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Hezza signals discontent at lack of Cameron grip, but Osborne won’t U-turn yet

Posted on 18 February 2011 | 8:02am

I got back from Leicester in time to catch a bit of Question Time and was interested to see that the audience seemed mildly supportive of the government’s U-turn on the sell-off of forests.

It was a very different reaction to the one I got at De Montfort University, where students seemed to go along with my assessment that it showed a rather alarming lack of grip and competence, and also showed what happens when governments do things for which they have no mandate.

Of the Question Time panel, Michael Heseltine’s response was the most interesting. He has a very good way of being caustic without seeming caustic. As I know him reasonably well from my journalistic days, I think I can safely translate his comments as being closer to mine than those members of the panel and audience who said it was good to see the government admit they had got something wrong.

Heseltine, who loves his trees, said he saw nothing wrong with the policy, but clearly agreed its handling had been cack. He thought it was fine to do the occasional U-turn, and fine to pretend it was a sign of strength, ‘so long as you don’t do it too often.’

Therein I read his observation that Cameron’s government was doing this too often for its own good, and certainly too often for old political hands like him.

It is becoming something of a trait. They announce something with a real fanfare. The public indicate disapproval. They defend themselves. Then David Cameron steps in and throws in the towel.

Yvette Cooper pointed out that it would be good if they did the same on the scale and scope of cuts. They won’t. Because as I said to the DMU students, George Osborne is in charge there. And whatever people may think of him, he is doing what ideological Tories have always done – using power to deliver their vision, in his case of a right-wing, small state market economy in which people fend for themselves rather than rely on others.

The lack of a majority for that view is an inconvenience but not a bar. Cameron on the other hand rather enjoys the game of the coalition. He knows what George is up to, and broadly approves but he has to keep Nick Clegg sweet by pretending that policies being pursued are ‘progressive.’

I must report from DMU that it was not working terribly well. The good news is that students are becoming more political. The bad news for the coalition is that bright young things do not appear to be buying their line(s).

There are still doubts about Labour of course, which is inevitable so soon after being ejected from power. But there is definitely a hunger to hear more from them. I totally endorse the comment on my blog yesterday from someone called Ronnie who urged Labour to set up some kind of big event at which these arguments on the economy, which alas even on Question Time tend to operate at the soundbite level, are played out in a fact-based debate on how we got to where we are. There are so many false claims in the Tories’ basic economic arguments and they need to be torn apart. Only then are we likely to see Cameron pushing his friend George from his slash and burn approach to cuts.

  • Pete

    Labour is unlikely to get back into power because of TWO roadblocks that ‘normal’ people see with clarity. They are – Ed Balls and Peter Mandelson. Both intensely distrusted by the public as a whole, and dare I suggest, even by You? though I doubt you’d have the ‘Balls’ to admit it on this blog 🙂

    • Richard Brittain

      Interesting comment. I think you are probably right. But I’d stretch it further than those two. Ed Miliband, whether we like it or not, is also a relic of the previous government – A government which gained distrust in the eyes of many. That distrust is not going to go away any time soon, whether it is deserved or not. In my opinion, Labour will largely have to start afresh to win power – I really don’t see it happening under Miliband. Just my personal take on it… I actually thought Alan Johnson was amongst the best in terms of honesty and clarity, and it’s a shame that he has resigned. My pessimistic prediction, I suppose, is that Labour have a terrible 2014 general election, and decide to go with completely fresh blood unconnected to the previous regime.

      I for one like Peter Mandelson whereas I suppose I am a bit distrustful of Ed Balls. For me, the good people in Labour were Blair, Campbell and Mandelson

  • Tilly Chalmers

    The cynic in me wonders if they launch ideas like the woodlands sell-off deliberately in order to take attention away from things like the true implications of the welfare reform for hundreds of thousands of disabled people. I think I can guarantee that’s one policy they won’t be u-turning on, no matter what misery ensues.

    • Robert

      You are right Tilly.

      Several in the QT audience were making the same point.

      Distraction politics at its most blatant.

      Similarly discussion of the badger cull, foot and mouth and even, maybe, the AV referendum. (On the last point – not made my mind up on AV but do not like the glossy “No” ad campaign criticising the costs of it. Too polished – too much like the powerful trying to buy the referendum. Like, it’s not as if the “No” campaign – mainly the Tory led Government – are promising to spend extra money on bullet-proof vests or nurses or whatever other areas they are cutting like hell after a successful “No” outcome.)

