Sunday, 13 May 2012

Pomp, circumstance and business as usual

This week the Queen clattered off to Westminster in her gilded coach to open parliament and deliver a speech setting out a legislative programme that Prime Minister David Cameron said would ‘build Britain.’ The subtext, of course, was that it would re-launch the flagging fortunes of the coalition; to which the only appropriate response it good luck with that.

The bills announced include one to set up a Groceries Code Adjudicator to ensure supermarkets treat their suppliers fairly; measures to allow parents to share maternity leave; a Banking Reform Bill to force banks to separate their retail and investment arms; and proposals to set up a Green Investment Bank. All of which sounds like good progressive stuff, at least it does until you consider little matters like the government’s shameful track record when it comes to standing up to the banking lobby.

Other aspects of the Queen’s speech give greater cause for concern, the government intends to push ahead with the draft Communications Bill, otherwise known as the ‘snoopers charter’ allowing the security services to access the phone calls and emails of private citizens and the introduction of individual electoral registration. That one is a shameful infringement of civil liberties and the other risks disenfranchising thousands of voters in disadvantaged areas has simply failed to register with a government that when it finds itself in a hole tends to start drawing up plans to dig a tunnel.

David Cameron told the commons this week that the government’s legislative plans as set out in the Queen’s speech were all about ‘taking tough long term decisions to restore our country to strength.’ The reality may be a little different, it is reliably rumoured that the speech was rapidly rewritten following the drubbing the coalition parties received in the local elections and frankly it shows.

BBC political correspondent Norman Smith described it as a ‘hotchpotch’ of a speech with ‘no over-arching theme’, it certainly fails to address adequately the concerns over the economy that were the cause of so many voters rejecting Tory and Lib Dem candidates.

In perhaps one of his most assured performances at the despatch box Labour leader Ed Milliband launched a savage attack on the government saying the bills they were putting forward offered ‘no change, no hope’ to people struggling through hard times. He went on to say ‘the electorate have spoken and they are not listening’, accusing David Cameron and George Osborne of believing that ‘people are turning against them because they have not understood the government’s economic policy. The truth is people have turned against them because they have understood it only too well.’

As re-launches go this one has proves, so far, to be the dampest of damp squibs. It shows a government that manages to combine a few good intentions with a tin ear for the concerns of hard pressed voters.

By far the biggest problem faced by the coalition isn’t the bills it plans to put through parliament so much as the man at its head; David Cameron. In his salad days he styled himself as the ‘heir to Blair’ and as such stamped his own personality all over his project to detoxify the Conservative Party.

In opposition this worked well enough, hugging huskies softened the party’s image, but it failed to deliver a conclusive result at the 2010 election because after more than a decade of Blair’s antics the public were growing weary politicians trying to present themselves as being a ‘pretty straight kinda guy’ and suspected, rightly, that there was no substance under the spin.

Two years in government have shown David Cameron in his true colours, not as ‘Dave’ the modernising man of the people, but as a member of the metropolitan elite who wanted to be prime minister not because the thought he could change the world, rather he just felt he might be quite good at the job. In fact he’s been a disaster, stupidly inflexible over economic policy, misguided in his relations with other European leaders and dangerously out of touch with the concerns of ordinary voters.

Where does all this leave Ed Milliband? Since the budget there has been a decided spring in his step and his performances at PMQ’s no longer resemble those of a British tennis player in the first week at Wimbledon. However, to keep the sporting analogy going for a moment, he now needs to make sure he doesn’t emulate everyone’s favourite nearly man Andy Murray.

The awkward earnestness that until recently made him into a national joke now looks rather more appealing when opposed to the shallow posturing of David Cameron. The challenge now for Milliband and Labour is to find something original to say, promising to deliver a watered down version of austerity won’t cut it; they need to talk about how a Labour government would build a fairer society and to rebuild the party’s links with their core vote they so shamefully neglected during the Balir/Brown years.

Predictions of the imminent demise of the coalition are probably exaggerated because there will always be an incentive for the Liberal Democrats to prop it up in the hope that by doing so they will forestall their own brush with electoral annihilation. Three years is a long trek for an opposition party to keep up the pressure and keep its own message fresh, but it can be done if the message itself is a sufficiently compelling one.

One thing it for certain more and more people are starting to agree with the slogan on the poster showing an air-brushed photo (is there any other kind?) of David Cameron toted at demonstrations by members of the Socialist Workers Party; it reads: ‘He’s got to go.’

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