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Forget a shower of bad headlines, this is political climate change

Confronted with epic global challenges, our politicians cannot help shrinking to the occasion.

David Cameron, speaking in a marathon parliamentary debate on 2 July, briefly revealed the sympathy he feels for himself over the way Europe has colonised his diary since the election: “I have been Prime Minister for only two years,” he groaned. “But I feel I have spent almost half my life in the Justus Lipsius building in Brussels.”

Cameron mourns the days gobbled up by the stone and glass monstrosity that hosts European summits. He is impatient in meetings even when he has convened them on subjects he wants to discuss – and Europe is not in that category. People who work closely with the Prime Minister say his heartfelt preference is not to talk about the EU, an option made unavailable by crisis in the single currency and an outbreak of referendum fever on the back benches.

When he had finished fielding European questions, Cameron visibly exhaled with relief, sat down and shuffled along the green bench to the spot vacated by George Osborne, who was by then on his feet to make a statement on interest rate-fixing at Barclays bank. The baton of crisis management passed wearily from Prime Minister to Chancellor.

Osborne didn’t become Chancellor to wage war on City corruption, just as Cameron didn’t become Prime Minister to pass quality time in Belgium. That doesn’t mean they have no response; there is always a plan. To cleanse the banking system, Osborne envisages a parliamentary super-committee and a separate regulatory review of Libor (the interbank lending rate that was manipulated by Barclays and, in all likelihood, other banks, too). Rules will be made tougher.

No perspective

In response to euro-turmoil, Cameron urges patience on his irate MPs. There will come a time when the terms of Britain’s EU membership are renegotiated and put to the public in a referendum, he says, but that time isn’t now, when fellow continental leaders are busy fighting the fire consuming their single currency.

Those are reasonable positions given the immediate political constraints and yet, precisely because Cameron and Osborne never seem to imagine solutions outside the immediate constraints, their responses are also dismally inadequate. The problem is not a lack of policy but
a failure of perspective. The Prime Minister can rustle up an umbrella when it is raining bad headlines but seems unaware that he governs in an age of political climate change.

It doesn’t help that the Tories’ main tactic in political combat is to bombard Labour with a sour retelling of the past. Cameron recalls how Blair and Brown signed away sovereignties to Brussels, opened borders to migrants from eastern Europe and reneged on referendum pledges. Osborne jeers that Ed Balls sat in the Treasury, applying the regulatory soft touch that gave the bankers permission to plunder.

There is a dose of truth and an equal measure of futility in such attacks. People for whom politics is defined by hatred of the EU decided long ago that Labour are servants of Brussels. It hardly impresses them that Cameron is a slightly less obedient lackey.

Voters might despise Labour for failing to avert financial catastrophe but they will never be persuaded that the Tories spent their opposition years fretting about unchecked greed. In the popular imagination, Conservatives are still branded in pinstripes. Before Osborne can opine on the recklessness of the fat cat classes, he has to explain why he gave them an income-tax cut in this year’s Budget.

It is usually a waste of energy for the government to tell the public what to think about the opposition, especially when levels of trust in politics are so low. Voters hardly listen to what ministers say about themselves; what they say about their enemies has all the authority of junk mail.

At the moment European meltdown and the banking morass look like separate issues but they are converging. There is no way to save the single currency without accelerating political integration in the eurozone.

That consolidated group will naturally want to dictate the terms of financial regulation for the whole of the EU. London will be forced into battle to preserve the primacy of the City, which, inconveniently, is a vital economic asset as well as a writhing pit of snaky avarice. The task of decontaminating UK financial services is tangled up in European diplomacy, which cannot be conducted effectively from the sulky corner of Brussels summits where Cameron has set up camp.

Fag end politics

Moral decay at the heart of the British economy and the fracture of our European relations – these are not ordinary political challenges. They are the stuff of epochal change. Yet the Prime Minister and Chancellor respond as if peeved by the inconvenience and impatient for normal service to resume. They loiter at the gates of history, sucking on the fag end of the old era, unable to conceive of the new one.

That weakness is starting to show up in private polling in ways that are encouraging for Ed Miliband. A message that resonates in focus groups is that Cameron promised change but delivers more of the same. The Labour leader believes his speeches denouncing “predatory” business and calling for “responsible capitalism” have given him a head start in defining the challenges ahead. The opposition leader is confident he knows the difference between a spell of bad political weather and climate change.

But the obstacles to Labour plausibly owning the future are immense. The party’s European policy has barely evolved beyond wishing things were not as they are. Miliband does a good line in indignation at rancid finance but that doesn’t excuse the regulatory indulgence of the government in which he served.

Cameron and Osborne can hardly be blamed for problems that were decades in gestation, but nor can they stipulate that Labour’s record disqualifies Miliband from offering solutions of his own. Neither side comes out well from frenzied partisan brawling, although that is how Westminster automatically responds in a crisis. Confronted with epic global challenges, our politicians cannot help shrinking to the occasion.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Honey, I shrunk the Tories