Every week the Co-Founder and Chief Executive of the Young Britons’ Foundation,
Donal Blaney, explains one of Morton Blackwell’s Laws of the Public Policy
Process. Morton Blackwell is the Founder and President of the Leadership Institute in
"Read my lips: no new taxes". These are the six words that destroyed George H W Bush’s presidency and helped ensure the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. Bush caused such disaffection among the conservatives who had elected Reagan in 1980 and 1984 – and who had ensured Bush’s victory as a favour to "The Gipper" – that millions of those conservatives could not bring themselves to vote for Bush again in 1992. Indeed many voted for Ross Perot instead. Bush 41 had broken a crucial rule of the public policy process. Your word is your bond – if you break it, you are toast.
Likewise our own Party after the 1992 election. I recall attending a Conservative Students conference soon after that election when Michael Portillo was still Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Portillo was pressed as to whether it was a breach of the 1992 manifesto pledge ‘not to increase taxes’, for taxes to have been increased soon after John Major’s re-election. The Chief Secretary replied that the pledge had in fact stated that the Party "had no plans to increase taxes" and that the pledge had not been broken. Economic circumstances had conspired to force an increase in taxes and it was therefore not the case that any plans to increase taxes had existed when the pledge had been made. Such sophistry did not persuade the student audience and, combined with Black Wednesday, the Party’s tax increases helped contribute to the loss of the Party’s record for economic competence.
The consequences of betraying your friends in politics can be fatal too. Tony Blair kept Peter Mandelson close to him even after he was twice forced to leave the Cabinet and he has likewise not alienated David Blunkett (who has also left the Cabinet twice in disgrace). Charles Clarke, on the other hand, seems to take the view that Blair has gone back on an agreement they entered into when Clarke became Home Secretary (namely that Clarke would be given time to sort out the mess in the Home Office created by Straw and Blunkett). When Blair capitulated to media pressure and sacked Clarke, Clarke took it very badly and he is clearly now a man on a mission looking to destroy Blair’s premiership.
What lessons does this week’s rule have for today, if any? David Cameron gave as clear a pledge as is seen in politics by saying that the Conservative MEPs would leave the EPP. William Hague made it clear that it would happen in months, not years. Yet this week we learn that Tory MEPs will not leave the EPP until 2009. More startling still is the threat to those principled MEPs who made it clear they would keep David Cameron’s pledge for him – they have been told in no uncertain terms that they will have the whip withdrawn and they will not be permitted to stand as Conservative candidates in 2009 if they leave the EPP before 2009.
In an era where the electorate is increasingly disillusioned with politicians who fail to keep their promises and with the culture of spin and political lie machines, David Cameron set out his stall with clarity. We were told that a Cameron-led Conservative Party would be "a no spin zone" and that when David Cameron said something, he meant it. It was for this reason, for example, that the Party has eschewed over-promising on tax cuts lest the books are in a worse state than is feared if and when the Party takes power at the next election.
William Hague is perceived to have done himself little credit when he tried to argue on the Today programme that the EPP pledge has been met because the announcement of the impending departure was made within months and not years. The sorry truth is that the pledge made by David Cameron – which lured many Eurosceptics such as Douglas Carswell MP to his cause when his campaign was at a low ebb last summer – has been broken. The one concrete thing that Cameron could deliver as leader of his Party has not been delivered. It can be blamed on Merkel and Chirac. It can be blamed on Caroline Jackson and the leadership of the EPP. It can even be blamed on spineless Eurosceptics in other EU states. It matters not. The fact is that the Party and its MEPs remain members of an avowedly federalist grouping that I would wager would barely gain the support of 10% of the Party’s membership if its views, achievements and aims were made known to activists.
The EPP pledge may be said by many to be irrelevant to most electors and that is probably true. But it has totemic status for the Party’s volunteers. A pledge was given and it has been broken. These are now dangerous times because trust, once lost, is very hard (if not impossible) to regain. David Cameron cannot get away from the fact that a vast swathe of the Party’s membership in the Commons, Brussels and in constituencies will feel badly let down by what has happened this week. It may even be the case that many on the Right who had kept their counsel until now on Project Cameron may no longer feel compelled to do so anymore.
Open dissent would be a pity as it is rarely ever a good decision to wash one’s dirty linen in public. But behind the scenes it will undoubtedly be the case that pressure on the leadership to promote, campaign on and deliver conservative policies (even if they are beautifully wrapped and gently sold) is now an absolute must. Without such an approach, it may not be long until dissent comes out into the open. And if we have learnt anything from the last 16 years, it is that such internecine warfare is not what we need if we are to win power. That said: if you go back on your word in politics, you will all too often end up dead.
Previous entry in this series: Moral outrage is the most powerful motivating force in politics.