Cameron’s season of sorrows is not over yet
The black dog has descended on Whitehall. Tory ministers are, as a group, at their lowest ebb since they entered government. When I saw one secretary of state this week, he stopped halfway through our meeting to say, ‘I’m sorry this is such a depressing conversation’. He then continued in the same vein. Even the normally Tiggerish Prime Minister is in a bit of an Eeyoreish mood. I’m told that he seems more tired and down than at any point since he took on the job.
This funk is a result of a difficult few weeks for the government. Granny tax was followed by pastygate, which compounded the damage done by the fuel panic, which set the government up for a fall over charity tax. To top it all, the Office for National Statistics declared this week that the country is back in the recession. The double dip that Ed Balls has so often predicted has happened. As Claudius said, ‘When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.’
As if this were not enough, the Tory side of the coalition is entering a period of Leveson purgatory. Already, five hours of testimony from James Murdoch have obliterated Jeremy Hunt’s career prospects.A man once tipped as a future Tory leader is now reduced to trying desperately to hang on to his current job.
Day after day, Cameron will be reminded of one of his biggest mistakes, his decision to get too close to the Murdochs and News International. His personal ratings, already at their lowest since he became leader, will take another hit.
There are a few bright spots on the horizon. Boris Johnson still looks likely to hold on in London and the local elections results will probably not be an unmitigated triumph for Ed Miliband, who faces tricky battles in Cardiff and Glasgow as well as the capital. It is also expected that Tory reinforcements will arrive in No. 10 shortly. This will bolster an operation that is having to counter both coalition and civil service threats to the Cameron agenda. Then there is — as one friend of Cameron’s mischievously remarks — the delicious prospect of rejecting an application from Lord O’Donnell, the former Cabinet Secretary, to be the next governor of the Bank of England.
But these are overshadowed by the cloud that is Lords reform, an issue that could wreck the coalition. For Nick Clegg, it is his legacy project and his justification to
his party for going into coalition. But No. 10 is acutely aware that it is not a priority for the public and has the potential to be as toxic inside the Tory parliamentary party as Europe once was. When I put it to one Tory strategist that the issue was going to be a car crash, he testily replied, ‘We know that, but there’s no way to stop it.’
The Cameroons believe that they have to proceed with Lords reform, at least for now, because otherwise the Liberal Democrats won’t vote for the boundary changes. These changes are regarded by the Tory leadership as essential to their chances of winning a majority at the next election.
But this lack of enthusiasm for a Lords makeover has transmitted itself to the Tory
Lords reform has the potential to be as toxic inside the Tory parliamentary party as Europe once was parliamentary party and emboldened them in their opposition to reform. They know that Cameron is no zealot on this matter. His private view is that ‘if we ended up with a 20 per cent elected House of Lords and got deficit reduction, education reform and welfare reform, it wouldn’t be that bad, would it?’ Given these feeling, it is hardly likely the Prime Minister will cast its opponents into the outer darkness.
There are now about 120 Tory MPs flirting with rebellion over the issue. They know that if enough of them defy the whip then it can’t be a career-ending stand. This group-
ing spans the full spectrum of Tory opinion. Even the Cameron ultra-loyalist Nick Soames has told friends that he couldn’t vote for the draft bill.
Pleas from Tory high command for their MPs to swallow Lords reform for the good of the coalition are falling on deaf ears. When I put it to one rebel that No. 10 felt its hands were tied, he replied: ‘Nick Clegg has less power than they think he does.’ He pointed out that the Liberal Democrats were hardly going to want an election in the current political climate. He said that they ‘could be free of the issue with three words, “Fuck off Nick” ’. More seriously, Tory MPs feel they owe it to their successors to deny the Liberal Democrats a second chamber elected by a system of proportional representation that would leave the third party permanently holding the balance of power.
But the trouble Cameron faces over the Bill in the Commons is nothing compared to what will happen elsewhere. Already, their Lordships are preparing a guerrilla campaign against the coalition’s agenda until the bill is dropped. The Prime Minister could find his whole legislative programme being held hostage by this issue. Indeed, in the Upper House the bill is almost entirely friendless. Even most Liberal Democrat peers favour a referendum.
But we can be sure that the Lords Reform Bill will be the most significant measure in the Queen’s speech.At a Conservative political cabinet last week, there was a discussion of how best to make the party’s MPs accept the measure. But I’m told that none of the ideas suggested were considered particularly good.
Those close to Cameron are now wondering how to get out this Lords reform bind. One thought is that Clegg is obliged to lay the boundary review before parliament as soon as it is delivered to him. Some speculate that Cameron could continue with Lords reform until the Commons has voted the bill through, then drop it. But this would have a disastrous effect on intra-coalition relations.
All the troubles of the past few weeks will be as nothing compared to the challenge of squaring the circle on Lords reform. It is going to be the biggest test yet of Cameron’s coalition and his political skills.
‘Whose stupid idea was it to save sensibly for our old age?’
