By Peter Hoskin
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From the Olympics to the Jubilee, from Higgs Boson particles to sunrises on Mars — this has so far, in many respects, been a year of wonder. But what can be said of politics? My fear, which underpins a column that I’ve written for today’s Times (£), is that Westminster will seem even smaller, more puerile, by comparison. Almost exactly fifty years ago, we had John F. Kennedy adding to the wonder with his promise that “we will go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard”. But now politics has been ground down by deficits and scandals and ineffectualness. Here’s how I link it to David Cameron in my article:
“David Cameron has been overcome by this merciless process as much as anyone else. Remember when he first bounded into public consciousness with his pitch for the Tory leadership in 2005? The speech he gave is still the perfect riposte to those who think that he has never stood for anything. It was optimistic and coherent. It contained all the components of what would eventually be sold, rather awkwardly, as the Big Society. ‘We are the only party’, he pointed out, ‘believing that if you give people freedom and responsibility, they will grow, stronger and society will grow stronger.’ And yet many of these precepts have been ground down by the demands of the economy and of coalition government. Cloudiness has been winning the day.
But unfortunate external factors are not entirely to blame. Mr Cameron has undermined himself in a thousand small ways by his own actions and misdeeds. This is rarely clearer than during the weekly parliamentary knockabout that is Prime Minister’s Questions. Mr Cameron once famously declared that he was ‘fed up with the Punch and Judy politics of Westminster, the name calling, the backbiting, point scoring, finger pointing’ — yet that is what we get most weeks. He is quick to the personal insult and often displays the same evasiveness that he scolded Gordon Brown for. This is not the way to rebuild the public’s trust in politics. Mr Cameron founded his leadership on optimism and wonder, so these tiny infractions are particularly corrosive.
And, worryingly, there have been signs of a larger philosophical shift behind them. A recent speech that Mr Cameron delivered on benefits was tough, as speeches on benefits often are, but it also had a fresh sourness to it. The welfare state, he suggested, had eroded the assumption that ‘people would naturally do the right thing’. This may or may not be true, but it jars against his earlier freewheeling optimism. And it prompts a question that no one should have to ask seven years into a leadership: what’s this man about?”
I then proceed to get awfully prescriptive, suggesting how Mr Cameron might recapture some of that earlier optimism and wonder. For instance, he might do more to highlight and encourage Britain’s advances in the realm of technology. Or he might recast the message on deficit reduction such that it sounds a little bit more JFK — not because it is easy but because it is hard, and so on.
But, really, as much as all that, I think Mr Cameron ought to focus again on “this huge stuff about trust,” as Alastair Campbell once put it about Tony Blair and Iraq. The Prime Minister and his government’s previous, fiery dedication to restoring the public’s trust in politics appears to have dimmed. This is true in both policy terms (with the flawed proposals for recalling MPs) and in presentational terms (as during PMQs). Before the last election we had Mr Cameron giving speeches about the importance of curtailing MPs’ perks; now we have George Osborne saying “it’s not my central issue at the moment” — which is true, but he would probably prosper from not being dismissive about these matters.
This isn’t to attack the Tory leadership, as they have done much to clean up politics and make it more transparent. But they should recommit themselves to the trust agenda, if only for their own sake. After all, given the current electoral calculus, the Conservatives need to enthuse as many people as possible about politics. And, until they do, many won’t listen to them on all the other “huge stuff” too.