The Conservative government, the worst in living memory, has got a free pass in power

Whatever its faults, Labour is not the party of Government, and the media is abrogating its duty of oversight

Matthew Norman
Wednesday 02 December 2015 15:17 GMT
The arrogant abrasiveness of Mr Osborne and Mr Hunt echoes the callous, bellicose worst of the Thatcher era.
The arrogant abrasiveness of Mr Osborne and Mr Hunt echoes the callous, bellicose worst of the Thatcher era. (PA)

The forthcoming question may, to those of you who remember Gordon Brown’s latter days and the EU-inspired melodramas of John Major, seem absurdly overblown. Yet after weeks of miserable failures and internal party scandal, perhaps the absurdity is that no one is asking it at all. So indulge me if I plug this gap by wondering whether, based on recent form, this is absolutely the worst British Government in memory?

In less surreal political times, everyone would be asking. The phone-ins would drone on and on with the inflated ire of the terminally disaffected. The papers would be running querulous recaps of the various disasters that have afflicted the Tories in recent weeks. The BBC might even shrug off its terror of government reprisals to wheel Michael Fallon, the greaser’s greaser, on to the Today show to reassure John Humphrys on a daily basis that all is well.

And the drumbeat to what we really must try to stop calling war (“this is not war,” as I will keep quoting a Dalek facing an army of Cybermen, “this is pest control”) might even be silenced by an accusation: namely, that David Cameron’s eagerness to deploy our charmingly bijou complement of bombers over Syria stems largely from the urge to divert the attention from his administration’s pernicious cocktail of conceit, nastiness and incompetence.

In these singular political times, however, no one is interested in the Government. The story of the repulsive Tatler Tory and the poor young man who took his own life – although it fills column inches – fails to ignite the inferno of outrage that ordinarily attends a rancid scandal involving as close a personal and political friend of the PM as his party chairman, Lord Feldman. George Osborne executes a tyre-melting U-turn over tax credits, and the nation’s ears are drawn away by the gentle thud of a little red book landing on a table.

After picking a barely less vindictive fight with the junior doctors than Mr Osborne’s crusade against the working poor, Jeremy Hunt finally, inevitably, makes a forced retreat – and this crushing humiliation is hardly noticed. And as Mr Cameron embarks on the latest in this unending parade of muddle-headed, self-aggrandising military interventions, all eyes are on Mr Corbyn and his fractious Shadow Cabinet.

Never has a Government been given a free pass like this one. There appears to be literally nothing it could do that would highlight its cluelessness and deal it lasting harm.

If Mr Cameron called a press conference on Friday to reveal that – after being petitioned in a dream by a coalition of the archangel Gabriel, the late Emperor Bokassa and Soo the panda from Sooty – he means to bomb Andorra as well as Syria, it would be the ninth or tenth item on bulletins. If on Sunday Iain Duncan Smith went on Andrew Marr’s BBC One show to announce a plan to replace Universal Credit with Khmer Rouge-style camps for the unemployed, policed by red-sash-wearing giant lobsters from the planet Zeta Castrovalva, Monday’s tabloids would splash with a photo of Diane Abbott dashing to the shops for milk without full make-up.

None of this is to suggest that Labour hasn’t colluded in the distortion, or is devoid of internal difficulties, or isn’t not heading towards the MPs vs party members civil war anticipated a while ago. Even so, it may be useful to remind ourselves that Labour is not the party of Government; and that the media – in some cases through partisanship, in others through indolence – is abrogating its duty of oversight regarding the party that is.

What may in less eccentric circumstances be lethal to the Tories about this sequence of mishaps is that, individually and jointly, they reinforce the suspicion that nothing beyond the cosmetic has changed. The arrogant abrasiveness of Mr Osborne and Mr Hunt echoes the callous, bellicose worst of the Thatcher era. The portrait drawn by the Tatler Tory story is of a world barely less ruled by money, power and patronage now than in the late 1950s heyday of the Magic Circle. Then, about half of all government ministers were related by blood or marriage to Harold Macmillan. Now, when at last he deigns to abandon the ostrich position, Mr Cameron’s overdue response to a suicide seems less concerned with the need for delayed justice than preserving Lord Feldman, his old varsity chum, at the expense of the sorely lamented Grant Shapps.

As for a rush to “war”, which is as confused in its aims as it is opportunistic in its timing, this strangles any naïve hope that he has learned the obvious lessons of recent history. Not much more than a decade on, Mr Cameron is trotting out the fairytale about “70,000 moderate Syrian fighters on the ground” (who does he think these people are? Long-term sleepers from David Steel’s Liberals? A hit squad of Anglican clerics in “We ∫ Robert Runcie” T-shirts) with the misplaced conviction of Tony Blair’s warning about Saddam’s WMD?

Any government that reveals itself to be this unpleasant, cack-handed, complacent and delusory, and so soon after an election win, should expect to be a laughing stock even among natural supporters. But when there is an infinite supply of cheap belly laughs provided by Labour, who cares that this administration is allowed to operate in a vacuum of accountability for the want of a viable opposition?

Strange days indeed, even in a country with an innate talent for looking the wrong way. Most peculiar.

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