Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

David Cameron is not a failure

Before I start this post I should just point out that I am far from David Cameron's biggest fan. There are numerous areas where I disagree with him, in some cases profoundly. You only have to look at the responses he gave to some of the questions posed by the great and the good in the Guardian's recent Q&A to see plenty I take issue with not least his extraordinarily dismissive answer to Jonathan Ross's question about drugs policy.

However I want to tackle something that I keep hearing and reading about Cameron. Essentially I keep hearing that he is a failure. This is from across the political spectrum including a number from his own party.

It goes something like this.

Brown was unpopular. Very unpopular. We were in the midst of the worst financial crisis since before the Second World War. On top of this Cameron had had several years in which to prepare for the election and yet in the end he couldn't even get an overall majority.

All of these things are true but they fail to take into account a number of factors.

1) The Conservative Party were a basket-case of a party after 1997 and by 2005 after 3 consecutive trouncings they were still in a woeful state. William Hague who is one of the most gifted politicians of his generation couldn't improve their fortunes very much and nor could the subsequent two leaders they had which included a former cabinet minister and Home Secretary of immense experience. Cameron forced through a programme of modernisation which at least left them electable in 2010. In fact it was nearly 20 years since his party had been in such a position (since 1992 when the polls dived following Black Wednesday and never recovered until Cameron's time).

2) Cameron was not facing just Brown but also a fresh-faced insurgent named Nick Clegg who was able to seize the mantle of change that Cameron wanted for himself (if Cameron had just managed to get a couple more percentage points at the expense of the Lib Dems he would have had a majority). I know lots of Tories think it was a terrible mistake for Cameron to agree to the televised debates which helped Clegg forge this impression but Cameron had little choice. Sky were on the verge of "empty chairing" him and the other broadcasters may well have followed suit, after all they could not be accused of political imbalance if the 3 leaders were invited but Cameron refused to show. In fact this would have been disastrous for his campaign as he would have rightly been seen as a coward. What Cameron actually did as soon as he saw that Clegg was in the ascendancy is what he always does when his back is against the wall which is to come out fighting and by the second and third debates he did very well and helped to puncture the Cleggmaina bubble.

3) David Cameron is actually the most successful national politician in terms of percentage of the vote won of the past 10 years. The Conservatives under his leadership in 2010 got 36.1% of the votes. In 2005 Tony Blair only managed 35.2%. It is only our "interesting" electoral system that translated Blair's 35.2% to 55% of the seats when it only gave Cameron 47% on a higher vote share than Blair.

4) He is Prime Minister. This might seem like an odd point to make but it was not guaranteed that it would happen. The coalition negotiations could have gone very differently. The fact that Cameron came out straight away with his "open offer" to the Lib Dems enabled all that flowed from it. His political judgement was spot on and he only had a few hours in which to make the call the morning after polling day. Had he flunked it and allowed Labour to make the running and retain power the Conservatives could well have moved against him. Instead he is safely ensconced in Downing Street. It is David Cameron who gets to take the decisions about things like the Libyan action, the UK's response to the financial crisis and he has the highest and most listened to political platform in the land. And will likely have it for at least another three and a half years.

It is worth bearing in mind that there are only 5 other people who have become Prime Minister of the UK following a General Election in the last 50 years. Wilson, Heath, Thatcher, Major and Blair. It is a very difficult thing to do but Cameron has managed it.

Whatever you might think about how he got there it seems perverse to consider him a failure having done so.

This post was first published on Dale & Co.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Why electoral reformers should want boundary changes to fail

I know, I know! AV lost. Decisively.

So why am I still banging on about electoral reform?

Well partly because I can't help myself! It is one of my pet causes and I still think that eventually circumstances will arise in which FPTP becomes indefensible. I appreciate this is likely to be a fair way into the future but it is worth considering how it could come about.

Which actually brings me to the point of this post. One thing that is abundantly clear following the AV failure is that we will only be able to get a majority to back change if there is perceived to be a real need for it. That is one of the main reasons why AV struggled to get traction and opponents were able to argue there was no need to change.

The more I have reflected, the more I am convinced that the only way we are eventually going to be able to convince the electorate that change is needed is if there is an unequivocal and unanswerable failure of FPTP. The most likely scenario I can see leading to that is a situation where FPTP chooses the wrong winner.

With the current boundaries and 650 MPs this is actually quite likely to happen within the next two or three general elections. It would take Labour to get within a couple of percentage points of the Conservatives, say 34% Labour and 36% Conservative. Under this sort of result Labour would almost certainly end up the largest party and may even end up with a majority of MPs. Were this to happen, the time would then be ripe for a huge push to change the electoral system to a more proportional one. Defenders of FPTP would be on the back foot trying to argue for a system that had just picked the wrong winner and would be rapidly losing credibility with the public.

But if the boundary changes and MP reduction goes through then suddenly the above scenario becomes a lot less likely. We would of course still have the broken FPTP system but with things nudged a bit more back towards the Conservatives as a result of the changes.

Which means that when the time comes for MPs to vote on these changes we could find an interesting coalition against them forming. It could consist of Labour MPs who are against the changes as a party, numerous Conservatives who fear losing their seats and other MPs who want to ultimately see a proportional system for Westminster. That could well be enough to see the changes fail to get through the Commons.

