Thursday, April 30, 2009

David Cameron's Right-Wing Government

As Labour circles increasingly engage in talk about the demise of Gordon Brown - and some are suggesting before rather than after the next election - attention is turning towards the likely make-up and intentions of a new Cameron-led Tory government. And for those who thought we might be able to look forward to a new era of cuddly conservatism, the results of extensive research done by the distinctly right-wing Conservative Home website seem to show otherwise.

While Cameron and his leadership team appear to be committed to a programme of progressive, socially aware conservatism (within whatever strictures provided by the budget crisis), the new Tory MPs that will accompany them into power, and populate their lobby fodder on the backbenches, appear to be committed to a return to more full-blooded Thatcherism. These are men and women who are the disciples of Thatcher, who see Cameron's Green agenda as a red herring, are overwhelmingly eurosceptic, want more restrictive abortion laws and certainly favour a continued hard line towards the "war on terror". However, they are also more inclined to civil libertarianism than their predecessors of the Thatcher years, although they appear to favour support for marriage (of the type favoured by Miss California) through the tax system.

Tony Blair secured his Labour vision by controlling the actions of new MPs and the selection of candidates. Cameron's attempts to do likewise with selection of Tory candidates have not been noticeably successful, and he could yet face a resurgence of right-wing confidence - and even obstructionism - once his term of government gets into its stride. As Gordon Brown's experience is currently showing, a prime minister's own MPs have the potential for serious mischief making. And once the Tory Right get going, so will the electorate - none of the Blessed Margaret's Thatcherite successors succeeded in persuading the British voters that a good dose of unadulterated conservatism was the medicine they really needed.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Gaining the Gurkhas Their Victory

It continues to be a torrid political week for Gordon Brown. He'd barely stepped off the plane before he had to face the first parliamentary defeat of his premiership. Parliamentary defeats are not a novelty for New Labour in government - Tony Blair faced four, casting the role of the House of Commons as a genuine check upon a potentially powerful executive into sharp relief. Ironically, there was always a degree of ambiguity about the then Chancellor's role in fomenting some useful backbench dissent. How the now prime minister must wonder why he bothered, as he too sees a House of Commons willing to assert its virility.

The problem for Gordon Brown is that today's defeat was on an issue powered in part by a strong sentiment of attachment to a legendary British regiment, whose campaign has been spear-headed by a still popular and very presentable actress. One has the vague impression that Tony Blair, ever attuned to public feeling as he was, would never have allowed this home grown crisis to get as far as it has. Gordon Brown genuinely lacks a populist touch - for some a positive merit - and seems not to have anyone in his inner circle who can compensate.

Today's defeat not only illustrates the success of a well aimed, well funded pressure group campaign (which AS-level politics students would be well advised to study closely), but it also raises up the first successful Lib Dem-Conservative collaboration. Nick Clegg can claim a real victory for the Lib Dems with this motion, but it is interesting to see him and Cameron share a press conference with Lumley, giving each other space to say their peace and coming across as the epitome of sensible political co-operation. Perhaps their joint experience with Gordon Brown a few days ago, when he bawled at David Cameron for asking questions about MPs expenses at Prime Minister's Questions, and then had to listen to Clegg calling time on an unhelpful meeting, has thrown them more closely together. Whatever the reason, their obvious ability to work together when necessary can only be an utterly depressing sight for the Labour Party.

Even worse for the prime minister, a quick glance at the names of some of his own Labour rebels might suggest a quiet raising of the Blairite standard. Fresh from criticising the Budget, former Blairite minister Stephen Byers is also a rebel on the Gurkha motion, along with another former Cabinet minister, Andrew Smith. An ally of the Justice Secretary has been one of the organisers. And the worst news of all? The Cabinet minister responsible for dealing with this hapless situation is none other than Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. Now is that really who you want in the front line on a sensitive issue?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Opposing a Bad Leader

Inspired by my recent visit to a Russia that was far more laid back and cosmopolitan than when I last visited, back in the dying days of communism, I began reading the campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya's "Russian Diary". Her diary casts a pall over post-communist Russia, as she reveals the increasing levels of corruption and the authoritarianised 'democracy' that Russia now has in place. Opposition becomes a rarely heard voice, limited to a few brave souls risking life and limb to criticise the policies of the Dear Leader, Comrade Putin himself. He may have inherited the ashes of the communist state, but he has been happy to learn his political lessons from Lenin and Stalin, this former director of the FSB. Politkovskaya is relentless in her expose of the inadequacies and harshness of the Russian political system, and equally damning of the wretchedly inadequate opposition. Not surprisingly, hers was a lonely voice, and also not surprisingly, she was murdered in 2006. Opposition in Russia is a dangerous business.

