The Rise and Fall of Political Reputations Challenges Both Tories and Labour
It is no exaggeration to say that the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith two days after the budget has made the week preceding the Easter break one of the most dramatic and feverish since the election.
Duncan Smith’s resignation was unexpected but, as so often is the case, now seems inevitable. Whatever his motivation - and we prefer to take him at face value - his departure has changed the debate within the government.
David Cameron won in May 2015 with a promise to bring the deficit into surplus during the course of the parliament; the Tories’ economic plan - sorry, Long-Term Economic Plan - was based on the assumption that they would negotiate parts of it away in a hasty remarriage to Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. Their majority meant that no negotiation was necessary. This government was elected on the basis of £12 billion cuts to welfare and no tax rises.
The former leader’s stinging rebuke to Cameron’s One Nation credentials has put that plan to rest. In the Commons this week, it was clear that his replacement, Steve Crabb, will not oversee further salami slicing of his budget. Considering that the cuts to PIP were ones which affected the most needy in our society, this can only be welcome news. It does mean that the government will struggle to balance the books without increasing taxes further.
IDS OPENED UP A DIVIDE IN THE CONSERVATIVE PARTY BEYOND EUROPE, LABOUR HAS A GREATER DIVIDE
The other impact is on George Osborne’s succession to the premiership. By antagonising IDS and humiliating the government of which he is leading member, more and more are doubting whether he has what it takes to replace David Cameron. Schadenfreude is an unpleasant emotion, but there is a certain democratic karma for the man who refused again and again to tell the electorate what parts of the welfare budget he would cut.
Had he laid out firm proposals before the election he could have claimed some degree of mandate. Instead he made an unnecessary hash of his mini-budget by planning on slashing in-work benefits, his supposed triumph of getting Google to agree to a derisory tax contribution made him look out of touch and his sleight of hand over disability benefits means that, sugar tax or no, he is the bitter face of this government. However, back against the wall in the Commons on Tuesday, he admitted his error but gave a vigorous defence of his budget and sat down to tribal cries of “More”.
One of the strange benefits of Osborne’s fall from grace might be that the upcoming referendum on Europe might now be viewed as an important decision for voters on Britain’s global place and our economic future in a world which looks increasingly unstable. As Josiah Mortimer, from the Electoral Reform Society, recently argued in Disclaimer the British public deserves a well-informed debate not a parade of aspirant leadership candidates. The instant attempts by some in the Brexit camp to link the terrorist attacks in Brussels to EU membership do not give hope.
For many Labour supporters the government’s travails will be viewed with a certain degree of satisfaction. The party now looks to be drawing even with the Conservatives in the polls. After months of bad local by-election results, except in safe Labour areas against UKIP, Corbyn’s supporters will take comfort. Never mind that a few weeks ago the same polls were regarded with suspicion.
It is a false comfort. The political fundamentals have not changed. The Conservative Party won a majority not because they were loved but because they were trusted by more people to govern the country than Labour and Ed Miliband. The obstacles for Labour returning to power in 2020 - even in a coalition - are unaltered. The fact remains that, although IDS opened up a divide in the Conservative party beyond Europe, Labour has a greater divide between its membership and its parliamentary party. Until either Corbyn resigns or they reach a workable accommodation, that problem will persist.
There are also obvious question marks over Corbyn’s leadership. His personal poll ratings, often a better indicator of support than the headline figures, remain appalling. His past continues to haunt him. His failure to effectively root out anti-Semitism within Labour’s lower ranks has allowed critics to highlight his links with pro-Palestinian figures who turned out to be Holocaust deniers or deployers of the medieval blood libel. Worst of all, he seems incapable of making the government squirm even in its most difficult of times: his inability to land any blows on David Cameron this week, or to provide analytical opposition to the government, means he is letting the country down. This government of all governments needs a strong check. Alas, it simply is not being provided.
HINDSIGHT PUTS DRAMA INTO PERSPECTIVE. GOVERNMENTS GO THROUGH BAD PATCHES
Corbyn must up his game. He must also start to make progress with the voters who will decide the next election. In this he faces crucial tests in Wales and Scotland, in London and in local councils across the country. They will be his first major electoral hurdles as leader. The danger for Labour is that, whatever their message, people simply do not like or trust the messenger.
Over the bank holiday most people will not be thinking of any of this. Yet the story of Easter is one of death and rebirth. This week it has seemed as if this is a government, bitterly divided, on the decline; as if the chancellor has used up all of his political lives. Hindsight puts drama into perspective. Governments go through bad patches but more often than not they rebound to win re-election: in the last thirty-five years the electorate has only really changed political leadership twice, in 1997 and 2010. A global economic recovery might save Osborne’s reputation. A serious downturn might crush him. Equally, Jeremy Corbyn has the task of proving his doubters wrong and rising from his political near-death to become a national, not a protest, leader. It is task which no other unpopular opposition leader has accomplished.
There is here a challenge for the British public and those who want to see a decent, reforming and progressive government. If democracy is a collaboration between people and politicians, then we are as responsible for our country as those who govern us. We should start acting like it.
About the author
Disclaimer is a group of writers, journalists, and artists who have been brought together by their desire to tackle serious issues with a light and humorous touch. A mixture of idealists and pragmatists, Disclaimer is socially very liberal, economically less so. The editorial stance is formed collectively, based on the shared values of the magazine. Gonzalo Viña founded Disclaimer with the help of Phil Thornton who oversees the economics coverage. Graham Kirby is the editor.
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