Steve Richards: Leaders who are having to learn as they go along

The misjudgement over Northern Rock was the first of many in response to the economic crisis

Share

Although avid and admiring students of the New Labour project, David Cameron and George Osborne are not having the same success in projecting an equivalent for their party. Increasingly they seem overwhelmed by events, the scale of which would test much more experienced politicians than the youthful duo who are still finding their way at the very top.

Their relative inexperience is the one act of precise duplication with New Labour. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown came to power having never served as ministers. Cameron and Osborne are similarly new to power. Blair and Brown were more developed politically by 1997 but both suffered from having no ministerial past on which to lean at moments of crisis.

At times the fragility had profound consequences. Blair might have read and deployed intelligence documents more knowingly if he had ever been a Home or Foreign Secretary. Instead he made his judgements on the road to war as a Prime Minister with no ministerial past.

In the case of Cameron and Osborne they had only been MPs for a few years before seizing the leadership of their party. Experience in politics helps to flesh out distinctively informed and yet original outlooks. Lacking such experience, the duo read the New Labour rulebooks and sought out the lessons of the 1980s when the Tories were election-winners. But they lack a clear, developed worldview of their own, tested by events in opposition and in government. Yet their rise to the very top coincides with seismic events, partly of their own making.

I felt uneasy about the announcement from Osborne that he was selling off Northern Rock, and was not entirely sure why. After all, the sale might be the best deal available and could well add much-needed innovative competition to the sclerotic banking sector. I soon realised why I had doubts. The Northern Rock crisis that erupted in September 2007 highlighted for the first time the inexperience of Cameron and Osborne at the top of politics.

Until Northern Rock teetered on the edge, Cameron/Osborne had adapted well to the demands of leadership, not least in recognising that the best way to undermine Tony Blair was to support him. But in their opposition to the nationalisation of Northern Rock they displayed naivety and an alarming tendency to apply 1980s ideas to an entirely new situation. Even The Economist called for the nationalisation.

That misjudgement was the beginning of many in response to the economic crisis, including their opposition to a fiscal stimulus when even the right-wing republican administration in the US was applying one. In my view it was these judgements and not Cameron's advocacy of the Big Society that meant the Conservatives failed to win an overall majority at the last election.

It all began with Northern Rock, and as I write a Conservative MP warns on the BBC's World at One that the bank has been sold to Virgin at too big a loss for the taxpayer. We will never know for sure whether, if Osborne had waited longer, the taxpayer would have made a profit. What is evident is that the Chancellor needs to find money wherever he can as tax receipts fall and the bills for high unemployment grow.

Plan A is the peak of the misjudged ascent that began with their opposition to the nationalisation of Northern Rock. More experienced politicians would not have become trapped by a Plan that now so rigidly defines their cause.

Public proclamations are deceptive. Because Ed Miliband has declared the death of New Labour and Cameron/Osborne revere parts of the New Labour project we misread what is actually happening. In reality the three key figures in the Shadow Cabinet – Miliband, Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander – are applying many of the lessons they learnt from Blair/Brown at the height of their powers in opposition.

In his speech yesterday, a big improvement on the shapeless academic lecture delivered at the party conference, Miliband sought to establish a very New Labour dividing line between the "old ways" of running an economy and the new ones. The speech was well structured with clear staging posts and specific examples of how he would apply a "hard-headed" approach to moral capitalism.

"Hard-headed morality" has a New Labour ring in its dual message, rather like prudence for a purpose. Balls was a similarly challenging caricature yesterday when he insisted that the cash from Northern Rock should be used to pay back the deficit. Here was prudence for a purpose again, and an argument that makes Balls less easy to categorise as a deficit denier.

Alexander also had Blair/Brown in mind when he delivered his speech on Europe earlier this week, one that sought to avoid traps several positions ahead on the chessboard. For them New Labour is not quite as dead as Miliband suggested it was, or at least the version that functioned in opposition.

Cameron and Osborne are confident and polished in public, disguising their relative inexperience. The two Eds and Alexander are still learning the art of performance, and may never fully do so, but have experienced a huge amount of opposition and ministerial power. In the end the state of the economy will determine the fate of them all, but the political battle is not quite what it seems to be.

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

Business Analyst (Agile, SDLC, software)

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Marketing Executive, London

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Charter Selection: This highly prestigious luxury b...

C++ Software Developer / Image Processing / 3D Visualisation

£45,000 to £55,000: IT Connections Ltd: C++ Software Developer / Image Process...

Data Scientist

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A data analytics are currently looking t...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Prince George's birthday is a pleasant distraction, but the monarchy still makes me feel uneasy

Simon Kelner
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor