Trying hard; could do better

It’s been interesting, as our parliament goes into its new short summer recess, to hear differing views on how the leaders of our coalition are doing. I’ve written before that I think this different approach to our traditional two-party system of politics could be a change for good and, in broad terms, I still hold that view. Yes, there have been glitches and, in a world where you are frequently judged on what you say rather than what you achieve, there are bound to have been catcalls from the sidelines. What intrigued me though, sniping from David Davis aside, was what would go into the end of summer term reports.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg looked good together at the outset and there is clearly a mutual respect existing that was never apparent when Blair and Brown were the incumbents. A couple of months of reality, public scrutiny and party politics have put more clear water between the Prime Minister and his deputy but for me two points of focus stand out as indicators of where we stand.

Last week Clegg stood in for Cameron at PM’s Questions when the PM was in USA. He was less at ease than in the famous televised election debates and his performance was unconfident and stumbling. He came under pressure and was mauled by Jack Straw, who as a former Foreign Secretary is a very experienced adversary. Whilst it could be argued that Clegg might have been better briefed his comment about the legality of the invasion of Iraq was misguided and politically naïve, particularly as Cameron had voted in support of the invasion at the time. Clegg was repeating a consistent and firmly-held personal view but he was speaking from the dispatch box and not from his sofa, so the views he expressed were those of the government. There were more uncertain responses before Straw went on to quote the results of a limited poll indicating a belief that the Liberal Democrats had sacrificed principle for power in joining the Conservatives to form the coalition. The government had to issue statements of clarification afterwards and the voters’ darling has been below the parapet ever since, tail firmly between his legs. I’ve read today that his personal approval rating – whatever that is it provides an indication of what the public thinks of you – has dropped from 72% ahead of the election to less than 10% now. Not good when your job is to win friends and influence people.

Following his trip to the States Cameron embarked on the tour that took him to Turkey and India. Of course, this was a heaven-sent opportunity to ‘have a go’, as we say here, and he obliged by using some unguarded language in both countries. David Miliband’s comment that Cameron was a ‘loudmouth’ struck me as being a little unimaginative and spiteful rather than incisive and pertinent; not great stuff from an aspiring leader of the Labour Party. Charles Moore, in the Daily Telegraph and more specifically, accused Cameron of being hypocritical and telling his audiences what they wanted to hear. Well, he was on a trade mission so he would, wouldn’t he? Cameron, in less than diplomatic terms, had described Gaza as a ‘prison camp’ and accused Pakistan of looking ‘both ways’ on terrorism but Moore asked why Cameron wasn’t expressing such comments at home when in England supporters of Hamas, of the killing of homosexuals, of female circumcision, of the execution of apostates, and of terrorism against all armed opponents of any Muslims anywhere’ are treated as partners by police and public authorities. Well, Gaza is just that, isn’t it? And it’s probably beyond reasonable doubt that what Cameron said about Pakistan is true also. Was offence caused because what he said was incorrect or because he had the audacity to say it in public? If Israel and Pakistan behaved better, no offence could have been caused. I don’t necessarily disagree with Moore’s concerns but I fail to see why voicing opinion abroad should preclude you from adopting a policy of dialogue at home, where you might actually achieve something.

For my part – and the need for exercising caution in international relations notwithstanding – I find it refreshing to have a politician speak his mind even if it does mean that a diplomatic slight is imparted. It seems altogether more honest than when Charles Moore, who is a respected journalist, uses criticism of Cameron’s expressing some commonly-held concerns to raise issues associated with his own right-wing views on dealing with home-based radicalism.

Despite the odd bump in the road the coalition is enthusiastic. The Guardian carried an interesting piece by Francis Maude, concluding that this government was more radical than that of Margaret Thatcher. Whether or not that’s true they are certainly trying to make progress at an alarmingly fast pace. Perhaps it is naïve to attempt so much so soon and the uncertainty in the footwork is there to see. We’ll all know soon enough but I think it’s long past time for a government to take a different view on major areas of public expenditure – health, education, defence, benefits – and at least try some new ideas instead of forcing through policies that are based on party dogma and idealism.

The strength I saw in a coalition was the basis of two parties being held comfortably together by each other’s strengths; twin stars each needing the other’s gravitational pull to remain in place and not go spinning aimlessly into space. I felt that one party’s extremes would be balanced by the other’s moderations and that the whole would be greater than the sum of the two parts. The accountability inherent in such a forced marriage would, I believed, make honesty on the part of each partner a necessity. That seems to be the case even if it is, as the examples above show, likely to cause glitches and provide fertile ground for criticism.

Defending your position is part and parcel of Cameron’s job and, quite frankly, the criticism offered thus far has been weak and unlikely to deflect him. Of more worry is the apparent inability of Clegg to impose himself and his party’s values in the manner of his pre-election performances. A poll result today suggested that his perceived ability to influence the government’s policies is diminishing and if that trend continues his weak performance will come under increasing attack and may become a liability.  

Those points made on the leaders of the coalition I’m also less than satisfied with their green credentials as this is far from being ‘the greenest government ever’, as was promised in one of Cameron’s early speeches. Yes, it does look as though energy and climate change are being addressed – and these are major political issues – but in doing so some of the more politically low-key aspects of the natural environment will fall by the wayside. The consequences of that will affect us more as individuals. This concerns me greatly but somewhere along the line one has to put trust in people and believe that they’ll do the right thing. On face value, Cameron and Clegg appear to be trying to do just that even if a lot of pain and heartache will ensue as a consequence.

I take a very sceptical view of politicians, whom I believe to be self-serving and duplicitous for the most part. So I’m not critical of the mistakes or the perception of weakness that flows from expressing honestly-held opinion.  The summer recess will give everyone some time to reflect on things; is honesty the best policy? Yes, but you need to think before you speak.


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