Age, ignorance or incompetence?

What a shocking week for the Government. We’re well past the odd mishap. As the Government careers from one problem to another we’re now shading into something rather more embarrassing. With the exception of some über-loyalists with an eye to preferment, excoriating comment is emerging from all points on the political spectrum.

We’ve witnessed the Chancellor delivering tax U-turn after U-turn – on pasties, caravans, charitable giving and, most recently, possibly, on skips. Many thought this year’s budget was objectionable for its overtly ideological stance – everything geared towards delivering a cut in the 50p tax rate. Shortly afterwards Damien McBride produced a fascinating post explaining the process of arriving at a coherent and robust budget by winnowing out proposals that were unworkable or unpalatable. He suggested that George Osborne appears to have taken his eye off the ball because the 2012 budget contained a number of ideas that had been rejected several times in previous years as unworkable or politically unacceptable. And so it has come to pass.

But the news has been dominated by the Leveson Inquiry’s examination of events within and around DCMS during the BSkyB takeover process. Jeremy Hunt’s performance was a bit of a horror show. Yet, David Cameron immediately – some might say precipitately – declared that there would be no referral to the Independent Advisor on the Ministerial Code. There was a strong suggestion that the Prime Minister’s statement was pre-prepared and could not have reflected the further evidence Hunt delivered under oath. It seems to me that there was already more than enough evidence for a referral even before Hunt appeared before Leveson. And the appearance of bias would be pretty obvious to a five year old who is a bit slow on the uptake. A number of bloggers have rightly asked – in jest and in seriousness – whether the Ministerial Code is more difficult to break than the Enigma Code (eg here and here). Clearly it isn’t. But we see that David Cameron is willing to claim that black is white in order to avoid referring his dim-witted friend to Sir Alex.

Mark Twain once said “Laws control the lesser man … Right conduct controls the greater one”. We appear to have a Tory leadership unwilling to conform to accepted Codes of behaviour designed to hold Ministers to high ethical standards and to protect the offices of state from corruption of purpose. And it would appear that they have no idea what right conduct – that would render such codes unnecessary – might look like. Neither lesser men nor greater. Yesterday, Matthew Norman in the Telegraph described the leadership of the Coalition as Pygmies. It’s not very politically correct. But you get the point.

Norman included Nick Clegg in the group of political pygmies worthy of criticism. As a Lib Dem I’m not Clegg’s greatest fan, but here Norman is unfair. Clegg has rightly distanced himself from Hunt. It is possible that if Labour press for a vote to refer Hunt to Sir Alex Allen then the Lib Dems would support them. Ethically that would be the right thing to do.

The question is why the Coalition leadership are in this mess? Is it age, ignorance or incompetence?

There have been quite a few references to their relative youth. References are made to great Prime Ministers like Churchill taking office in their 60s. The implication is, of course, that wisdom comes with age. Now I’m only a year or so younger than David Cameron. While I’m very happy to be referred to as youthful, I’m reluctantly forced to conclude that this is no longer the case. We could equally refer to great leaders who were much younger. We could look back to Pitt the Younger or point out that Henry V was only 29 at the battle of Agincourt. But we don’t have to excavate history for relevant examples. Cameron was only a little younger than Tony Blair when he took office. While Blair’s relative youth was noted, the focus was rather more on whether he seemed up to the job – and “youth” wasn’t an issue as long as he was. The premise of the argument is flawed.

If it’s not age then perhaps it’s ignorance? Much is made of the fact that our current crop of political leaders have very little experience of the world beyond politics. They’ve hardly held a “proper” job between them. Yet this seems to me to be no excuse either. Sure it means they mostly have next to no idea about how most people live their lives or what goes on outside the Westminster bubble. But the pratfalls we are witnessing are political errors. The pasty tax was a political disaster waiting to happen. That should have been obvious to any reasonably intelligent person who’d stopped to think about it for more than 30 seconds. Ditto the caravan tax or the “granny” tax. Cameron’s appointment of Hunt to oversee the BskyB takeover was a huge political gamble given that Hunt’s partiality was already evident. You’d have thought that these people, who have spent pretty much all their lives immersed in politics, would have been able to spot that. For all we know none of them are capable of completing a tax return, arranging a corporate acquisition, or changing a car tyre unaided. But you’d have thought that if they were good for anything then it was having decent political antennae and being able to play the political game with subtlety. Otherwise they would appear to have no relevant skills for the job.

So that leaves incompetence. McBride’s suggestion was that Osborne took his eye off the ball. The charge is inattention rather than inability. The previous, rather more tightly controlled, budgets were invoked as evidence. That may well be the case. It doesn’t help that Osborne has no background – nor apparent interest – in economics. Or that the Government has been dismissive of the benefit of political advisors and taken an unnecessarily confrontational approach to the civil service. And one could argue that if Osborne’s only a part-time chancellor who spends as much time on political plotting then he isn’t competent in his role. The whole BSkyB debacle suggests either extremely poor judgement, or an approach so casually partisan as to be an insult to democracy. And, of course, it is tempting to look back over the recent past to other episodes – such as the EU veto that never was – as indicating that evidence of incompetence has been there for a while. I’m sure, taking the last few weeks as a whole, the case for incompetence is arguable.

It is extraordinary how fast things seem to be unravelling for the Government. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask whether the process can be arrested or will gather pace. Layer on top of these serious political errors the fact that the Tory backbenches are restless, while on the other side it is becoming more apparent that relations between Labour and the Liberal Democrats are thawing a little. And the economic outlook continues to deteriorate. It wouldn’t implausible to suggest that events will conspire to trigger a seismic shift in the political terrain some time soon.

Image: © Igor Nazarenko – Fotolia.com

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