they are thinking of passing. Rather, they want to know what they will do if they are in government. This is touching, but fanciful. Most MPs will never be in government, because, even if their party wins a majority, they themselves will be required to play the part of more-or-less loyal backbenchers, or possibly and at best, after the modern fashion, junior ministers who are a sort of lower management between cabinet and civil servants.

Is this really what we want? We are frequently told that the real work of parliament happens in committees, but this is not really the case. In the European parliament this is much more true, but in Westminster, at least in recent years, it seems that committees only have power to embarrass the government, which can still push through its programme if it wants to.

Those who advocate our ‘winner takes all’ style of government claim that it makes for strong governments, and anything else makes for weak government. But this is not borne out by history. Rather, what we saw with both the Thatcher and Blair governments, is that they won initially with big majorities and a huge amount of enthusiasm to unite Britain, seize the day, and do what must be done. But, as their time in office progressed, they gradually ran out of ideas. Thatcher’s reign ended in the debacle of the poll tax, and Blair, though he had the sense to get out while the going was good, would have finished up in the double crisis that Gordon Brown now finds himself in. With nothing to renew them, governments run out of good people, and so are forced to put progressively less suitable (but politically sound) people into key positions. Instead of the campaigning Clare Short, and then the (largely famous because of his father) Hilary Benn, we now have Douglas Alexander as minister for international development. Peter Mandelson, so closely identified with the original Blair victory, has wandered in and out of government, finally finding his way into the Lords. Estelle Morris, the last Secretary of State for Education that anyone can remember, quit the job because she didn’t feel up to it. John Prescott had to go. And so on. I don’t particularly mourn the loss of these people (well, perhaps Estelle Morris a little bit), because, by and large, I feel they were essentially bad at their jobs. But the bright constellation of Blair’s inner circle is now dimmed. Instead of prudent Gordon Brown we now have Alistair Darling, instead of the bright Blair smile we now have dull Gordon. Thatcher’s mob fared no better. By the time John Major came to office (but not, as was often pointed out, to power), there were very few left who could command the public’s respect.

And yet, parliament ought to have been able to attract the brightest and the best from all walks of life. So how come we don’t seem to be able to put together a half decent government?

It is high time for the British system to be transformed. We don’t run an empire any more. We don’t have local landowners representing the interests of their illiterate tenants. We are not trying to hold back the power of the barons, or of an unruly monarch with a penchant for raising taxes to fund more battle ships. Our system is full of checks and balances, but they are largely checks on the wrong things, and balances to forces which no longer exist.

Ask most voters to explain the way in which the Lords, the Commons, the Crown and the Courts interrelate, and they will look at you baffled. But this is not because voters are uninformed, uninterested or unintelligent. The system itself is ludicrously complicated, functions poorly, is hopelessly inefficient, and, as we have too often seen, results in the misapplication of poorly drafted legislation for a result far from the original intention. No wonder voters are apathetic. It would be like asking them to vote on who should drive a train that has no engine, or who should wash the dishes when there is no water.

There is now unprecedented energy in Britain for the debate on what politics is for. But we seem intent on diverting it into a discussion of whether the BNP will benefit from the protest vote, and how poorly Labour might do in a year’s time. These are interesting, to be sure, but bring us no closer to the fundamental reforms without which the last month in politics has been no more than an exercise in mass prudery.

Enough of the talk, time for some action

So, Julie Kirkbride and Margaret Moran are to go. Bill Cash is suddenly under scrutiny for £15,000 he allegedly paid to his daughter. And so on, and so on, and so on. The effect of successive shocks gets less and less. Even David Cameron seems to have slowed his attempt to out-posture himself, no longer talking quite as tough as he accepted Julie Kirkbride’s promise of a resignation (she won’t actually be leaving until the General Election…).

But all this is just talk. No MP has ceased to be an MP. Even the biggest culprits remain in parliament, collecting their salary and expenses. Only the Speaker, Michael Martin, will actually be leaving the House before a General Election forces the issue.

