A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Two resignations. Two bad decisions?

In Events, Party politics, The Media on February 1, 2011 at 1:10 pm

David Weber

Before I begin, I would like to welcome our newest writer, James Bartholomeusz. I enjoyed reading his analysis of Labour’s past and future, and look forward to future articles.

On the face of it, Ed Miliband’s recent decision to grant the shadow chancellorship to Ed Balls following Alan Johnson’s resignation looks like bad judgement. It is the most potent way he could have gone back on his decision to sideline the Brown treasury team back in September, when he appointed Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper to shadow Home and Foreign portfolios respectively. Not only this, but there would have been a strong logic in offering the shadow Chancellorship to Cooper instead, given that she came first in the shadow cabinet elections and has taken a less vocal line over the economy. Given that Cooper is married to Balls, this would have been a less than meaningful decision, but it might have looked ever so slightly better.

The truth, however, may be more nuanced. We do not know that Miliband had any real choice in who to appoint to the position. Cooper and Balls, sensing weakness and a lack of alternatives, may have threatened to consider their positions if the outcome was not to their liking. Both have a significant number of supporters within the party, and Miliband must be keen to avoid the kind of infighting that characterised Labour’s last spell in opposition. Without knowing the internal politics of the shadow cabinet, which has arguably not been infiltrated by the media to the same extent as the government, or the previous government, it is hard to evaluate Ed Miliband’s judgement.

What it is possible to say is that events are increasingly conspiring against him. Ed Balls repudiates the nuanced and flexible position laid out by Alistair Darling prior to the last election. He stood for the leadership on a platform laying out his opposition to the need to cut spending at all. This article will not speculate whether or not he was right to do so, but merely note that the public disagreement between Johnson and Miliband over tuition fees will pale in comparison should Balls choose to disagree over deficit reduction. An agreed economic policy is essential.

It is all very well for the political freedom of ideas brought by coalition, but I suspect that this is more workable in government, where the need to make tough decisions is at least recognised by the public, than in opposition. And it is perhaps an irony of coalition politics that people may become more accepting of disagreements between parties, rather than inside them. The opposition’s task in the short-term is to bring a simple, well-defined and credible alternative to the table. Only then can it worry about the niceties of pluralism and diversity of opinion.

Incidentally, I do not agree with those who argue that appointing Johnson in the first place was a mistake. There are two lines of argument: one which points to Johnson’s mistakes since being appointed, which is obviously opportunistic, and another which points to his lack of economic experience or qualification prior to being appointed. The latter holds more weight, but fails to credit his experience in government, which is greater than most of the current government, and surely counts for much more than a degree in PPE from Oxford. The argument also has no evidential strength to back it up so far. If George Osborne, who has been criticised too for a lack of economic credentials, single-handedly wrecks the economy before long, it will be strong evidence that Alan Johnson’s appointment was not a good decision. But unless that happens, we will not know whether economic qualifications are needed to take the role of chancellor.

So much for Reddening Ed. What of David Cameron, whose judgement is now called into question with the resignation of Andy Coulson? For many commentators, the ongoing fallout from the News of the World hacking scandal shows David Cameron’s judgement to be highly flawed in allowing Coulson to continue, and actively supporting him, for so long. I will not pass comment one way or another on the case, however. I know too little about it. I will rather look at a tangent that stems from it.

I believe this is further evidence to suggest the tenuous theory that Cameron is a far more relaxed Prime Minister than either of his predecessors. Although Brown’s government was famed for dithering over certain matters; when it came to the continued existence of liabilities, it tended to be more because of the party political context than because of any evidence of the Prime Minister being particularly relaxed. And Blair’s behaviour earlier on in his tenure bordered on paranoid at times, so determined was he not to lose momentum through scandal. A particular example was the first Mandelson resignation, which was back-dated in an attempt to make it look as if he had resigned the previous day, to avoid the opposition taking credit.

Cameron, in contrast, has shown little evidence of paranoia or dithering. He has wisely kept himself further from the forefront of the coalition in the media than Nick Clegg, investing his efforts (as far as one can tell) in its smooth running behind the scenes. This has worked well for his political momentum, as it leaves those out of the know more confused about his political positions, leaving him more room for manoeuvre and minimising accusations of dithering and U-turns. It also avoids the impression that he seeks to control every area of government, which ironically ended up costing Blair so much control.

So both resignations are at present very open to interpretation. Both risk accusations of bad judgement, slow decision-making and lack of control. Yet as we have briefly discussed, there is in reality very little difference to the way previous resignations have played out, other than in spin. Both were of figures who their employers were less than willing to lose; Johnson because of the political significance of his appointment, and Coulson because of the importance of his job. Both Miliband and Cameron may have been wise to play a relaxed game, letting events unfold leisurely rather than spin out of control as a result of frantic behaviour.

True, the wind may be blowing more in Cameron’s favour than Miliband’s; after all, when have more parties been united in government than opposition? When has the collected opposition lacked not just a majority of seats but also of votes? The other conclusion, which I was uncharitably tempted to disguise, is that this is a key lesson in the limits of pluralistic politics, such a key feature of my reasoning in recent articles. Oppositions, as I pointed out earlier, have traditionally had to put up an artificially united front in order to be seen as credible. This is a problem which needs addressing, but which it is difficult to see a solution to.

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