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A fresh approach?

Could a mixture of tax rises and spending cuts, public service reform and constituonal change be a w

Labour strategists have attempted to turn the tables on the opposition parties with the launch of the government’s “Building Britain’s Future” plan for the economy, public services and the constitution.

What the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg called a “hotchpotch of unrelated Whitehall schemes” has in fact been carefully thought out inside cabinet. The success or failure of the fresh approach will determine whether Labour stays in power after the next election.

First, on fiscal policy: Gordon Brown is convinced that the electorate will baulk at what he claims is the Tories’ “ideological” determination to cut public spending by 10 per cent across the board apart from on the NHS. His advisers were struck by a recent YouGov poll that contained some revealing small print below the usual headlines predicting disaster for the government. Asked whether the Budget should be balanced by tax rises or restricted public spending, only 12 per cent said they wanted the former, while 31 per cent opted for the latter. Interestingly, a much bigger proportion – 48 per cent – desires “a mixture of the two”. It is on this combination, against the Tories’ fixed commitment to cuts, that Brown will gamble his party’s economic credibility.

Second, there has been a quiet convergence of opinion across cabinet on reform to public services between now and the next election.

Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, is pushing for just as thorough an approach to reform as Andrew Adonis, the arch-modernising Transport Secretary. Lord Adonis has helped persuade his colleagues that the Tories can be outflanked by a Labour move from “targets” to “entitlements”. While the Tories call for power to be transferred to “the professionals” – vested interests such as doctors and teaching unions – Labour will concentrate on “citizens”.

Voters remain sceptical of the Tories. Even in the latest ComRes poll for the Independent, which showed that the Conservatives are more trusted on specific spending cuts, the Tories were down to 36 per cent, a lead of just 11 points, which would translate into a majority of just ten seats at an election. Which brings us to the final element of Labour’s strategy: “democratic renewal”. Brown is said to believe privately that there will be a hung parliament next year.

In that scenario, Labour’s survival, even if in a minority government, will depend on whether it receives the support of the Liberal Democrats. The Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, a convert to constitutional reform, is pushing through an elected second chamber and is now said to be warming to electoral reform with the Alternative Vote system.

Could these three strands – a mixture of tax rises and spending cuts, public service reform and constitutional change – be a winning strategy? Brown’s critics will not rest. “What the government desperately needs now,” says Charles Clarke, “is a clear sense of direction, purpose and vision. Unfortunately ‘Building Britain’s Future’ failed to offer that clarity.” At the time of writing, that is hard to deny. Come election time, however, we shall see.

* * *

Is David Cameron nice or nasty? Much has been said about Gordon Brown’s character, almost all of it negative, most of it cruel, some of it justified. Meanwhile, like his party, Cameron has been given a relatively easy time in the press – and Ed Balls was vilified for accusing Cameron of “bullying” Brown over alleged spending “lies”. Yet there is a difference between when he won the Tory leadership, in 2005, on a platform of ending “Punch and Judy” politics, and now.

On Monday, Cameron leaned across the Despatch Box as he sarcastically offered Brown opposition parliamentary time for part-privatisation of the Post Office, which, it is said, is being “jostled” out of the government’s agenda. “Just nod,” Cameron taunted, sounding like a carer speaking to an incapable patient as his backbenchers guffawed. This, only four months after Brown and Cameron bonded over a sense of shared tragedy when Cameron’s son Ivan died.

A former PR man, Cameron is a journalist’s politician. With some of his underlings in private, he is occasionally rumoured to be more hot-tempered. When Ginny Dougary interviewed him for the Times in May, she remarked on a noteworthy contrast. “Cameron is good company . . . with the sort of easy charm that can make you want to forget you’re being charmed,” she wrote. Following one car journey, however, she wrote: “He is definitely . . . more uptight, barking at the poor chauffeur: ‘Are you sure this is the right direction?’; ‘This isn’t the way I would have gone’ . . .”

Brown has been described by George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, as “autistic” and a “mad hatter”. Is that the way Cameron is going? And what does that say about his own character?

* * *

The half-formed plan to hold an election-day referendum on Scottish independence, first reported here last week, has been boosted by a BBC Scotland/ICM poll: 58 per cent were in favour of a referendum next year, 37
per cent were against. But only 38 per cent would vote for independence, and 54 per cent still back the Union. Fuel to those who want to address the failings of devolution and “lance the boil” of independence for another generation.

* * *

Have the Conservatives disenabled their own supporters in the City to defend their interests in Europe? I understand that Simon Walker, the chief executive of the British Private Equity Association who used to work for the Queen, is having a difficult time explaining to his members why Tory MEPs have just walked out of the largest group in the European Parliament.

This is because the move has come just as the EU regulation and monitoring directive – threatening City interests and backed by David Cameron’s jilted partners Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel – will be passing line by line through Euro parliamentary committees.

Previously, Conservative MEPs could have bargained for the relevant committee chairmanship, or been appointed the key rapporteur on the passage of the legislation – Theresa Villiers did this job for the City when she was an MEP. But now, sitting beside Polish racists and Latvian SS admirers, they have relegated themselves to the ranks of irrelevance.

As a City source asks: “How many hedge-fund managers will still be giving money to the Tories come election day?”

* * *

All hot under the collar

This past week, the government outlined its preparations for the forthcoming climate-change summit in Copenhagen at a private briefing in Whitehall. Now, in somewhat different style, it’s the Church of England’s turn. The Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, has decided to ignore the advice of W C Fields – “Never work with children and animals” – to help highlight Operation Noah, the Christian environmental campaign. To the sounds of a brass quintet, an African drummer and hymns, 200 schoolchildren dressed as animals will join sheep, goats and alpacas from Vauxhall Farm on 2 July in a Noah’s Ark-style trip up the Thames from Millbank Pier.

Mark Dowd, who runs Operation Noah, says: “Attempts to make sense of Noah’s Ark will not cease with the Bishop of London . . . In October, just a few weeks before that Copenhagen summit, we have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, to extend his formidable theological acumen and share with the wider world what lessons he believes this classic tale has for the 21st century.” Who says the Church
is irrelevant?

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!