Saturday, May 24, 2008

After Crewe and Nantwich ...

I was pleased to hear David Cameron state after the stunning Conservative victory in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election that there would be no tory complacency and no "tory triumphalism".

He was right. Although the fact and size of this Conservative gain is a sign that voters in at least one constituency are prepared to consider voting for us in the numbers that would put David Cameron in number 10, that does not mean that we have yet convinced enough people that they should move beyond thinking about electing a Conservative government to actually doing so. Only a foolish Conservative optimist could imagine that a Conservative government is now inevitable, and we have to earn the privilege of being elected to govern the country by putting forward a positive vision for Britain.

We have to learn two lessons from the behaviour of Tony Blair at the equivalent stage of the 1992-97 parliament - one thing which he did absolutely right and one aspect of this approach which was absolutely, totally wrong and was a major contribution to the things which subsequently went wrong with his government.

What Blair got absolutely right was that, even when all the polls suggested he was heading for a landslide win, he refused to take a thing for granted or to regard his win as inevitable until the results were actually announced: he kept working for every vote and at no time allowed himself or his party to show the over-confidence which can put off the voters at the last minute (as Kinnock did at the Sheffield rally in 1992.)

Everything I have heard David Cameron and his team say suggests to me that DC has fully taken this on board.

However, what Blair got wrong was that in his search for every possible vote he promised, either explicitly or by inference, far more than he could possibly deliver. In some cases, as with the pledge to run a government which was "whiter than white" or the subsequent one to provide everyone with an NHS dentist within five years, Blair promised things which he had no idea how to deliver. In some cases, as with the broken promises at consecutive elections not to introduce or increase tuition fees for students, he appears to have made promises with blatant disregard for whether they fit in with the rest of his programme.

But most of all, on a whole range of issues Blair managed to give opposing groups with inconsistent objectives the idea that he was on their side. On Europe he at first managed to convince many Eurosceptics and particularly the Murdoch press that he would stand up for Britain while simultaneously persuading Guardian readers that a Blair government would support the European project. He managed to persuade big business that a New Labour government would be friendly to them (a promise which was mostly kept) and the Unions that he would do more for them (which apart from the minimum wage, mostly wasn't.) He managed to persuade public sector workers that he would spend more on public services while promising taxpayers that he would not increase taxes.

And when New Labour came to power they had made so many promises to so many groups that the constant need to keep a balance between then frequently stymied any attempt to take bold action to solve Britain's problems for fear of openly breaking with any part of the "New Labour" coalition. Blair's legacy was to have won three astonishing electoral victories, two of them with huge majorities, and yet acheive astonishingly little with them. In the process he has further eroded trust in politics.

The Conservatives must not repeat Blair's mistake. One of the most important challenges for the Conservatives now is to ensure that we only promise things we are certain we can deliver. I believe that David Cameron understands this point too.


Tom Paine said...

Interesting points. But why couldn't Blair deliver a government that was "whiter than white?" A PM who made it clear to his ministers and MPs that no corrupt behaviour would be tolerated (and was prepared to set an exameple, e.g. by paying for his own holidays, rather than have them provided by the "friends" one suddenly acquires with power) could easily achieve it. Are you saying Cameron should not promise honest government because he can't deliver it either?

Chris Whiteside said...

Cameron should do pretty much what you suggest: he should promise to run as honest a government as is humanly possible, make it clear to his ministers and MPs that he will not tolerate corruption, and lead by example.

What really annoyed me about Tony Blair was the exceptional gap between his promises in opposition about clean government and the complete lack of any effort to implement them when in power.

He actually used the words "whiter than white" in promises made before his election and went out of his way to suggest that his government would be cleaner than any government had been before. Yet shortly before Blair stepped down the government's senior advisor on ethical issues, Sir Alistair Graham, complained in frustration that TB had "degraded politics", had "failed on ethical standards" and fallen well short of the standard he set for himself. He backed up the point with seven specific charges. I gave more details in a post on this blog on 18 March 2007.

Cameron should indeed aim to deliver higher ethical standards of clean government than Blair did, but any promises he makes on the subject should be proportional to the actual effort that will be made to deliver on them.