Wednesday, 27 May 2015

David Cameron: aiming high in the indolent politician stakes

On being told of US President Calvin Coolidge’s death, Dorothy Parker famously said, “how do they know?”

Coolidge was known as “Silent Cal.” A young woman who sat next to him at dinner one evening is said to have told him that she’d taken a bet that she would get more than two words out of him. “You lose,” he replied, and never addressed another word to her.

Silent Cal
Cameron sadly seems as little inclined to rise to challenges
Even more sadly, he can't emulate him in keeping quiet about it
To be fair, Coolidge was probably not quite as awful as his successor, Herbert Hoover, who presided brainlessly over the great crash of 1929. He concentrated on balancing the budget, and left the economy in free fall. It could only be rescued once he’d been voted out of office and replaced by Franklyn Roosevelt.

Interestingly, David Cameron is nothing like Coolidge in that he keeps on talking. But like him, in all other ways, he seems hopelessly unable to make a good judgement. And, like Hoover, he’s so fixated on balancing the budget, that he can’t see what he’s destroying on the way to doing it.

He behaves like a man who doesn’t want to have to read his briefing documents.

On coming to office, he oversaw the bold decision to slash spending on flood defences by £125m a year, from Labour’s spendthrift level of £665m. No doubt he felt this bolstered the macho image he was cultivating, of a Prime Minister with the guts to take the tough decisions to balance the books.

Then there was serious flooding in 2012. And – lo and behold – he found £120m to plough back in, all but restoring the cut, to relaunch delayed projects.

You could be forgiven for wondering whether he hadn't thought through the consequences of his actions.

This is just one of a series of half-baked decisions over which he’s presided. He dropped Labour’s plans for a new generation of planes to fly from aircraft carriers, preferring a different model. But there were problems with that model. So he had to revert to the Labour approach.

That bright fellow, Michael Gove, then Cameron’s Education Secretary came up with a smart idea. The GCSE, a state exam taken by most school pupils at 16, would be replaced by something far better. Except that it turns out it wasn’t – the boards that oversee exam qualifications, most educational experts and even the Tories on the parliamentary select committee on Education, pointed out all sorts of flaws in the plan, and five months later it was dropped.

David Cameron
And when you think he's half asleep, he's really half awake
It seems Cameron is starting his second term exactly how he started his first: with wild, ill-thought through proposals. And, curiously, Gove’s involved again, on the latest and most egregious of them. He’s now Justice Minister and therefore closely bound up in the Cameron wheeze to repeal the Human Rights Act.

Cameron was at it again in the parliament this afternoon: “Be in no doubt: we will be introducing legislation and legislating on this issue because I want these decisions made by British judges in British courts, not in Strasbourg.”

It seems that once more he hasn’t completely mastered his brief. Britain is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. As a result, British citizens can bring human rights cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Incidentally, this is not an institution of the European Union, but of the Council of Europe, a much bigger but looser grouping of countries. Britain’s leaving the EU would not take it out of the Council.

The idea of the Human Rights Act was to incorporate the legislation into British law, so that citizens wouldn’t have to appeal to Strasbourg, but could instead have their cases heard in Britain. In other words, to have “decisions made by British judges in British courts.”

It’s hard not to conclude that Cameron really hasn’t done his homework. Again.

Fortunately, though, he seems to have woken up to his mistakes slightly more quickly this time than he has on previous blunders. The Queen’s Speech today, where the government announced its legislative programme, contained no reference to repealing the Human Rights Act, just a vague reference to bringing in “proposals for a British Bill of Rights.”

It’s just as well. Even Conservative MP Dominic Grieve told Sky News that “I am wholly unpersuaded that the benefit outweighs the really substantial costs that will come with this.”

As for Labour, the former Justice Minister Lord Falconer was firm: “It increasingly looks like the Tories are making it up as they go along. What is clear is that if they suggest completely scrapping people’s human rights protections, Labour will oppose them all the way.”

Making it up as he goes along. Sounds like Cameron. Sounds like any lazy man.

He may not be as silent as Coolidge, but Cameron’s seems to be rivalling his inertia. As well as Hoover’s ineptitude.

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