  • david

    The Government is to delay its decision on whether to allow badger culling to curb the TB in cattle. The decision was due around the end of this month, but according to reports it could come as late as May.

    Caroline Spelman this morning defended the Government on the issue, saying: “It’s very important in relation to such a sensitive decision that we do the right thing, and it’s better that Ministers take their time to do the process correctly.”

    Looks like the badgers are off the hook too.

  • Shinsei1967

    Yvette Cooper unfortunately destroyed any attempt to attack the Tories on their “false claims” on the economy by admitting that she didn’t remember how big the deficit was when Labour left government. Which presented Vince Cable with the simplest of goals “It was 9% of GDP, the largest in the developed world, and far bigger than comparable countries to the UK.”

    Hardly a vote of confidence for Labour’s economic competence when even a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury has difficulty with the basics of the nation’s recent finances.

  • Chris lancashire

    “There are still doubts about Labour” Yup, maybe because the memory of the complete and utter economic mess left by Brown-Balls is still fresh in the public’s mind. Endorsed by the complete lack of support for Mrs Cooper-Balls on QT last night.

  • Jacquie R

    Despite Cameron’s pledge to protect the NHS, frontline staff and services are being axed. If anyone has any doubt about the intentions and ideology of this government, a short quote in The Guardian from John Healy, shadow health secretary, says it all:

    “The £1.8bn needed for Lansley’s NHS shakeup could fund almost 15,000 nurses for three years.”

    We need a general election very soon.

  • Olli Issakainen

    Neoliberals want to limit government. They also want deregulation. But neoliberal financial regime has collapsed.
    Yet politicians continue to defer to the markets.
    Libertarians want state only to look after law and order plus provide national defence.
    Neoliberal state accepts only a minimal welfare state.
    After the banking crisis we cannot return to neoliberal business-as-usual.
    After the crisis high levels of public spending are next to impossible to achieve. So neoliberalism is also taking down much what remains of social democracy as well.
    The Conservative party is now in the hands of neoliberal Thatcherites like George Osborne while David Cameron claims to be a “one nation Tory”.
    Mr Osborne is obsessed with DEFICIT MONOMANIA for ideological reasons. The Tory-led government is out of touch with voters. Labour should break free from neoliberal orthodoxy before it is too late.
    Andrew Rawnsley wrote in the Observer about the “cumulative amateurishness” of the government. Coalition is inexperienced. Only a couple of people like Ken Clarke and William Hague have been in the Cabinet before.
    Inexperience has led to a number of policy blunders. People in No 10 think of policies, not politics. Ideology has taken over common sense.
    Will the NHS reform work? Or will it lose the election for the Tories? Michael Gove is messing schools. Big Society is all but finished.
    The government has forgotten voters.
    And then there are the cuts.
    Martin Wolf of the FT wrote that “the UK has had no fiscal crisis”. So why the austerity?
    And why now when the economy is still weak. Thinktank NIESR has stated that there should be a delay in spending cuts. Growth is more important now.
    The Tory-led government messed the Project Merlin. Inflation is 4%, oil prices $104 a barrel and VAT 20%.
    Yet Mr Osborne believes private sector will create 2.5m new jobs! And some Very Serious People think that it is OK to back his policies! In reality many do back the public sector reforms, not the economic policy.
    50% of the Tory funding (£11.4m) in 2010 came from City.
    Unemployment is rising.
    Record £9.2bn trade deficit dents hopes of export-driven recovery. Surge in manufacturing costs prompts inflation and interest rate fears.
    The current economic policy of the Tory-led government will lead to stagflation soon. And George Osborne boasts that he has no Plan B.
    Government is trying to implement a model of society the majority of Britons did not vote for. They use lies and fear. But debt is lower than during 200 of the last 250 years. Ministers try to justify the ideological cuts by comparing government to credit card holders.
    David Cameron says that people no longer compare Britain to Greece. But who did it in the first place? Answer: George Osborne.
    But Greece is and was a radically different case. In the UK bond markets were not panicking last year. Mr Osborne used fear to back his “emergency” Budget which was all political theatre.
    Mr Cameron has made a number of U-turns lately. Next we must force him to make one on the cuts.

  • Richard

    Poor Yvette: all those rotten numbers to remember, And they mean nothing anyway, because it say on her Blackberry that ” they are going too far too fast.” That is all we need to know.
    Lucky you did not get back in time to see all of QT, Al!
    ….. and if your Government had spent more time listening to what the public was saying and less time with focus groups, the New Labour experiment would not have ended in ruins.
    The Coalition has already learnt that the pursuit of DOGMA is a hopeless cause: Warmonger Blair would probably agree, in retrospect.

