There are plenty of commonplace phrases in politics I would ban, including “I’m not going to take any lectures from the honourable gentleman”. But the one that really gets my goat is “we’ve made tough decisions”. Mrs Thatcher trotted it out. Tony Blair loved it. And for the last three years it has been the Coalition’s mantra. Nick Clegg has schooled his party to take “tough decisions”. David Cameron, desperate to prove that he has a heart, has made it his Government’s refrain. But it’s a coward’s line, to be honest. What it really means is: “I’m about to announce something I’ve always wanted to do, but I know you won’t like, and because it’s so unpalatable I’m going to pretend I hated doing it.”
However he dresses it up, the truth is that Cameron hasn’t yet made a decision he didn’t want to make. He and George Osborne would have cut just as swingeingly even if there had been no deficit. They believe in a small, stand-on-your-own-two-feet state, not least because their friends and relatives rarely need the state for much more than national security, policing and educating their staff. So the deficit and global economic crunch have provided a convenient political alibi for the Government, giving them a chance to put a sorrowful complexion on a long-hoped-for scything through public expenditure.
What is so galling, though, is how inept this ideology is. Take one sliver of national policy: housing. Few people deny we have a national housing crisis. We need roughly 250,000 more houses every year. But one of the Government’s “tough decisions” was to slash the support to Housing Associations by 60 per cent in 2010, so we now have the lowest number of houses being built since the 1920s. Yes, we have an affordable homes programme, but as Emily Thornberry pointed out on Wednesday, a new flat built under the scheme is for sale in Islington for £720,000. Is that really “affordable”? And if so, by whom? And what about the preposterous folly of the Help to Buy scheme that is set to put a rocket booster under the housing market, increasing demand whilst doing nothing about supply?
Not tough, just wrong.
Cowards who won’t face the music
I see the Tory attack on the BBC I predicted here a few weeks ago has now begun. It seems particularly ironic that Grant Shapps, the man who used the alias Michael Green in some of his business ventures, should be accusing the BBC of a lack of transparency. Whatever you think of the BBC, at least its senior management is accountable to Parliament, sending its head honchos to take the brickbats from MPs. Compare that to Rupert Murdoch who has only ever done so once in all his years at the helm of Britain’s largest media operator.
Or the big six energy companies. Their chairmen and chief executives have awarded themselves crazy pay-rises in recent years, but only one, E.ON, sent its chief executive, Tony Cocker, to face the music at the Commons Energy and Climate Change committee this week. The rest sent minions. In my book that’s despicable.
Marina Litvinenko’s lament for justice
Marina Litvinenko (pictured) is one of the most dignified people I have met. Perhaps long battles for justice breed integrity in people. Or maybe she was always that way. Either way, her campaign has gone on for a long time now since her husband was poisoned in 2006. She came in on Tuesday, to chat about the legal case she is fighting to get a full enquiry into Sacha’s death (Alexander to the rest of us). In a way she’s not surprised by the intransigence of the Russians, who have blocked the extradition and questioning of the probable suspect Alexander Lugovuy, but what perplexes her is the attitude of the British, whom, as she puts it, her husband was trying to help. So why has Theresa May blocked the enquiry? Isn’t it a bit disgraceful that when a British subject is murdered on British soil, the British Foreign Office blocks justice for his widow and leaves her feeling “traded for a piece of meat”?
How to do BBCQT, on the QT
To St Austell for Question Time on Thursday, which involves a four-and-a-half hour train journey down from London. Or at least it would have done if Harriet Sergeant and I hadn’t missed the stop and carried on to Truro, turning it into a five and a half hour journey.
Afterwards. the bright young Matthew Hancock, who normally parades around Westminster as the living embodiment of the Government’s policy on energy prices, dressed in a jumper, confided his strategy to us. He’d learnt it from David Dimbleby’s brother Jonathan, who chaired a 50th anniversary programme of Any Questions with an audience consisting entirely of former panellists. The final question was “What one sentence always guarantees you a round of applause?” The late Ned Sherrin came up with the answer: end your sentence with “and that’s why I’m proud to be British”. Sure enough, a propos of pretty much nothing, Matthew managed to shoehorn it in – and the audience dutifully applauded.
Ed Miliband’s growing virility
The funniest moment came from Paris Lees, who had been worrying before the programme about her “potty mouth” and had promised Dimbleby that she wouldn’t use the “c-word”. She explained she meant “conservative”. Anyway, she ended a discussion about press freedom and regulation by saying that ever since Ed Miliband took on the Daily Mail he had had “more oak in his penis”, which must be the best compliment a Labour leader has ever had on Question Time.