The Week in Review: Are the Tories too cack-handed to deliver the smack of firm government?

The smack of firm government - with cack-hand
The smack of firm government - with cack-hand
Ian Dunt By

The British people don't elect leaders to be their friend. Margaret Thatcher proved that.

Over and over again the public voted her in, but they never liked her. The thought she was necessary, but not desirable.

It's quite different in the States, funnily enough. Over there, they vote for the guy they'd most like to go for a beer with, which is why you always see those ridiculous photos of cerebral statesmen like John Kerry eating a hot dog in a baseball hat, or Barack Obama - a man with not an ounce of fat on him - grimacing his way through a Denny's.

Over in Britain, there is no such problem. Downing Street advisers are perfectly happy with polling showing people think Labour is in touch with normal people. When it comes to polling day, they'll opt for the tough men who make hard decisions.


And the coalition is very keen on its ability to make the hard decisions.

After decades of improvement, the hands-off approach to the economy was starting to make itself felt in the gender pay gap. Official figures showed that for the first time in years it was growing.

Cameron went in all guns blazing to stop a rise in MPs' pay, being so outspoken he made the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) effectively redundant. Its independent status looked rather weak once the prime minister had threatened to dismantle it for acting independently.

Over at Treasury questions, George Osborne was refusing to rule out a lowering of the benefit cap. The message was clear. You can bet it will be hammered down if the Tories win re-election

And the week ended with the director of Amnesty International calling on Cameron and other European leaders to "hang their heads in shame" for failing to take a fair share of Syrian refugees. As the region suffers the biggest movement of people since World War Two, Britain is refusing to take any refugee through the international process.

None of it will damage the Tories. Their brand is not based on being your mate. It's based on making the tough calls. It's based specifically on not being your mate.

But this image doesn't allow for incompetence.

For a while, the Tories managed to maintain iron discipline. In the heady days after the omnishambles Budget, it really did seem they were falling apart. Staggering errors of judgement were occurring daily. Ministers were like extras in the Walking Dead, stumbling around putting secret papers in park dustbins and issuing class-ridden insults at nearby workers.

But the return of Lynton Crosby brought back some degree of control and the party seemed to have composed itself. Oliver Letwin was locked away. Sellotape was applied to ministerial mouths. But behind the locked doors of their departments, they were still doing the damage.

Not everyone got the memo, however. Iain Duncan Smith ended the week insisting that immigrants who don't learn English should lose benefits. But his stringent behavioural standards were not in evidence when explaining his universal credit programme. The scheme has already wasted £425 million in taxpayer cash - much of it on the IT system.

Governments and IT systems: they never learn.

IDS patiently explained to MPs on the work and pensions committee this week that the loss of money on the IT programme was "common sense". He was bullish and gave no quarter, which impressed some observers. Unfortunately, those are the very characteristics the public accounts committee called into question when it warned that his department had become an echo chamber, with no-one daring to tell the burly secretary of state any bad news.

IDS has his own ability to turn bad news into good news, like a fanciful Jesus. The £40 million squandered on the IT system was, in fact an, intangible asset, he told the committee.

Over at the Home Office, Theresa May was having her own problems. Her department had mistakenly released the details of 1,598 people's immigration cases and had had to start an internal inquiry.

It came just week after she tried to deport starving asylum seeker Isa Muazu at the cost of up to £180,000 of public money, only to see the plane turn around and return to Britain because it didn't have the necessary landing authorisation.

That moment neatly encapsulated the Tory party problem: You can incompetent or tough, but you can't be both.

This is not the smack of firm government. It's a violent assault by someone who forgot to tie their shoelaces.

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