Monday 20 April 2009
Bruce Anderson: Brown's troubles don't mean the Tories can start laughing
With a programme for government, Cameron can restore Parliament's reputation
There is no excuse for being shocked by the mean-mindedness, the moral squalor and the chronic incompetence.
Those who expected more than that from a Gordon Brown premiership had clearly not read Tom Bower's biography, which documents Mr Brown's absolute unfitness for high office. Nor had they listened to the Blairites. They knew the measure of the man; they had spent 10 years enduring him. In all this, Mr Blair himself was culpable. He had no business shrugging his shoulders and handing over to someone whom he knew to be utterly unsuitable. Tony Blair owed it to his country to do to Gordon what Gordon had been trying to do to him for a decade: plant a dagger firmly between his shoulder-blades.
Yet even if it was predictable, the unworthiness can still stir to anger, especially in current circumstances. Inasmuch as it is possible to decipher Mr Brown's handwriting, it appears that he does not know how to spell "apologise". He certainly does not know how to do it. We learn that the rules relating to special advisers will be tightened up, as if Damian McBride's behaviour were a mere grey area. What rubbish. Of course, the current rules prohibit McPoisonry. So do the rules of human decency.
We also learn that "politics" is to blame. Who is this politics person? Could this be a code-word for Ed Balls, a man who combines Derek Draper's political judgment with Damian McBride's generosity of spirit? The Department of Education is in such wonderful shape. The SATs system is operating well and no one is worried about standards in schools. So Mr Balls has had plenty of time to spend in No 10, upsetting Peter Mandelson and - doing what exactly for Gordon Brown? His bashfulness on the subject will not protect him from scrutiny.
Then there is Jacqui Smith. What would she have to do to get the sack?If her record in office had been submitted as a comedy script, not even the most dumbed-down production company would have considered it. It would have lacked all credibility. So does she. There is only one rational explanation for her survival. She is the only minister who can make Gordon Brown look good. It would be possible to defend Mr Brown against the charge of being the worst Prime Minister of all time; there are rivals for that bad eminence. In Miss Smith's case, there is no rivalry. She wins outright: worst Home Secretary ever, most ludicrous senior minister ever. Give her the wooden spoon now, and save her having to claim it on parliamentary allowances.
We face 15 more months of this decomposing Government: a ghastly thought. At least there should be less hypocrisy, though not because Gordon Brown will grow any less hypocritical.
Yet even he must now realise, even in his paranoiac and self-pitying miasma, that any more talk about "values" and "moral compasses" would provoke enough derision to blow away the gates of Downing Street.But the Tories should not overindulge themselves in laughter.
Although Gordon Brown is easing their electoral task, he is adding to the burdens of office. Three years ago, David Cameron thought that he could concentrate on the broken society: a mighty undertaking. Last year, the broken economy forced its way to the foreground. The latest challenge is broken politics. The political class has never been held in lower esteem. Most voters are convinced that most MPs are corrupt, idle and useless. Most voters are wrong about this. They should not be led astray by Gordon Brown's flair for promoting certain characters who justify every stricture.
Most MPs work hard, and there are plenty of able people in the Commons. The expenses system is a mess, largely because all recent governments have found it politically easier to increase MPs' allowances rather than their salaries. This does not mean that many MPs are charging £116,000 to live with their sisters, while their husbands, paid as researchers, are watching pornography at the taxpayers' expense (you could not make it up). MPs should be entitled to a small staff. If they maintain two residences, there ought to be an allowance for the second one. Finally, it is in all our interests that they be adequately paid. The current system will have to be reformed, but in such a way as to ensure that Parliament remains open to those who want a reasonable middle-class standard of living, some of which could be earned by outside interests. We do not want to end up with ascetics and fanatics, interspersed with those who have private means.
It would be easier to persuade the public of this if we were better governed. It is hard to begrudge the voters their compensatory anger at the mess we are in. Apart from the necessary economic measures, the best way for David Cameron to help to restore Parliament's reputation would be to outline a convincing programme for government. In this, he should start by addressing one of the central questions of this political era.
It was one which Mrs Thatcher ducked. John Major did try, but lacked the political authority to make progress. Tony Blair followed up, but lacked the political courage to make progress. Gordon Brown is far too much of an old-fashioned statist to understand the question, which is: How can we ensure that the public services serve the public, and that the taxpayer receives the same value for money from his tax-pounds as he does in his private expenditure?
Paradoxically, the current crisis may make it easier for a Cameron Government to address the problem.Almost everyone now agrees that the state spends too much money and wastes far too much of what it spends. Even a few months ago, the Tories were reluctant to talk about waste, for fear that they would be accused of planning cuts.Today, forget waste: cuts are on the agenda. But it is important that the Tories should not sound negative.Under the Blairites, "delivery" became a cant term. It quickly became clear that the only delivery that interested our new masters was the next set of headlines. Even so, the next Government should rescue the concept, albeit in different language. Where it is necessary for Government to act, it ought to deliver. Where it is not necessary for the Government to deliver, it should stay out of the way.
David Cameron believes that a healthy society requires a strong though limited state. While he does not delude himself that every public servant will vote Tory, he would like to ensure that no able and conscientious public servant goes into the next election regarding the Tory party as his enemy. Over the next few months, the Tories will have the opportunity to promote a debate along these lines, while striking the note of sombre realism that the times demand. A lot of voters would welcome a political message which rises above the level of a lying email.
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