Acting like an opposition while in government can only take you so far

In a more hostile media climate, the coalition's shifts would be portrayed as crass opportunism and

Tomorrow David Cameron will complete the beauty parade of party leaders offering their take on crony capitalism, following on from Ed Miliband's conference speech, which he amplified last week, and Nick Clegg's call for a "John Lewis economy". Expect Cameron to balance a fierce rhetorical attack on boardroom excess ("fill your boots capitalism") with plenty of warm words about the virtues of proper markets and a nod towards the sunny possibilities of "popular capitalism" -- a theme that all Tory leaders since Eden and Macmillan have returned to, along with a good few of their Labour counterparts.

The speech comes in advance of Vince Cable's forthcoming proposals on reigning in executive pay, timed to pre-empt the City bonus season, and it tops off a concerted three week campaign by the coalition to wrestle the theme of "responsible capitalism" out of Labour's hands. Turn the clock back four months, to when Miliband was being derided for his conference speech, and it is clear that this is not a theme that Conservative strategists will have been planning to major on. It has rudely intruded upon their preferred narratives of deficit reduction, broken Britain, and the Big Society.

Leave to one side for a moment your views on the policies (or lack of) to deal with so-called crony capitalism and consider what this episode tells us about the governing habits -- statecraft would be too grand a term -- of the coalition, in particular the Conservatives. A blitz of pamphlets, articles, speeches and briefings have made clear their determination to close down the rhetorical political space that Labour was seeking to occupy. As an orchestrated act of attempted political land-grabbing it has certainly been of the predatory variety. There is, of course, scope for plenty of cynicism about what this will achieve and whether the rhetorical arms-race that has gathered pace will actually lead to any real change. But it has left us in no doubt of the Conservatives' resolve not to be outflanked.

Which brings us to another revealing episode, seemingly unrelated, from last week: the Conservatives' misadventures on the reform of child benefit. At their party conference in 2010, George Osborne, in an attempt to secure his then message of"'we're all in this together", announced that any household with a higher-rate tax payer would see all of their child benefit payments axed. The result? A family with three kids relying on a single earner on £45k would lose around £2.5k; whereas a household on £80k (based on two earners each on £40k) wouldn't lose a penny.

Last week, some 15 months after this announcement and with the implementation date of next January starting to loom large, David Cameron opined that "some people" say that there is a "cliff edge issue". It's a bit unclear who he thinks the "other people" are. Indeed, their proposal creates a cliff-edge so high and steep that safety warnings should be put up for miles around. Nor is it the case that this was a technical problem that has been unearthed after months of forensic analysis by fine minds. Any official advice in DWP and HMT would have made ministers completely aware of all of the problems with the proposal -- the shortcomings are so obvious that any minster with a passing knowledge of the tax and benefit system wouldn't have needed these warnings. The lack of attention to detail, and willingness to sacrifice longer term policy coherence at the altar of short-term political positioning, is revealing.

Do these two recent episodes make a larger point? My sense is they do. Cameron and Osborne, when worried about an issue, still think and act like an opposition. They are swift, intensely political, and relentlessly focussed on their opponents. Whatever their underlying ideological convictions, they travel fairly lightly -- as oppositions tend to -- and, on issues other than their lodestar of deficit reduction, are willing to shift ground quickly to avoid being beached on the wrong side of public opinion. Crucially, however, they are susceptible to mistakes. Notably mistakes of the sort that you can get away with in opposition -- those that bite at some point in the future, at the point of actually having to deliver a policy.

Practicing this approach to politics when in power is both a strength and a weakness. The former because they can move quickly and in a united fashion to exploit a political opportunity or close down a threat, something that many parties quickly lose the capacity to do when in office. The latter because this style of governing, particularly when combined with a loose grip on policy detail, results in flaky decisions and vaulting U-turns (never mind creating turmoil for voters).

What does this mean for their political prospects? For now, not much. Given the intense media focus on Labour, and the generally benign mood towards the coalition, these episodes are smiled upon as evidence of agility and responsiveness. Yet in a more hostile media climate they would be portrayed as crass acts of opportunism and incompetence. And the question as to what the coalition, and the Conservatives in particular, are actually "for" other than deficit reduction would be asked far more pointedly.

Twenty months into office, it is time for the Conservatives to find a better balance between their opposition-like tendencies and the realities of governing. They need to achieve this before, as will happen sooner or later, the media environment turns.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.