Over the last few days, the Government has given the impression that it has been blown off course by the refugee crisis.
Initially, David Cameron stood firm on a line that focused British aid on delivery in Syria rather than taking people in – a perfectly legitimate and humane strategy, whether or not one agrees with it.
Yet soon enough he back-pedalled and announced that the UK will take in 20,000 refugees over the next four and a half years.
It’s obviously too late to warn the Prime Minister of the consequences of doing that, but there are nonetheless a few points the Government should bear in mind the next time a Twitterstorm is rattling the windows of Number Ten.
- Don’t get into a bidding war you’re not prepared to win
No sooner had Cameron announced his change of heart on refugees than this morning’s papers carried the entirely predictable cries of “It’s not enough!”
This should not have come as a surprise – even the Government’s new pledge is nowhere near those of Germany and Austria, the benchmarks against which Britain’s alleged shortcomings in refugee policy are measured.
British policy is to help people locally – where money goes further – and not drain Syria of thousands of its best-qualified, wealthiest and most mobile citizens.
It also recognises that rolling out the welcome mat only tempts more desperate people into the Mediterranean.
But the Government truly believes in that analysis, then it must stand by it and actively defend it rather than allowing itself to be smeared or blown about.
Half-hearted attempts to appease public opinion will only validate its critics without redeeming it in their eyes.
- Don’t confuse the commentariat for public opinion
Speaking of which, here’s an interesting statistic: two days ago, YouGov found 51 per cent of respondents opposed to taking more refugees.
This poll was taken after the apparently game-changing photograph of the drowned boy and the change of heart in much of the normally sceptical press.
It serves as a reminder, should any be needed, that the London media scene and Twitter are highly visible but actually very small and unrepresentative political micro-climates.
Indeed, for most voters a more hard-nosed approach to aid spending is perfectly understandable and even long overdue.
Whilst the Government obviously needs its policy to be responsive to public opinion, it should make sure that it’s catering to genuine, broadly-based public views when changing course.
- Discipline is especially vital on topics which are party fault lines
A small majority and fixed-term parliaments already presage a tricky period in office: the Party must be disciplined and determined in pursuit of its agenda in order to minimise the inevitable disruption.
Rudderless headline-chasing is a luxury it cannot afford, especially not on areas as sensitive as immigration (which, like it or not, is in the same mental ballpark as a refugee crisis for most voters).
As Mark Wallace set out last week, the Party currently looks like its pursuing two parallel political makeover projects: into a liberal ‘One Nation’ party and an aspirational, populist ‘Workers Party’ on the Rob Halfon model.
He pointed out that these two visions would sometimes come into conflict, and refugees and immigration is definitely one of the areas where that could happen.
For example, swaying in the clicktivist breeze may engender warm feelings from liberal, metropolitan voters (although perhaps not, see point one), but alienate ‘white van man’ – the above-mentioned polling suggests as much.
In conclusion, the events of the last few days highlight the importance of really good voter research as the bedrock for political discipline.
A Government’s credibility can only withstand so many u-turns, and it should save them for times when it genuinely thinks it has made a mistake. That does not seem to have been the case here.
CCHQ should invest in finding out for itself what voters think and let that be their guide, rather than allowing the Government to be blown off course by strong gusts of hot air from the media.