I usually try and argue for electoral reform from a position of principle but having been thrashed in the AV referendum I am starting to think that reformers need to employ other tactics to get their message through. Trying to ensure that the broken FPTP system is more easily able to be exposed for what it is could be the start of such an approach.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Should Nick Clegg have held out for the Chancellorship?

Should Nick Clegg have held out for the Chancellorship during the coaliton negotiations last year?

I know, I know but bear with me.

I was suprised following the coalition negotiations that none of the jobs that are traditionally considered the big 4 (PM, Chancellor, Home Secretary or Foreign Secretary) were given to Lib Dems. Sure, we got Deputy PM which depending on how you looked at it could have been a bigger job than any of the big 4 except PM. But I am not convinced it has turned out like that nor was it really very likely.

From my understanding of what happened during the negotiations themselves, gleaned from various contemporaneous accounts I do not think that the idea of any of these jobs going to a Lib Dem was seriously entertained. To be fair there are specific problems with each of them:

PM: Non-starter. This role clearly has to go to the leader of the largest party.
Chancellor: Economic policy is the lynchpin of any government and it seems superficially obvious that the role should go to a member of the largest party. But I will come back to this.
Foreign Secretary: Figurehead of the government's foreign policy and given how important this area is to the Conservatives it is difficult to imagine them being happy with a Lib Dem in the top job at the start of a new coalition.
Home Secretary: Given the Conservative Party's traditional stance on issues like Law and Order it would be surprising if they took a Lib Dem in this role lying down. You've only got to look at how the "Sixth Lib Dem in the cabinet" ((C) Nick Clegg 2011) Ken Clarke is doing in the more minor role at Justice to see how this could have gone. Plus Home Secretaries are often only one or two prison or immigration scandals away from political oblivion so Clegg would likely have wanted to steer clear of this anyway.

So how do I think Clegg could have held out for the Chancellorship?

Well all the talk at the time of the negotiations, not least from David Cameron was of an open and generous offer to the Lib Dems to help form a government. It was clear that Cameron and Clegg wanted to bind the two parties together in a strong coalition primarily to reassure the markets that the incoming government was serious about getting a grip on the finances. As Clegg and the other senior Lib Dems made clear following the discussions that they were indeed serious about getting the deficit down there is no reason to think that this programme would have needed to be watered down had Clegg become Chancellor. Indeed if anything it could have sent an even stronger message to the market that the government was seriously committed. After all, Clegg would hardly be likely to demur later in the parliament from an economic policy that he was chiefly responsible for.

There is also of course the political dimension to this. I can certainly imagine that a good number of Conservative MPs would have been less than impressed with such a move. But it is easy to forget now just how opposed they were to a referendum on any sort of electoral reform until they were faced with the stark choice of potentially not forming the next government. I strongly suspect with the right leadership from Cameron that they could have been persuaded.

Which leads me to perhaps the most important point here. Part of the official title of the role of PM is "First Lord of the Treasury". This is often forgotten about, especially these days in the aftermath of the way Gordon Brown managed to use the Chancellor's office to essentially run an alternative government within government from Tony Blair. But that was an extreme example thrown up by a unique set of political circumstances. Cameron and Clegg are generally much more collegiate and it is reasonable to assume that their relations as PM and Chancellor would have been cordial. And of course Clegg would not have been able to get anything through without Cameron's backing so it's not as if he would have been able to go on manouvers even if he had he wanted to.

Another political aspect to this is how the allocation of the role of Chancellor would have reflected the political strengths of the people in the two most senior roles in government. We know Cameron can command 307 MPs through the lobbies (caveat - on subjects other than the EU!). But Clegg can command 57 MPs through the lobbies. How many can George Osborne command? Officially none. But even unofficially he would struggle to get the same number as Clegg through. The truth is that Clegg could effectively bring down the government if he wanted to. Osborne probably could not. He could weaken it for sure but the only person apart from Cameron himself who has the political clout to do this is the man who is currently our Deputy PM.

If Clegg had become Chancellor then the dynamics of the cabinet would have had to be quite different. There would have needed to be a strong Conservative as Chief Secretary to the Treasury (my money would have been on Phillip Hammond) and a suitable role would have needed to be found for Osborne (perhapsa beefed up Deputy PM role combined with Conservative Party Chair?). There would have been other knock-on effects such as Vince Cable would have been unlikely to be Business Secretary but I suspect things would have settled down quite nicely.

The problem I see with the current situation is that Deputy PM at the moment is a bit of a non-role. I know that Clegg has all sorts of responsiblity for constitutional change but with AV out of the window and Lords reform looking ever more tinged with chlorophil from that lengthening grass I can't help but feel that his political skills would have been much better served with the job that is actually number two in the government hierarchy rather than his current one that often seems difficult to define.

This sort of arrangement may have proven more sustainable in the longer run too. Since the failure of the AV referendum the Lib Dems in general and Clegg in particular have started to pursue a much stronger differentiation strategy from the Conservatives. This would have been much harder for him to do if he personally had been much more tightly bound into the centre of government decisions in the Treasury.

We'll never know for sure how this would have played out but Cameron and Clegg could be forgiven for reflecting that it might have been to the advantage of both of them if such a bold move to bind the current parties of government together had been taken from the outset.

This post was first published on Dale & Co.