  • Patricia Shepherd

    When GB made a u turn the media trumpeted he’d made a humiliating climbdown,amazing how there’s nothing said about Cameron and his humiliating climdowns!

  • Michael in Munich

    On your final point, you clearly weren’t home in time to see Jimmy Carr
    on 10 o’clock live. His “missing persons” skit was both hilarious and devastating.

  • Robert

    David, I am inclined to think that the badgers are going to cop it after the May elections – why else would the Tories defer the decision?

  • Another brief point. Speaking of Question Time, it’s intensely annoying that it’s scheduled against Newsnight and now also against 10 O’clock Live. The BBC and Channel 4 are failing their viewers. We’ve blogged on this today, if anyone’s interested.

  • Val Norman

    It is absolutely vital that the Labour Party start a campaign to counter the idea that it was responsible for the financial crisis and the present cuts. It didn’t do so in the run up to the election or immediately after but now might be the exactly right time as people are starting to question the government’s strategy. Not sure what Ronnie auggested but TV debates might do it. I’d love to see Ed Balls challenge George Osborne to explain what a ‘structural deficit’ is and how it is calculated!

    • Richard Brittain

      Indeed. One of the problems is that many Labour politicians are coming across as glib on the matter. They keep banging on, “The economy grew under us”. That’s all they talk about – Brown, Cooper, Balls… “Growth”. This word means nothing to the majority of folk – It is a statistical measure and “economic growth” can be achieved by borrowing money. Using vague, fantastical words which have no specific meaning, does nothing to improve their image. If they really weren’t responsible for the financial crisis (I’m not yet sure either way), then they need to present the actual facts and, indeed, present an actual counter-argument. An economic conference would certainly help, but it’s imperative that they actually talk in straight facts and not broad, vague terms.

  • Richard Brittain

    I think Yvette had a hard time of it on Question Time. Michael Heseltine referred to the Liam Byrne note, “There’s no money left”, and unfortunately, people can and will keep pointing to this. Even if it was intended as a joke, it was a terribly stupid note to leave (in my opinion).

    This is more to do with yesterday’s blog post, but the real problem seems to be that the economy is so complex that no-one has a definitive answer on what caused the crash/deficit. I haven’t seen one single politician even attempt to lay out a reasoned explanation on what the main problem was. I have no reason to believe that it is Labour’s fault, but in my opinion, if it is shown that Labour did overspend, then they should perhaps take a leaf out of Cameron’s book and admit their mistake. It will gain them more respect, and the majority of people seem to believe that they did make big economic mistakes (and that treasury note was seen as an admission of such).

    I’m not sure about the forest thing. I think, in a way, it may have endeared some people to Cameron and co. I’m a neutral viewer of politics by the way, neither Tory or Labour, but I was leaning towards Cameron in the recent PMQs. He did look honest and admitted his mistake, and no-one can deny that it is a democratic thing to do – Put forward a notion (or ‘consultation’) and if it is disapproved on a wide scale, remove/modify it. It shows that they are not arrogant, and willing to listen. That’s my take on it, anyway (which I’m aware won’t be a popular comment here!).

  • Dave Simons

    Oh dear! I’m sure we’ve all heard this before. Always the same format – the one-liner, sometimes stretching to two, even three. Always the same content – that wicked, profligate Brown and his henchmen. No attempt to elaborate on the argument or engage with any of the points put forward on blogs like the one preceding this one. Occasionally you get a mention of ‘the structural deficit’, which of course has nothing to do with the bank bail-out and everything to do with Labour’s profligacy. Oh – and of course never a word of criticism of the Conservatives, past or present, just a grovelling silence. I’m beginning to think that ‘Chris Lancashire’ is some kind of mechanical parrot that’s been set going by an Andy Coulson figure somewhere in Conservative Cwentral Office!

  • Anna

    I think the U-turn on the forests was not due to humility but to the make-up of the protestors – middle class voters in Tory/Lib Dem constituencies with leafy forests on their doorsteps. If they had been inner-city campaigners wanting (say) to prevent the sell-off of local amenities they’d have got short shrift. It was a cock-up resulting from overweening arrogance that did not foresee the brouhaha. Mrs Spelman twittering that she was absoluterly brilliant at humility and honesty won’t stop Cameron from throwing her to the wolves in the next reshuffle.

