By Paul Goodman
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No Conservative supporter should panic simply because the Prime Minister slips up over details of a deportation process (as David Cameron did on "Today" yesterday), or when a senior Minister advises storing petrol in jerry cans, or a Defence Secretary admits blurring his professional and personal responsibilites and resigns. These things are often the occupational hazards of governing, and that this sentiment sounds airy doesn't mean it isn't true. Nor should Tory MPs run for the hills when a budget's presentation goes awry and opinion polls find the party at its lowest standing since the election. Mrs Thatcher was often behind in the polls during mid-term. This didn't prevent her being re-elected three times.
No, the problem isn't so much symptoms as causes. Take Mr Cameron's confusion over what the European Court of Human Rights told the Home Office about Abu Qatada, and when. Very simply, Qatada is a serial litigant who is successfully exploiting judicial activism. The solution to the ECHR quandry is to leave it and bring in a British Bill of Rights. The Liberal Democrats don't agree, nor does Ken Clarke – and it isn't going to happen: so in these circumstances, the strange ways of the court are bound to lead to confusion sooner or later. In short, the problems are strategic – as a report by the Public Administration Committee argues today. The Financial Times (£) reports this morning:
"The report…concludes that nobody is in charge of setting the government’s strategic objectives, and this is damaging its ability to achieve its aims. Bernard Jenkin, the Conservative MP who chairs the committee, said: “There is a failure in this government to think strategically.” Mr Jenkin mentioned problems that have hampered ministers in the past few years that his committee thought could have been avoided by better long-term planning. “We’ve had unrealistic objectives on renewables, chaos in nuclear power, the disintegration of our carrier policy, child poverty targets that will be missed and even deficit reduction targets that will be missed,” he said."
Perhaps the problem is not so much a failure to think strategically – though Mr Jenkin is absolutely right to cite on environment policy, which too often in opposition was shaped by short-term tactics – as an unwillingess or inability to choose between two different strategic approaches. On the one hand, there is Vision Osborne, which believes that government can't do everything at once, and that this one should concentrate on deficit reduction and a few big reforms, such as education and welfare. On the other there is Vision Hilton, which urges radical transformation of nearly everything: the NHS as well as schools, radical localism as well as welfare reform. Hilton may be leaving but the dilemna isn't resolved.
This has been heightened by a return to civil service normality after the excesses of the Blair years. One of Douglas Carswell's leitmotifs is that Sir Humphrey will run the Government if given the chance to do so. This was echoed in the recent meeting of Conservative Cabinet Ministers, according to James Forsyth's account, by none other than the Justice Secretary, who "warned that there had been problems with the Civil Service throughout his time in government": there are more opportunities to play politicians off against each other in a Coalition made up of two parties. We ought all to sit up and pay attention when Ken Clarke and Mr Carswell agree – and Mr Jenkin and his committee too, by the look of it.