New governments must be allowed their period of strutting about, although in the case of the David Cameron and the British Conservative leadership following their recent win over Labour one wonders whether the strutting isn’t already getting out of hand. The newly emboldened Prime Minister has made it clear at the G7 (what does the G7 do?) that any ministers who want to campaign to leave the European Union must resign from the government. [SEE UPDATE] This is a recipe for trouble, when many ministers had been operating on the assumption that during the formal campaign, colleagues in government would be able to campaign for whichever side they liked as the vote on membership is surely a great, historic decision and a matter of conscience. Apparently not.
This is high-wire stuff from Cameron, although I suspect that he thinks hardly anyone will dare resign, as they have their careers to worry about, other than one or two who are coming to the end of their time in government. If the Tory leader is right, it will be a bit embarrassing for all concerned during the referendum watching those Eurosceptic ministers campaign for “In” when they have for more than a decade made fierce noises about the need for a completely different model of British membership, and even Brexit. They will have to pretend that the Prime Minister getting some sort of pathetic “benefits lock” (preventing child benefit going to Polish people for example) is a great victory that now means Britain’s destiny is definitely in the EU. In the event of a vote to stay in, none of them will be able to utter a word of criticism about Brussels ever again without attracting derision.
Incidentally, people should stop calling for Boris Johnson to lead the “Out” campaign. Boris isn’t for “Out” in a million years. He is for staying in the EU and for making (good) jokes about Brussels and the European Commission.
But as this new government gets going, one other thought occurs. Thank goodness Ed Miliband lost the recent general election.
Here I mean no criticism of Labour’s manifesto. Oh, ok, I do. That document was so riddled with statist and high tax nonsense that most of it has now been denounced by many of Labour’s leading figures, who if the election had turned out differently would now be implementing said manifesto. While it is nice to know now – rather late in the day – that they thought Miliband was embarked on a disastrous course with atrocious policies that would be bad for Britain, it is a shame they kept quiet about this. Still, better late than never, as they say.
What really hits home though is the realisation of just how dysfunctional, weak and useless a Miliband government would have been, with or without him having to rely on the SNP. In recent weeks several good accounts have emerged of what was going on inside the top of Team Miliband, and the cumulative impression one is left with is that, as we say in the west of Scotland, you wouldn’t send this lot for a loaf, meaning you wouldn’t trust them to do something as simple as go round the corner to the shop and buy bread.
First there was Patrick Wintour in the Guardian with a terrific reconstruction of what went wrong that reminded me, in terms of attention to detail, of Hugh Trevor Roper’s forensic account of the last days in the bunker in Berlin in 1945. It is worth setting aside time to read Patrick Wintour’s long read.
Then the Mail on Sunday landed with Simon Walter’s description of the squabbling, infighting and idiocy that ensued when a few brave souls tried to get Miliband to face reality on the economy. The picture which emerges is of senior Labour figures refighting daft battles with each other that date back to the dawn of New Labour, which, good grief, is twenty years ago. Not only is the MoS story fabulous stuff, but as John Rentoul put it on Twitter, it is a reminder that when it comes to a failing campaign it always emerges afterwards that it was much worse on the inside than it appeared at the time to outsiders.
Now, Harriet Harman, Labour’s acting leader who deserves an award for sticking around and trying to hold her party together, has said in an interview with Andrew Grice of the Independent that even Labour voters were relieved the party lost the election.
This, presumably will give Cameron an easy line at PMQs, where the strutting will soon become unbearable. If he tries it, Harman should tell him: Look, sunshine, you think you’re fantastic right now. If you were chocolate you would eat yourself. But eventually your time will come, this is politics.
But full credit to Harman for admitting publicly what quite a few Labour MPs and voters say privately after the election. They voted Labour, out of loyalty and belief in the party’s values, while knowing that if Miliband squeaked in he would be a disastrous Prime Minister leading a dreadful government that would struggle to get anything serious done.
At a post-election party I was confronted last week by several furious Labour MPs. How, asked one, could people like me ever have argued that Miliband might turn out okay given time? My response that I thought five years ago that he shouldn’t be written off, and that I thought he had a thick skin and might develop, turned out to be wrong. This produced a response containing several swear words.
Said the MP: “I’ve done a lot for Labour and I did a lot to help the party under Ed Miliband. But I’m sorry. The guy was absolutely useless.”
UPDATE: Number 10 is today backing away from the Prime Minister’s statement on firing Outers, leading to farcical scenes, not least of which was the spectacle of poor James Wharton, a minister, being sent onto the airwaves first thing this morning to defend Cameron’s original position, a few hours before Number 10 changed it.