Thursday, 6 February 2014

Dithering Dave and the Floods

Dithering, indecision, fighting shy of consequences, all these can kill a political career. Ask Gordon Brown about the election that never was. But for all his faults - and they are legion - Dave does a good job of affecting the prime ministerial. As a pointy-elbowed member of the ruling class with the born-to-rule training and public relations CV at his back, he is one oily slick customer. Yeah, Ed occasionally bests him at the despatch box but most people don't bother with PMQs, and don't see his frequent slips into schoolboy bullying a red-faced ranting. Dave knows about the importance of presentation and the need to project, for want of a better phrase, 'activist government'. So why has it taken until now for him to recognise that the west country floods are a big deal, and that he should do something about it? Telegraph hack Iain Martin is similarly stumped. Leaving aside his silly attempt to blame the foreign aid budget for cuts to flood and coast defence monies, there's certainly a 'thing' here. Iain slaps on some generous gloss, suggesting a perfect storm of leaving ministers to their own devices and not wanting to be seen panicking underlies the indifference. I beg to differ.

We've been in the long election campaign for a wee while now, and some of the inaction can be laid at the door of Conservative election strategy. "Hold on a minute, Phil. Surely that's preposterous. Look at the seats affected, look at the Dorset coastal constituencies - most are Tory-held, and only a couple could be described as marginals. In the past, only Labour made the mistake of dumping on its natural support. There's got to be another explanation?" As Dave doesn't do detail, I wouldn't be shocked if his knowledge of that part of the world is confined to Oliver Letwin representing West Dorset. But, electorally speaking, we're talking about - hideous phrase klaxon - the wider campaigning narrative. Even my lampshade knows the Tories grab bag of electoral tricks has "dung" stamped on it, and we can expect relentless negativity about the past crimes of the Labour Party. Anticipate the Winter of Discontent, that most knackered of warhorses, getting dragged out the stable some 35 years after the fact. The blanket negativity towards the opposition has to be balanced by a positive offer. In a zone free of policy beyond kicking the poorest and most vulnerable, Dave and Crosby want to concoct a vision of Britain going places. We've had the previews already - more people in work than ever before, sorting out the deficit, more apprentices and students, a surging economy, vague references of a plan to prosperity. Unlike 2010 when Dave talked Britain down, this time talking Britain up is the message. That's the crux of the emerging CCHQ lines - Labour = bad, Britain = good. Labour + Britain = bad. Yes, some people get paid lots of money for zoning the Tories' strategic messages in a Manichean fashion.

This matters for the floods. Putting aside government failure for a moment, having train lines knocked out, sea walls breached, homes ruined and farm land inundated does not radiate positive, soft nationalist vibes. It speaks of failure, of being overwhelmed and consumed by disaster. Far better the PM do nice things, like looking at factories or having cups of tea with photogenic "normal" people. Disaster then has to be boxed off from the official view that all is peachy in the country's garden.

Related to this is Dave's utter aversion to criticism, to being held to account. His frequent anger at PMQs indicates a skin thin to the point of translucence. The noted preference for letting ministers to get on with their own departments is less a philosophical preference to a looser practice of government and more a way of devolving responsibility away. Gove, Pickles and IBS - of which more shortly - are proper hate figures, and deservedly so. But as meat shields for their boss, they carry the can well. Ultimately, everyone in education, local government or social security know Dave is equally culpable for what is being done to them, but the ministers successfully intercept more than their fair share of blame. It's almost as if it was designed that way. Dave then is adept at a-duckin' and a-divin', hence his instinctive recoil from anything to do with the floods because it's an opportunity for him to be held responsible. There's no escaping that his government announced cuts to flood protection on the eve of this round of flooding, and as the disaster has settled on sodden land and become a hot potato, trying to keep Owen Paterson and the Environment Agency's Chris Smith in the firing line is no longer tenable. Hence yesterday's hasty announcement under focused questioning at PMQs that more money was being made available.

What about being "hands on" like Gordon Brown was shortly after 2007's summer floods? There's little chance of that, because Dave is at pains to avoid getting ambushed by angry residents in front of the media. Remember this from just after Christmas? Probably not. But with greater international interest and the possibility of a dithering, speechless prime minister getting a mouthful from ruined farmers and homeowners, election-winning footage this would not make. Hence the distancing, hence the apparent indifference.

Thirdly, Dave's paralysis is symptomatic of a wider malaise afflicting the Tories. I make no apologies for plugging the decadence and stupid empiricism theses yet again, simply because I find them so useful for framing the Tory Party's behaviour - especially its leading figures. It is a truism that power does not like truth to be told back to it, and that's definitely the case here. IBS stops the DWP collecting stats on food bank use, refuses to authorise a cumulative impact assessment of his policies on social security recipients, and dodges questions in the House and select committees. Gove is notorious for thinking that he "just knows" what the most optimal education system is - sod decades and decades of evidence and study. And as for Pickles, well, because no local authority has gone under yet there must still be room for even more cuts. Each fights shy of the real world addressed by their policies and prefer to inhabit a comfort zone concocted on the basis of their own prejudices and ignorances. Dave is no different. Suppress an inconvenient HS2 report? Why not. Write off the last three years of economic stagnation? We'll have that. Zero hour contracts a problem? Any job is better than no job. It goes on, and on, and on.

Yes, these people are running the country. Fortunately, in this case sociology is destiny. They are stuck in a groove. Their dreamworlds are locked in by the decay of the Tories and the right. They're proper stuck. The problem is that they might still be able to convince enough voters to give them a punt in 2015. And if that happens, if they defy precedent and increase their support, they will drag the whole country with them into a dead night of decadent irrelevance.


Speedy said...

He is a very poor PM, although beneath the dithering he is accomplishing his class interest - breaking up the NHS for example and crushing the (public sector) middle class.

However, on less ideological matters he dithers terribly and often simply misses. For example he should have played smart and given the Scots Nats devolution max. Instead it looks like Cameron will go down as the bozo that "lost" Scotland. That's some fail.

asquith said...

I've not thought much about the political side of this. As someone who is quite big on environmental matters, I observed a while back that Patterson is truly woeful. (Presumably our neighbours in North Shropshire think differently, and I go there about every two months for various reasons and always wonder who his voters actually are).

Now I do think climate change has made the rain worse, though most of it is a freak of nature. But one thing that is definitely not random is the decades of use and misuse of the area that has worsened matters. In town but even more so in country...

... which brings me to what I am here to say, have you been following George Monbiot on this matter? As a liberal I never much cared for him, but this rewilding idea really fascinates me, and I fully join in his critique of the subsidy regime.

His analysis of the causes and solutions are really something else. And nothing you're going to hear from any power-monger. He is the only person with a platform who says such things and his book is one I can recommend.