In the first episode of Yes Prime Minister, Jim Hacker was advised that if we were to make a speech announcing radical change, he should wear a conservative suit and speak sonorous, reassuring words. On the other hand, if his speech announced nothing, it should be an ultra-modern suit with a brash, exciting background. David Cameron, at least, is playing the modern suit and brash background game. He knows that he has by far the most to lose. Before this scandal, the Conservatives had the next election more or less sown up, with new woes striking Gordon Brown’s Voyage of the Damned government every week. Now, although the Daily Telegraph has done its best to point the rhetoric at Labour ministers, it is the Tories who are easily the most damaged: moats, duck islands, money paid for extensions and electronics, money paid to family members who lived too far away to be any help, light bulbs, tennis courts, and so on.

So far he’s talked a good game, but, as in the past when he has been challenged to give real policies on key issues, he has dodged it. It’s not just that he fails to offer something bold and revolutionary. Bold is not always best. It’s that his ‘nip and tuck’ of reforms do not connect at all with the issue of MP’s pay, allowances or expenses. They are all rebadged right-of-centre ideas for laissez-faire politics. Fewer MPs with more power, more opportunities for the government to distance itself from unpopular legislation, extra transparency for civil servants, who are, in any case, not implicated in this row.

So, no MP (except Michael Martin) will be standing down before they have to — remember that the ones who are ‘resigning’ had virtually no chance of surviving the humiliating gauntlet of local anger, so what they are really doing is an exercise in self-preservation. And no policies have been put forward for how MP expenses should be reformed.

For this is the thorny issue. If MPs need two homes, then, contrary to what the BBC would suggest, they are not over-remunerated, but, at least until the housing market collapsed, seriously under-remunerated. If Cameron or Brown puts forward anything anywhere near as radical as the man in the street would like, it will almost certainly be rejected by MPs who, even if they are staring down the barrel of an electoral gun, are not going to vote to bankrupt themselves.

On the other hand, the Taxpayer’s Alliance suggestion (and mine as well, arrived at independently) for simply providing each MP with a residence in London for the duration of their time as MPs, and not beyond, though hugely beneficial to the next round of MPs, who will not be forced to risk their financial futures buying property in an uncertain market, leaves the current crop with a difficult problem. They will either be forced (financially, not legally) to dispose of homes which may be more important to them than their constituency home, or they will have to pay the mortgage on two homes on a salary which would serve them very well in, say, East Birmingham, but would scarcely cover one home in Tunbridge Wells or Maidstone.

Of course, I still favour my own suggestion.

It is Nick Clegg, whose stature as a man of real insight and penetrating decisions has grown substantially over the last weeks, who has probably got the most sensible tack: don’t let the MPs go home for the holidays until they sort it out.

Because, no matter how much we all believe MPs should not be allowed to vote on their own pay and conditions, the changes which must happen right now, if parliament is to recover any semblance of public confidence, must be set out and agreed by themselves. The problems will not go away over the holidays, nor will they become less acute. Unless something genuine and compelling is decided, agreed and enacted before they break up, then public anger will rise throughout the summer. Poor Julie Kirkbride has already had her windows smashed. But, judging by the anger of some of the people I met today in Stratford, that sort of reaction is going to get worse.

And that would take us into entirely new territory — territory which we should avoid, at almost all costs.

Cameron promises every kind of change except actual change…

“Cameron pledges shake-up of power” – BBC

David Cameron has been wrong-footed for once by Labour. In responding to Alan Johnson’s Lib-Dem inspired call for proportional representation, he has gone strong on ‘radical change’. Except that his changes are not radical at all.

