Friday, 13 March 2009

A little clear blue water

Today saw a potentially important step towards the next general election, which must be held within the next fifteen months. It seems quite a long time when you put it in months, but it will soon pass. What was witnessed today was a purely strategic move by David Cameron, the leader of the Conservatives, to put a clear dividing line between him as potential Prime Minister and poor Gordon. He made a speech acknowledging that his party did not say enough about the likely problems from excessive credit building up in the economy. As reported, it does not appear that Mr Cameron apologised for anything although the BBC was, as always, keen to dress it up in both the heading and the first paragraph as an acceptance of partial responsibility for the mess and an apology for that error. After casting aside the BBC's pro-government slant, I asked myself what Mr Cameron was playing at.

The current government has a majority over all other parties in the House of Commons of, I believe, sixty seats. This is a sufficient majority to ensure passage of all but the most controversial measures it puts forward. Their majorities following the general elections of 1997 and 2002 exceeded one hundred seats. There has never been the slightest sniff of poor Gordon's economic conjuring tricks being voted down over the last twelve years no matter how strongly the Conservatives argued for a different strategy. Not just that, but the current government does not share the content of detailed civil service briefings with the opposition, so Mr Cameron's party has not had anything like as much inside information as poor Gordon and his merry men. The consequence of this is that there was absolutely nothing Mr Cameron's party could have done to prevent or limit poor Gordon's boom of doom.

So why has he expressed regret about not opposing the government more vociferously? And why has he done so now? I cannot speak for him, but from the comfort of FatBigot Towers it seems to me that his speech is all about showing himself to be humble and subject to human fallibility so as to show up poor Gordon's utter lack of these qualities. It's actually a nice little two-pronged attack. First, we see a sensible man leading the opposition compared to the dysfunctional Prime Minister. The second prong is a little more subtle. Mr Cameron is saying, in substance, "if only we'd told him, it might have helped" followed by a deep sigh of remorse. That raises the question whether it would have helped. When we ask that question the only possible answer is that it would not have changed the disastrous course the government was following. Poor Gordon is shown up yet again, he cannot turn round and say "you should have told me and then I would have changed course" because we know it would have made no difference. So, rather than Mr Cameron saying his party is partly to blame we find that it is not to blame at all because there was nothing that could be done to infiltrate the Brownian thick skull.

And why now? To have done so immediately after poor Gordon's rant to journalists about being entirely free of blame for the recession would have sounded opportunist. Let the story circulate, let the message sink in that poor Gordon has completely lost grasp of reality and once that is the current mind-set of the sturdy Brits, hammer the contrast home and widen the gap between how the incumbent is perceived and how the only potential alternative Prime Minister is perceived. It's rather a neat move.

There are still those who seek to dismiss the Conservatives as a credible alternative government by arguing that they do not have a comprehensive policy platform. In fact the only area in which their likely policies at the general election have not been spelled out in detail is the economy. No doubt they could have shouted about their other prospective policies rather more than they have, but it would have been pretty pointless over the last year or so when everything has been so dominated by the threat of recession and now the threat of depression. In this respect things are rather different from the final year of John Major's administration. At that time the economy was genuinely strong and stable, perhaps more so than at any time since the War. His government was being questioned not about the state of the economy but about other matters including the perceived under-funding of health and education. A smell of overall staleness and a sense that they'd had their time were pervasive messages, pressed home by a Labour opposition with new, alternative policies. Those policies were, in many respects, less worked-through than the initiatives the Conservatives have published in recent months, yet they were in the public eye and they caught that eye by seeming to be different.

Much can change in the next year, just as it has in the last. The formulation of a credible economic policy simply cannot happen today because it could be blown apart tomorrow, as the government is seeing with its own panicky efforts to sort out the mess. One pattern that is already set is that the government has chosen the route of bigger and bigger national (and international) government as the answer to all woes. Those of us who believe it a sure-fire failure have little to achieve by putting forward a structurally different proposal to deal with things as at Friday the thirteenth of March 2009. If our opinion of the government's preferred option is correct, by the middle of summer our own preferred structure will need substantial amendment. Mr Cameron and his team know this. Their best tactic is to sit back, watch initiatives and interventions fall flat and present their own fully-formed alternative only when it is too late for poor Gordon to steal it, implement it, watch it fail and blame the Conservatives.

Mr Cameron would do well to continue highlighting not just the government's failures but also the difference between his calmness and openness and poor Gordon's secretive panic. Today was a good start, let's see if he can keep it up.