Steve Richards: In turbulent times, can the PM go with the flow?

Leaders are slow to move in a time of flux. They look back, then forwards and act in conflicting ways

Share

Who's up and who's down? Who can make the best jokes? Who looks good on TV? These are questions that are great fun to ask and even more fun to answer. They matter, too: politics is partly an art form. But they are nowhere near as important as the great currents shaping events around bewildered leaders, whether they look good or not.

Since the global financial crisis of 2008, the tidal waves have been wilder than usual, exposing the inefficiency and iniquities of unconstrained markets. They have started to change the political and economic landscape. For now, we see only the early symptoms. The Coalition is one sign. In Britain, we are used to single party governments. In the first election since the financial crisis, voters could not decide. Now the Coalition seeks to adapt to the waves, but, conditioned by the old order of the 1980s and 1990s, cannot quite bring itself to do so. David Cameron and George Osborne know something big is going on, seek to convey that they know and yet, in policy terms, are confused, partly clinging to old assumptions as if this was 1983 or 1997.

They ache to drop the top rate of tax on high earners. Osborne appeared to be following the technique of Gordon Brown by commissioning a report on an issue the outcome of which has already been decided. But, in spite of his reputation for tactical brilliance, Osborne is not as surefooted as the unfashionable Brown was in his early days at the Treasury. According to the Daily Telegraph, his report on the top rate of tax shows a "surge" in revenues, not what Osborne had hoped to find. This must be the only occasion when a Chancellor is disappointed to hear of money pouring into the Treasury.

Irrespective of its practical merits, polls suggest the top rate is popular as voters edge tentatively towards a new keenly felt sense of fairness. Cameron and Osborne know this and cannot do what they want to do. This is not 1997, when Tony Blair and Brown felt the need to show they were relaxed about the rich getting much richer and made the commitment not to raise the top rate. Something big is happening when Cameron and Osborne find themselves in the opposite position of not being able to scrap the higher rate. Instead, they wait uneasily, hoping for the space to do so after 2015. A new focus on fairness is taking hold.

Cameron shows he recognises this in what he says about the separate issue of executive pay. In his interview on Sunday with Andrew Marr, Cameron cited undeserved awards as an example of "market failure". This acknowledgement is quite a leap. Not so long ago, some in his entourage worshipped uncritically at the altar of markets. But, in spite of the recognition, Cameron cannot quite bring himself to act in a way that will make a practical difference. Transparency will not work. We know about the greed of bankers and are angered. In response, the bankers opt for vilification and take the cash. Transparency is good, but it is not enough.

In acknowledging the validity of the fairness issue, Cameron joins the unstoppable tide. In the end, something big will happen, but not yet. Leaders are slow to move at a time of flux. They look back, then forwards and act in conflicting ways. Such is the force of the tide, Cameron moves from an instinctively wary attitude towards the state to a more equivocal position. His confusion is vividly illustrated in his recent declaration that nursing standards must improve and nurses should see a patient once an hour. This is a good target, but Cameron is not meant to believe in targets from the centre. (Disastrously, he has dropped the target on waiting times and, of course, waiting times are soaring.) His NHS reforms devolve power from the centre to a new quango, to GPs and to the private sector, so he can do no more than issue "guidelines". The NHS requires more sophisticated targets, smaller, more efficient PCTs, better-managed hospitals and more productive GPs, arising from a more nimble, efficient state. Evidently, Cameron senses his reforms are out of step or else he would not be issuing targets, but he cannot bring himself to scrap them or the vision that underlies them. In this tentative transitional phase, he opts for centralised exhortation and extreme forms of devolution.

Since 2008, questions have raged about fairness, the role of the state and markets. The Coalition sees the tidal waves, but cannot quite ride them. As in the 1970s when the corporatist era came to a dramatic, but gradual close, rulers struggle to adapt, even though they recognise the need. In their internal agonising, the leaders of the Coalition are transitional figures like Heath, Wilson and Callaghan, rather than masters of a new era that demands subtle, but stringent approaches to fairness, delivery and accountability. The confused fragility ari sing from recognition that things must change and the fearful reluctance to act accordingly is one an effective opposition could turn to its overwhelming advantage.

s.richards@independent.co.uk / twitter.com/steverichards14

React Now

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

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

Vote Tory and you’re voting for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer

Mark Steel
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'