Cameron, writing in tomorrow’s Guardian, and, if he hasn’t thought better of it by then, giving a speech in Milton Keynes, suggests fixed-term parliaments (yawn, everyone has agreed that ought to happen for years), less whipping of MP votes (Lib-Dems already do this, and it’s not a reform of parliament, it’s a reform of his own dynastic and hierarchical party), allowing backbench MPs to choose committee chairs (backbench MPs got to pick the Speaker — and see where that got us), limiting the number of decisions the prime minister can make without going to parliament (Tony Blair — yeah, him — already introduced that one), allowing local councils to reverse government decisions (radical, but completely loopy), and publishing the expenses of civil servants who get more than £150,000 salaries (not really a reform of parliament).

But he bitterly opposes a reform of the electoral system saying, with an enormous piece of double-think that would have done credit to George Orwell’s 1984 characters, “Proportional representation takes power away from the man and woman in the street and hands it to the political elites.” Say what?

It’s quite bonkers, and I suspect that he knows it is. He goes on: “Instead of voters choosing their government on the basis of the manifestos put before them in an election, party managers would choose a government on the basis of secret backroom deals. How is that going to deliver the transparency and trust we need?”

But, David, voters don’t choose the government at all on the current system. And you know they don’t.

Cameron is hoping on the current system that 40% of the vote will give him an absolute majority in parliament. How can that be voters choosing the government, if 60% of them wanted someone else, but he gets the power to over rule everyone else? Sometimes, 35% of the vote is enough to give an absolute majority, on our current system. How can that possibly be allowing the voters to choose the government? In fact, it’s mathematically possible (and, heaven knows, after the Florida run off which got George W Bush elected, mathematically possible is something which needs to be taken seriously) — mathematically possible that a party which gets less votes than either of two rivals gains an absolute majority in Westminster.

What’s worse is that the first past the post system creates safe seats, at least for Labour and the Tories. If you look around the electoral canvas at who the worst culprits are for misuse of expenses, you see fairly quickly that they are concentrated in… yes, that’s right — the safe seats. A candidate in a safe seat need make no particularly strong appeal to the electorate. He (90% of the time it is a he, not a she) does not need (except now, since we are all alert) to publish expenses, account for the number of hours he spent in Westminster or in the constituency, or defend his apparent complete uninterest in discussing constituency related matters in the House. For example, at the last election, Andrew Mackay, now standing down in disgrace, polled 49.7% of the vote, which was 23% above his nearest rival. Derek Conway, famous for paying his son from the public purse even though his son did nothing, polled 49.8%, 22% above his nearest rival. Douglas Hogg, of moat fame, polled 50.3%. Sir Peter Viggers, known for his duck island, polled 44.8%. Nicholas Winterton polled 49.6%, while his wife Anne Winterton polled 45.4%.

I am not remotely suggesting that a safe seat made these MPs behave in the way they did, any more than the expenses system made them do what they did. But I am stating absolutely categorically that safe seats make MPs unresponsive to the electorate.

And it’s the safe seat system which David Cameron (polled 49.3%, lest we forget) is defending when he puts forward a series of relatively inconsequential changes to avoid the big change which he fears — proportional representation, otherwise known as a fair voting system. In a fair voting system, where the votes of the people really decide who is in and who is out, no seats are safe, and no MP’s career is ever in the bag — no matter how well he has sweet talked the local Conservative association.

So far in this crisis, David Cameron has played a master game, giving the impression of strong leadership despite the fact that it is Tory MPs who have notched up the most ridiculous claims, and had the least grace in accepting the public’s anger. Poor bumbling Brown has never got close to him. But, now he is beginning to reveal what he really thinks, and it is incumbent upon us as the voters to read carefully what he is proposing:

Not one of the changes he is putting forward would have the slightest effect on making MPs more honest or less likely to misuse the public’s money, and not one would make them more responsive to the voters. Cameron’s eye is on government. It’s what he really wants. But, in this crisis, it is for once not the government, but the ordinary MPs who have let us down. Cameron’s solution — reduce the power of government, increase the power of MPs — is curiously disconnected from the real problem.

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