Opposition in the UK, meanwhile, seems almost too ridiculously easy, which does beg the question of why some of Cameron's team struggle to make hits (Michael Gove, for example, was universally seen to have missed an open goal in his questions to the Stalinist sounding Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families yesterday). This is not to suggest that the opposition in Britain has a task any less important than that pursued by the late Anna Politkovskaya. They may be far from risking their lives, but they still have a duty to expose the inadequacies and failings of the government. It's their job, after all. But where Politkovskaya was pursuing a ruthless and highly efficient government machine, the more one reads of Gordon Brown the more one is tempted to the view that he took his political lessons from Coco the Clown.

We are only on Tuesday, and already the Prime Minister has been snubbed by the president of Pakistan, admonished by the Prime Minister of Poland, and had to withdraw his hasty and ill thought out attempt to save parliamentary face over the increasingly embarrassing MPs' expenses affair. This after a week with a budget that has seen his polling figures plunge. The budget itself contained a supremely cynical measure - the 50% top rate of tax - that was designed to cause trouble for the Tories, but has instead generated unrest within his own party. Stephen Byers and Charles Clarke have openly condemned it, Frank Field has tabled a motion demanding a coherent strategy to balance the budget, and Tony Blair's murmurings are becoming ever louder. Even Brown's attempts at communication to the youtube generation have been met with ribaldry.

Gordon Brown waited and plotted impatiently for ten years to reach the top spot. While waiting, he controlled the British economy unchallenged and hamstrung Tony Blair's domestic agenda as much as possible. His decline now is far worse than that of his wretched Tory predecessor John Major, with whom he is all too often compared. Major was a relative newcomer who inherited a disunited party, whose legitimacy was put in doubt by the Thatcherites who opposed him, and whose constructive engagement in Europe tore a fault line in the party. He twice won election amongst his peers to the party leadership, and won a general election in his own right. Brown, meanwhile, as he fumbles ever more ferociously around his Downing Street bunker, has never won an election in his own right - not even the Labour leadership. What is worse, as the most powerful and long-lasting Chancellor since the war, he cannot claim to be the victim of circumstance. Everything pointed in the right direction for him, from his crowning as Labour leader (his acolytes - men like Damian McBride - had crushed the opposition) to his unprecedented experience of operating the levers of government.

Political careers, said Enoch Powell, all end in failure, and his is a salutary commentary on Gordon Brown. But Gordon Brown's premiership is also a salutary lesson for British politics generally. He evinces all the desires of an authoritarian leader - a would-be Putin. Fortunately for his country, the entrenchment of liberal democracy merely makes him the target of a rising tide of derisory criticism. Opposition to Brown requires no heroism at all, and perhaps it is this that the ghost of Anna Politkovskaya will look upon with a wry smile of regret.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bloggers' Triumph?

Not much time to comment on the weekend's story about Damian McBride, except to observe that it might be the first time in this country that political bloggers - in this case Guido Fawkes - have managed to break a story. Even here, though, there is a little murkiness, as Fawkes apparently went to the mainstream press with his revelation rather than simply break it on his website. According to the Telegraph, he was looking for a bit of cash to accompany his scoop, although he denies it.

As for McBride, he's every bit as posionous as he's made out to be, but why is anyone surprised that a Downing Street politico might be looking at ways to smear his opponents. The depths of the smears may be distasteful, but the practice is as old as politics.

Back to blogging more regularly after the Easter break - having trekked across the Pennines last week (well, bits of), am currently in Mother Russia getting the feel of a slightly different political temperature!