Jim Hacker: It doesn’t do the government any good to look heartless and feeble simultaneously. What do you think, Bernard?
Bernard Woolley: Perhaps you can arrange it so that you look heartless and feeble alternately?
Bloomberg Newsweek had a prescient forecast last summer. Writing about David Cameron and austerity, its article predicted that “If growth doesn’t pick up soon, he may find that the political weather forecast is rain, rain, rain.” The Government has enjoyed, arguably, moderately good news on the economy since that prediction. But the precipitation is now coming from a different cloud, and it’s biblical in its proportions.
Today’s scramble by the Government’s Chief Whip was both inevitable and too late. A clarification has gone to Conservative MPs, we are told, which explains what the Prime Minister meant when David Cameron declared that “money was no object” in his press conference on the flooding relief effort in Berkshire. Commentators may be laughing that it was a daft thing to say inadvertantly, but it was far from that. This wasn’t accidental.
There is a strong, and perfectly justifiable political logic to this for a serving Prime Minister less than two years from his re-election bid. The Thames valley is his party’s spiritual home constituency. It is prime UKIP territory, and the Conservatives have to be seen to be in command.
The sight of members of the Cabinet splashing self-consciously through the floods is amusing only to political hacks, revelling in the irony of “We’re all in it together” being acted out by wealthy white men in £200 pairs of Hunter wellies and pristine Barbour jackets. Christmas has come late for Private Eye. And don’t get me started on the political “logic” that put Ed Miliband there too. Labour leaders of the Opposition and watery photo-ops rarely go well together, and the last 24 hours hasn’t exactly reversed that wisdom, has it?
But back to the point. The “you must be seen to react” advice that has been given makes the Prime Minister’s statement no less extraordinary, for it signals that the capable political team around David Cameron is deeply concerned.
The Government’s line on spending, from defence procurement to welfare cuts, has been since 2010 one of carefully managed austerity. As the Prime Minister put it at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, it “…doesn’t just mean making difficult decisions on public spending. It also means something more profound. It means building a leaner, more efficient state. We need to do more with less. Not just now, but permanently.”
Given my personal politics (which I keep scrupulously out of my day job), you won’t be surprised that I’m unpersuaded intellectually and morally by this line, especially in a time of recession. The economic logic is at best soft. But viewed professionally, the line has the core strength in political communication of being both penetrative and consistently applied. Abandoning it is not a show of strength.
In that single sentence, the has Prime Minister opened himself and his Government to critics who charge heartlessness. The indictment goes like this: when disabled people are committing suicide because their lifeline has been cut by the removal of the welfare safety net, their Government’s greatest priority for the nation’s Treasury is assuaging the angst of wealthy Berkshire residents who have chosen to buy houses on a flood plain in a country where it rains for 300 days a year. That’s not a good place to be, politically speaking, although its resonance (or not) with his core vote won’t unduly worry the Prime Minister. The interpretation sails pretty close to polemic, but like all polemic, it has a core that resonates.
For myself, I believe too that Government should intervene to protect people when their work and home lives are destroyed by circumstances beyond their control. Nobody on my TV news tonight deserves to be flooded out of their home. They deserve sympathy, and the full resource in their support of a civilised society and its Government. But I can’t help wondering whether that should apply any less to a worker made redundant, a school-leaver unable to find work, or a victim of ill health enduring the witch-hunting lottery of the ATOS star chamber whose only crime is to be physically disabled or suffering from depression.
So what’s the objective view? The flooding is obviously a major disruption for the people who are affected, and there are serious questions to ask about preparedness and the response. There are levels of nuance that need to be reflected, not least the critical national infrastructure that is being royally buggered up by the rising H2O. But of greatest concern to Mr Cameron will be the perception that his Government is feeble.
The “money is no object” statement is realpolitik. It troubles me personally because of its implied moral priority. But I expect there is one area of agreement between me and Downing Street. To need to say “money is no object”, the Prime Minister is in very deep water indeed.