Steve Richards: At a time of crisis, we need more experience at the top than this

I look at Cameron and Osborne's erratic policy journey and wonder if they know where they are going

Share

Caught in intimidating waves, David Cameron and George Osborne are two talented politicians who are out of their depth. They soared to the top of politics far too early, half-formed as public figures. They had little experience in a shadow cabinet when they took over their party, and no ministerial pasts when they started to run a country in the midst of an economic crisis. If they had reached the top 10 years later they might have been commanding figures. Sadly for them, and more alarmingly for the country, they peaked when they still had much to learn.

They are by no means alone in this, but they are much the most exposed. In spite of the storms, both are still fairly effective performers. Most of the time they are calm and witty in the Commons and in interviews. But in terms of policy-making, and in the confused projection of their agenda, they struggle to stay afloat. For illumination, always follow the policy trail, not the public demeanour of the policy-makers.

The U turn on petrol duty is especially illuminating – both the manner in which it was announced and the decision itself. The panic-stricken political calculations are obvious. The Sun newspaper was running a campaign against the rise, incidentally showing that in the Leveson era this particular newspaper can still reduce politicians to fearful subservience.

Ed Balls had got in first, calling for the tax rise to be postponed and forming an alliance with the Sun in doing so. Osborne was contemplating a postponement of the rise, but Balls forced his hand. Balls made Michael Gove's early ministerial life something of a nightmare when he briefly shadowed him after the 2010 election. The right's current deification of Gove began only once Balls had moved on. Now Balls does the same to Osborne, who felt the need to announce the U-turn within hours of the Shadow Chancellor's interview on the subject rather than defend it for a little longer at Treasury Questions in the Commons on Tuesday.

There is a new mythology about U-turns, reinforced most recently by David Cameron during a weekend interview in which he argued that they are healthy, showing that the Government is listening. The indiscriminately sweeping defence is as misleading as the previous mythology that U-turns are always a sign of weakness. Sometimes a change of policy is sensible but a darkly comical series of changes point to deep uncertainty at the top about direction of policy, to an insecurity about being unpopular for more than 10 seconds, and to a lack of confidence in decisions taken.

The U-turn over petrol prices is especially significant because it marks more blatantly than other policy shifts a slight loosening of the so-called Plan A. Normally when Osborne announces a tax cut he at least affects to explain in some detail how it will be paid for. Now he loses at least half a billion pounds without any attempt to say which departments would make up the shortfall. Belatedly Osborne discovers that the economy is so fragile that rigid fiscal conservatism can cause even greater fragility. He tiptoes away from unyielding austerity, even if he tiptoed in a panic over the timing.

What is worrying is not the latest inevitable U-turn, but the original shallow thinking behind the Budget. When the proposals began to unravel, allies of Osborne insisted that the Chancellor had no alternative but to introduce contentious tax rises that his predecessors had deliberately avoided. He had a deficit to reduce and other tax cuts to pay for, including his own policy to reduce the top rate of tax for high earners, a crass miscalculation and one of the few measures from the Budget that still remain in place.

The Chancellor's allies were adamant that without these revenue-raising measures, Britain's tottering economy would move even closer to the edge. Now the apparently unavoidable tax-raising measures are dropped, suggesting that they were not an urgent necessity in the first place. The economy has not fallen over the cliff's edge without the tax on pasties.

We should not be surprised by the U-turns. They have been persistent since the youthful duo took over the leadership of the Conservative party in 2005. Like Cameron, Osborne follows the model of the historian AJP Taylor, who once declared that he had strong views weakly held. Osborne began his tenure as shadow chancellor by declaring his support for a flat tax. His support fell away quickly when even The Economist described the policy as too iniquitous and right-wing. Next Osborne moved to the centre ground, arguing that stability was his priority and not tax cuts. Soon after that, and fearing an early election, he announced a tax cut, the abolition of inheritance tax. With a flourish he soon went on to declare support for Labour's sending plans, and accused Labour of not spending enough in some areas. After which he leapt to the right of the Republican administration in the US by calling for real-term spending cuts in the UK when the financial crisis erupted in 2008 and governments were implementing a fiscal stimulus. This was in the relatively easy terrain of opposition. Cameron and Osborne exude great public confidence, so much so that they are seen in some quarters as cockily arrogant. I look at their erratic policy journey and wonder whether they know where they are going. I wonder more after Cameron's bizarre speech on welfare reform on Monday, in which tonally he made an irreversible leap rightwards from the compassionate Conservatism that had once been his defining tonal pitch.

Cameron/Osborne would have steered a more recognisably solid path, and acquired more consistently authentic public voices if they had toiled as ministers in departments or had fought long battles within their party. Sharp intelligence, instinct, and erratic attachment to re-heated Thatcherism are not enough in circumstances that demand unusually titanic leadership.

A lot of the time Cameron has shown patient, agile leadership in the management of the Coalition, in itself an almost impossible task. When speaking in public at length during his appearance at the Leveson Inquiry, Osborne defied misleading caricature. He showed himself to be thoughtful, loyal and capable of defusing potentially awkward situations. But neither man knows quite who they are or what they are for as public figures. When, partly as a result of their policies, the British economy is in recession and the Eurozone is so unpredictably volatile, this is not a time to learn as you go along.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ed Miliband created a crisis of confidence about himself within Labour when he forgot to mention the deficit in his party conference speech  

The political parties aren't all the same – which means 2015 will be a 'big-choice' election

Andrew Grice
 

Beware of the jovial buffoon who picks fights overseas

Boyd Tonkin
Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect