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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era