    As for Liam Byrne’s note: it is quite common for retiring/resigning ministers to leave private, ironic or light-hearted notes for each other. They are never intended for publication and the incoming Tory minister would have been well aware of that. To publish it for cheap political capital was a low, squalid action that reflected worse on the minister concerned than it did on Liam Byrne.

  • Richard Brittain

    I agree with this. Prominent figures like Yvette Cooper should be up on all the facts.

  • Gilliebc

    Well, I for one woudn’t disagree with any of that Richard.
    I also consider myself somewhat neutral these days. Commenting from a party political perspective is so inhibiting. Both of the two main political parties come up with good ideas occasionally. Both of them also make huge mistakes.
    As Pete said in his post at 03.54am most people are very distrustful of
    Peter Mandelson and also to a lesser degree I suspect Ed Balls. That and the huge impediment that is Ed M.
    Unless the ToryLed government do something really terrible, like the Poll Tax fiasco for example, then Labour will be in opposition for some years. and tbh they should be. One look at the shadow cabinet is enough to make one weep.

  • Claire Jones

    I think the U turn on the forest sale was an “oh crap” moment for the Tories when they realised that actually people would speak against them, whether or not people will do it on bigger issues remains to be seen.

    Like Tilly Chalmers (a previos comment) I do wonder whether the forest sale was a smoke screen to get people’s eye off other cuts. IMO selling off national forests is a silly short sighted move that does nothing for the economy and is not exactly in line with this whole “Big Society” thing.

    Oh I do wish Nick Clegg would come back to Leicester so we can get more photos of him with the Vote Labour signs behind him – that was a great photo. 🙂

  • Robert

    David – Chris Lancashire is a longstanding loyal follower of Alastair Campbell with different views from some of us. Nevertheless, I believe they are honestly held.

    Besides – one line rebuttals are rather fun.

  • Ehtch

    As Hezza says, as a good Swansea lad, by the way, ahem!, this Clegg fagging to Cameron has no miles, outside a certain school, as in If, with Malcolm McDonald, which I have been told, alledgedly, tickles him.

    Lindsay Anderson,

  • Dave Simons

    The Liam Byrne quote, “There’s no money left”, was almost certainly intended as a joke. It wasn’t even a new joke, more of an in-house tradition. After Labour’s election victory in 1964 the outgoing Tory Chancellor, Reggie Maudling, popped his head round the door at the Treasury and said to the incoming Chancellor, Jim Callaghan, “Sorry to leave such a mess, old cock”.The mess was a balance of payments deficit of £800 million, a lot of money in those days. Westminster villagers – especially Michael Heseltine – are familiar with such banter and tradition, but the electorate unfortunately aren’t.

  • Dave Simons

    I’m so glad to hear that Chris’s views are honestly held. I just wish he’d make some attempt to persuade the rest of us of the cogency of his views. It is nice to be challenged and to be forced to reconsider one’s own views and possibly change them. A few weeks ago a self-styled Conservative supporter posted a contribution which I found refreshing, and I said so at the time. Sorry but Chris’s one-line rebuttals – or rebuttal, as it tends to be the same one every time – are about as much fun as itching powder. But then maybe some people find itching powder ‘rather fun’?

  • Richard Brittain

    Quite the opposite – Ministers point to that note as much as the media do. If you had watched QT, you would have seen Heseltine use that in telling Yvette Cooper what a bad state the economy was left in. He pointed to it, almost as proof.

  • Dave Simons

    Heseltine is a dyed-in-the-wool opportunist politician and, like most Tories, a con man. He knows very well what’s Westminster banter and what’s true. He was playing to a television audience and unfortunately a lot of people will take him seriously. I’m sorry Richard but these people really are professional liars and actors. Jefferey Archer made a career out of it and became Chairman.I don’t think for a minute that the Tories have a monopoly of liars – one of the most disgraceful politicians I’ve seen live was George Brown. But the Tories have been around longer than the other parties and they beat the others hands down..

  • Richard Brittain

    Alright, fair enough. I suppose I could be being naive.

  • Chris lancashire

    Can’t be bothered to preach to the converted Dave.

  • Dave Simons

    I’m not ‘converted’, Chris. I just like a good argument, and I think a good argument is fundamental to a democratic society.

  • Ehtch

    Sorry to bore you again, but Christine Noonan, the actress from Lindsay Anderson’s brilliant depiction “If”, an appreciation video on youtube, but put to a modern soundtrack. Thought some would like it here, but if I am wrong, hey-ho, such is life.

  • Ehtch

    OOPLA! Would help if if posted the whole link, oops, I do apologise, the late Christine Noonhan,