Because of the unexpected and undignified nature of his passing, the content of Christopher Shales’ last memo on Earth has passed most people by. On reading it again this morning, I was struck by the obvious point it was making: that many of the Coalition’s actions are seen by the electorate as not only lacking legitimacy; the general demeanour of the Tory Party in general and Camerlot in particular are adding to this feeling. Bizarrely, Lord Tebbit of all people said something very similar in a press interview last weekend – that knee-jerk action to curb strikes would be seen by the electorate as gratuitous and lacking in public support.
The interesting thought here is that it may not just be the hopeless incompetence of the communications team around David Cameron that is to blame for the Government’s failure to win arguments against the predictable avalanche of liberal criticism. It may not even be the persistently truculent behaviour of the LibDems in only grudgingly approving any of the legislation at best, and sabotaging it into meaningless muddle at worst. Rather, the main problem might be the insouciant boorishness and arrogant assumptions that underlie most things said and done by the loyal boys club around Dave; and the complete lack of conviction with which these ‘professional’ technocrats then turn tail and run at the sound of gunfire. The hallmark of bullies is, after all, that unattractive mixture of threatening bluster and then desperate cowardice.
Considering that the Tory Right regards Camerlot as ineluctably wet, the Round Table has a remarkable ability at times to represent all that is ghastly about assumptive privilege. The casual way in which the Prime Minister approves of ‘the family leg-up’, for example, I find profoundly distasteful. The similarly insensitive manner in which he dismisses those who want out of the EU as ‘BNP lite’ is more typical of a spoilt popinjay than a politician with an instinct for what’s on the voters’ mind. (Let’s face it, if you have to hire Andy Coulson to read the punter’s mind, then you don’t know much).
On the few occasions when I’ve raised it with them, the inability to engage any of Camerlot’s elite in my feelings of repulsion for the values of Rupert Murdoch has set me hard against them. The intelligent stupidity of Jeremy Hunt’s sleazy grin is one of the few sights capable of making me want to thump somebody – him – very hard. The remark of a Cabinet minister to me least year that the utterly undemocratic EU could be safely ignored as ‘an imponderable’ disappointed, for I have always found him a caring man. And so on and so on. It all adds up to a sense that these are people looking down on ‘popular opinion’ as something which can be circumvented – until such time as it becomes a threat, at which point it must be slavishly indulged. Prison sentencing is perhaps the best example of this: the overall impression given is of people who care for populist power, but not the hard duties of leadership.
I am on many issues several leagues to the Right of this mob, but their ability to irritate with this electorally superior attitude never fails to strike me as uniquely repellent in British Conservative politics. Heath was chilly, Thatcher slightly mad, and Major simply boring: but none of them got on my tits to quite the extent that Cameron, Osborne, May and Hilton do. Only Harman, Jowell, Brown and Blair have ever beaten the ire they can evoke in me. In that context, I’d rather have the Goves, Duncan-Smiths, Clarkes and Tebbits of his world. To be honest, I’d probably rather have Frank Field than any of them.
An unattractive melange of U-turn, half-hearted Thatcherism and polemic bigotry, for example, probably led to the astonishing vote at the BMA Conference yesterday, when delegates backed, by 93% to 5%, a motion arguing that ‘competition should not be forced on the NHS by imposing any duties on commissioners to promote choice as a higher priority than tackling fair access and health inequalities’. I couldn’t agree more with that sentiment, because it represents a form of moral common sense: why does choice matter to a patient staggering into A&E with chest pains?
The latest set of opinion polls to come out of UK Polling Report (an excellent site if you’re a former research anorak like me) represent fascinating support for this view of the Coalition as an entity that shoots itself in the foot with a carelessly cocked, hand-crafted Purdey on every occasion. Comres, for instance, asked last June 19th if people agreed that “public sector workers” were right to take strike action over maintaining their pension plans. They found 48% agreed and 36% disagreed – a reflection of just how many people are employed in the public sector, but also of Camerlot’s spectacular failure to convince the one fifth in between.
On the same day, Populus conducted fieldwork asking Brits whether it was ‘fair’ to strike in Britain’s current circumstances. A relatively high 54% thought striking legitimate in this climate: but only 18% disagreed. The Coalition should surely see its inability to persuade what seems to have been the 28% middle-aged, middle England in between as a communications disaster. I have no designs on the right to strike: but I do object to the highly-paid opportunism of Dave Prentiss and Bob Crowe – and I have little faith in a Tory Government that can’t win that argument.
Also supporting my view was the YouGov research of three days earlier, which did demonstrate that on the issue of whether people supported specific strike action by teaching unions over pension changes, job cuts and a pay freeze, 39% supported it, but this time 42% opposed it. I would strongly contend that this was an experiential and profoundly cultural expression by private sector strugglers and hacked-off parents about the pompous inadequacy of Lefty teachers – and that almost none of it was down to anything said by Camerlot…most of which had been wishy-washy: the sort of lets-be-nicey-even-though-we’re-nasty that was so transparent during the 2010 General Election.
Yet when it chose to get heavy – and for once the Coalition did now set off on a well-designed and executed programme of positioning the teachers as reform Luddites – things quickly swung in its favour. Eight days later, YouGov found only 38% in support, and 49% against strike action.
I doubt very much if the Round Table will take note of any of this – its inability to analyse research with thoroughness and insight has been a hallmark ever since the Camerlot triumph of 2006 – but they should. Its very lack of conviction about anything means that it rarely bothers to speak from the heart. And that empty cynicism in turn means that when Ministers do demonstrate passion, the tendency is to dismiss it as the worst kind of ham acting for the cameras. Michael Gove is an honourable exception to this rule, in that while he rarely shows passion, he is passionate about education reform – and it shows.
In this context, I also feel sorry for Ian Duncan-Smith. A spurned former leader, he is completely out of place in this Administration: a quiet, well-meaning and dedicated bloke with the needs of welfare users as important to him as taxpayer value for money, he is dismissed by Cameron’s lightweights as a plodder. Nothing could be further from the truth: both he and David Davies, for all their faults, easily detect the public pulse, but refuse to be slaves to it. They have insight and the genuine love of the Rule of Law and a level playing field. They are public servants in the best sense of the term. Along with Malcolm Brady and his passion for the social mobility that flowed from Grammar schools, they represent an element which, if it predominated in the Conservative Party, would effortlessly attract my vote.
But what we have instead here is a quite incredibly unrepresentative oligarchy – the triumph of One School Oxbridge Toryism over One Nation Conservatism. A largely ineffectual mafia with no qualms at all about dealing with gargoyles like Murdoch for their own advantage – or doing the banks’ bidding because one’s uncle was a stockbroker, don’t you know. They fail in the persuasion battle because – as every good negotiator in history has always known – the secret of success is finding out what the clients want, and then selling what you think they need – without compromising your principles irrevocably.
Some level of compromise is inevitable. But understanding and believing in your principles is vital if one is to persuade honestly and convincingly. The Blairites failed because of this. And so too will Camerlot.