SPECTATOR.CO.UK/COFFEEHOUSE For the latest on the Lords and other crises.
the spectator | 28 april 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk Charles Moore
Like everyone, especially his old friends and colleagues, I can think of unkind things to say about Boris Johnson. He is a lazy workaholic — too busy doing things to do them thoroughly. He can be exasperating. But as the mayoral election campaign reaches its climax, I must dispute the central current criticism of Boris — that he does not really stand for anything. He may not have yards of clear policies, but his essential message is important and genuine. He believes in freedom, and has a strong preference for letting people get on with their lives without official molestation. He is equally genuine in seeing his voters as Londoners, rather than blacks, whites, Muslims, gays etc. In all this he remains the opposite of Ken Livingstone, who sees politics wholly in terms of groups who can be made his clients with public money and then enlisted for his relentless assault on this country’s liberty, identity and tradition. It is actually more important now that Boris should win than it was four years ago.
I s the Public Administration Committee right to demand a ‘national strategy’ which the government should lay before Parliament every year? Given the uncertainties of the trade, ‘strategy’ does not suit politics. It merely introduces rigidity. What a government does need is a sense of purpose. It is interesting to compare the present problems with those of the Conservative government in the same stage of the parliament in 1981. In many ways, the plight was much worse then — the gilt markets did not believe the government, and the Prime Minister was much less secure with her senior colleagues than David Cameron is today. But in one respect, her position was stronger. Everyone knew what she was trying to do. She therefore set the agenda. She did this partly by force of character and belief, but also by the simple device of answering Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament twice a week, thus constantly preaching the message and picking up MPs’ anxieties. This running commentary on events was much more effective than any annual national strategy review, with its inevitable verbiage, could be. Tony Blair reduced the session to once a week,
and so began to lose touch. Mr Cameron mistakenly continued the Blair innovation. To a bureaucrat, PMQs twice a week must seem an insane waste of time, but it is the best way of maintaining direction.
As this week’s Murdoch sessions have shown yet again, the Leveson inquiry is a wonderful, long-running, unstoppable revue in which the British power elites — press, police, proprietors and, next to come, politicians — insult and expose one another for the delectation of the public. It reminds me of the poster for Hair which ran for years with the tribute ‘The nudity is stunning. Daily Sketch’. One wishes it could go on for ever, not least because the harm will be done only when it finishes. The inquiry will feel then obliged to recommend legislation, and all the fun, and much of our freedom, will come to an end.
O ne thing which emerges from the strange case of Theresa May and the time limit for the Abu Qatada appeal is her self-imposed ministerial isolation. Apparently her junior ministers never know what she is doing: she never tells them. So when things go wrong, she is all alone.
Staying with friends in Norfolk at the weekend, we visited Holkham Hall. In the park stands the 120 ft column, crowned with a wheatsheaf and decorated with turnip leaves and mangel-wurzels, commemorating Coke of Holkham. At the base are friezes of Coke’s benevolence and industry, and a large inscription which ends thus: ‘The Arts lament in him a liberal and fostering Patron: AND AGRICULTURE to which from early Manhood to the close of his life He dedicated Time, Energy, Science and Wealth — Crowning His Cenotaph with her Emblems — Cherishes the Precedent and Commends the Practice of her Great Promoter and Benefactor.’ How I admire this sentence for daring to go on so long, dramatically delaying the verbs of its second part until the last possible minute. And how right it is to celebrate a man whose ingenuity found ways of producing more food, more quickly and more cheaply. Will the next age have the decency to erect a column to whoever invented GM foods?
S ometimes I feel envious of women. Watch the recent film made by Lady Lyall Grant, the wife of the British ambassador to the United Nations and Huberta von Voss Wittig, wife of the German ambassador to same. ‘Dear Asma’ is an appeal to/attack on the wife of Bashar Assad, the Syrian dictator. It says things like ‘Some people care for style. Some women care for their people,’ and juxtaposes images of Mrs Assad looking chic with pictures of wounded children and grieving mothers in Syria. It urges Mrs Assad, ‘Don’t be a bystander.’ It is impossible to imagine men daring to claim, on grounds of their sex, such high moral ground. Suppose that husbands of prominent women opposed to the Falklands war had made a ‘Dear Denis’ video urging the Prime Minister’s husband to intervene. ‘Be a man, Denis. Get off that golf course. You are a father: when you kiss your children goodnight, think how you could save the lives of young men. Don’t let her push you around: give peace a chance.’ I rest my case.
Have you ever met anyone, in any course of treatment on the NHS, who has always got his or her test results back at the time promised? I gather from friends and relations who have recently suffered that it is customary to be told that results have been lost. They seldom have been but, NHS insiders explain, it is a convention of our health service to pretend that they have. Etiquette demands that you then get the doctor to ask again, more persistently. After another month or so, the results will appear. Obviously, some people will get seriously ill, or even die, while they wait. But remember, our health service is ‘the envy of the world’.
the spectator | 28 april 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk