Leading article: The paltry politics of posturing

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The Independent Online

Calling for Sir Fred Goodwin to be stripped of his knighthood is like swearing aloud when you miss a train. Other people might sympathise, but it is demeaning and pointless. It is also, more than three years after the collapse and nationalisation of the Royal Bank of Scotland, too late. Sadly, our political leaders capitulated to a newspaper campaign, and last week David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg all agreed that Sir Fred should revert to Mr Goodwin.

This is substituting the scapegoating of an easy target for grown-up politics. The former chief executive of RBS is the most visible and least contrite exemplar of irresponsible banking that contributed to the financial crisis. For Mr Cameron this diversion serves two purposes. First, it helps him to anticipate the outcry over bonuses at RBS and other banks, which are about to be announced. Second, being rude about "Fred the Shred" has the party-political advantage that he was knighted under a Labour government. Never mind that his knighthood was nothing to do with the Labour government at Westminster – he was nominated by the Scottish executive, led by Jack McConnell, the then Labour first minister – it scores a cheap point.

Instead of devising policies that discourage banks from overpaying employees – or explaining to the voters why such a policy might be ineffective or wrong – how much easier to kick a pantomime villain. Just as, instead of passing laws to curb some of the excesses of the City, how much easier it is for the Prime Minister to engage in a war of rhetoric about "responsible capitalism" with the Labour Party.

There is too much posturing from this government. The Prime Minister's support for a new airport in the Thames Estuary, known as "Boris Island" because it was proposed by the Mayor of London, contradicts what he has said before, as John Rentoul comments on the opposite page. On day three of the coalition, Mr Cameron promised that it would be the "greenest government ever". He kept the manifesto promises of both coalition parties to scrap the third runway at Heathrow. The reason the Conservatives gave at the time was the need to minimise climate change. But now, with the Boris Island plans, that reason has been revealed as a sham, and all we are left with is the naked electoral interest of west London seats.

Heathrow now forgotten, the Prime Minister last week suggested that he favoured a new airport on the Thames mudflats. We can see why he might be attracted to such a grand project. It seems bold and futuristic. It proclaims London's ambition to renew its global hub status – although, in our opinion, the idea that air travel is so important belongs to the last century. The Prime Minister's support for the project also helps seal a bond with Boris Johnson, who last week reciprocated by disowning any intention of seeking Mr Cameron's job.

As a green newspaper, we think that this new airport is a bad idea, but, as a newspaper that takes politics seriously, we think it simply makes no sense.

Just as opportunist was Mr Cameron's decision to set up the Leveson inquiry into the ethics of journalism. In this case the posturing was Mr Miliband's and Mr Clegg's. The Leader of the Opposition called for an inquiry as the easy option at Prime Minister's Questions, and the Deputy Prime Minister forced the issue, seeing a chance to "dial up some differentiation" from his coalition partner. As an accessory to the crime of gesture politics, Mr Cameron was guilty mainly of weakness in this case. Lord Justice Leveson's terms of reference are too broad, and his hearings, entertaining though they have been, unfocused.

That is what happens to the politics of posturing: a lot of show but little sense of a government that has a purpose and a single-minded determination to pursue it. So we have a show trial of Sir Fred, in the obscure quasi-judicial Forfeiture Committee; we have a show project in Boris Island, all artist's impressions and scale models until it is abandoned on cost grounds years hence; and we have a "celebrities versus editors" show for daytime news channels.

This tendency to posturing risks turning our politics into a stage farce. But it is worse than that: it risks revealing Mr Cameron – and to a lesser extent Mr Clegg and Mr Miliband – to be gesture politicians who believe in nothing very much. These stories of scapegoats, easy targets, inconsistency and missing the point reveal our leaders in an unflattering light.