Andreas Whittam Smith: And still a few cronies get to decide

Some of the very faults that Mr Cameron's Government has imputed to its predecessor were on display in its announcement of the withdrawal of child benefit
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Every speech made by a Government minister at the Conservative Party conference this week has contained a lengthy passage denigrating Labour's record in office. An order must have gone out: first rubbish your opponents. Yes I know this is politics. I understand that this is what politicians do. Labour was no different. Mr Brown couldn't let an occasion pass without dumping on his Conservative predecessors – even when more than a decade had gone by since they had left the stage.

But it's all so bloody childish and tiresome. It adds nothing to anybody's store of knowledge or to his or her understanding of how the world works. It is also tempting fate, as we shall see. There was William Hague self-righteously declaring that we must never mince words about the last government's "economic incompetence, disjointed ministries, over-mighty officialdom and national demoralisation". George Osborne: "We are in government after 13 years of a disastrous Labour administration that brought our country to the brink of bankruptcy". Andrew Lansley, Secretary of State for Health, piously declaimed: "We won't make Labour's mistakes... There was no coherence; no consistency. There was no unity of purpose: a divided government, which picked up the baton of reform, but dropped it as soon as it got hot... We will not make the sick pay for Labour's debt crisis."

Then David Cameron, the Prime Minister, did quite a bit of it himself in his speech yesterday afternoon. "They left us a legacy of spinning," he said, and "smearing, briefing, back-biting, half-truths and cover-ups, patronising, old-fashioned, top-down, wasteful, centralising, inefficient, ineffective, unaccountable politics, 10p tax and 90 days detention, an election bottled and a referendum denied, gold sold at half price and council tax doubled, bad news buried and Mandelson resurrected... Gurkhas kept out and extremist preachers allowed in".

Aren't the bankers an equally appropriate target? As Sir Richard Parker, a former civil servant, remarked of the last government: "It was standard New Labour practice to decide on who should be categorised as a villain in any given circumstances (whether fairly or not was irrelevant) and to take steps well beforehand so that depiction in that guise rang true when the time came." Bankers would have made a perfectly good scapegoat. Only this week, for instance, the Centre for Economics and Business Research calculated that City of London bankers would share a bonus pot of £7.3bn this year. They are not hurting. But the Tories cannot bring themselves to treat bankers as villains. Large families where nobody works and everybody lives off benefits, yes, but not bankers. Mr. Cameron addressed only one sentence to them in a speech lasting over an hour: "Taxpayers bailed you out, now it's time for you to repay the favour and start lending to Britain's small businesses again". So that is decided. The last government is almost wholly to blame.

Except for two qualifications. The Prime Minister, in one of his best passages, where he rose above the level of his ministers, said that not everything had been the last government's fault. "The state of our nation is not just determined by the government and those who run it. It is determined by millions of individual actions – by what each of us do and what we choose not to do. Yes, Labour failed to regulate the City properly. But they didn't force those banks to take massive risks with other people's money. Yes, Labour tried to boss people around and undermined responsibility. But they weren't the ones smashing up our town centres on a Friday night or sitting on their sofas waiting for their benefits."

An even more important qualification relates to the way Mr Cameron conducts himself in office. For, unnervingly, some of the very faults that Mr Cameron's government has imputed to its predecessor were on display in its announcement of the withdrawal of child benefit from higher-rate taxpayers. Go back to what Mr Hague said about Labour. Economic incompetence? That has been on display this week. Recall Mr Lansley's words. No coherence, no consistency? Yes, tick that box for the new Government also.

For while most people accept the principle of means-testing, it could immediately be seen that there were two defects in the announcement: the more favourable treatment of joint-income families in comparison with single-income families, and the lack of tapering so that, at the margin, a small pay increase might be negated by a larger loss of child benefit. On the first, Mr Osborne's explanation lacks credibility. He sent an email to Tory MPs stating that "the only way to assess these joint-income families would be to create a new, complex, costly and intrusive means test". But as HM Revenue & Customs will have received completed tax returns from both the working father and the working mother in the same family, isn't it just a question of looking across from the one to the other to tot up the family income?

More serious still is what this incident says about the new administration's way of doing business. There are two thorough discussions that should have taken place before the announcement. The first would have been a technical examination of the proposal by Treasury and by HM Revenue & Customs officials. They would have been charged with making sure the proposal was workable in practical terms. And if the result of such an examination was as explained by the Chancellor in his message to MPs, then one can draw the conclusion that the discussion had not been sufficiently thorough. The old proverb "where there's a will, there's a way" accurately describes the spirit in which the talks should have taken place.

The second discussion should have reviewed the political consequences of the decision and should have taken place between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor on the one side, and the rest of the Cabinet on the other. In this procedure the Coalition has a considerable advantage compared with the previous administration. It is forced by the circumstances of its creation to have frank exchanges of views. It doesn't need to resort to the faulty procedures of Mr Blair and Mr Brown, which were to rely upon the findings of opinion polls and then bottle up discussion within a small band of cronies at 10 Downing Street.

In the present case, one can only assume that ministerial colleagues would have spotted the two flaws in the proposals as quickly as the rest of the world. It is inconceivable that they wouldn't have done so. As a result, they would surely have advised putting out an announcement in principle that was equally firm in intent but that admitted technical details had not yet been decided.

We are in "the dog that didn't bark in the night" territory here. Had the Prime Minister and the Chancellor properly consulted officials and colleagues, they would all have barked. That they did not do so tells us that no proper meetings were held. And this is, when all is said and done, exactly the same careless approach to the business of government that consistently undercut much that the previous administration attempted to do.

Mr Cameron's epitaph on the affair in his speech yesterday was fittingly restrained: "I'm not saying this is going to be easy, as we've seen with child benefit this week." In truth it need not have been so difficult as it turned out to be. A bad mark.

a.whittamsmith@independent.co.uk

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