Political paradoxes


A wonderful moment at the RSA Academy Governors’ yesterday:  Ten students joined us to talk about their experience of entering and winning a national debating competition (the first school outside London ever to do so). Their stories of overcoming nerves and their growing confidence and determination to win were inspiring and more than one governor was close to tears. As the Principal said, ‘if you want living proof of the value of the Opening Minds approach to learning, there it is’. Such hopes and triumphs would have been inconceivable in the school just a few years ago and I hope all RSA Fellows feel pride in the Academy’s work.

Just before they left I asked the students whether the experience of leaning how to debate had made them interested in politics. Although they seemed more excited about being better able to argue with their parents, nearly all agreed. So if any of them are reading, here is a little reflection on the occasional paradoxes of political leadership.

On the surface there is no question that the News International crisis – which seems to be receding from the headlines – has been very bad for Mr Cameron and very good for Mr Miliband. From the moment the Labour leader made the courageous and correct judgement to call for the resignation of Rebekah Brooks it has felt like the Opposition is in charge of policy with the Government being reduced to reacting. Looking at the crisis now it looks like it was bound to unfold in this dramatic way, but there is a serious argument that had Miliband not been so bold News International and the Government could still have found some way to minimise the damage.

And yet…

All new Prime Ministers reach a moment when they are no longer new Prime Ministers. It isn’t just a matter of time, it is also reputation. Tony Blair had his Bernie Ecclestone moment, Cameron is having his more drawn out Murdoch moment. Many people perceive that one of David Cameron’s weaknesses is that he can sometimes gloss over the detail and assume that he can argue his way out of any situation. Well, he certainly knows better now. And this may not be a bad thing.

However interested we may be in the melodrama, almost nobody’s vote will be swung by the hacking scandal. What unfolds in the next three years, as people experience falling living standards and declining public services, will determine the outcome of the next election. As I have said in previous posts, there seems too often to be a serious lack of strategic grip in Government. The public still believes austerity is necessary (although polls show the majority in support has almost disappeared), but Mr Cameron is going to face by far his toughest political test in trying to keep the country together - and his chances of re-election alive - as the full impact of cuts and the continuing weakness of the economy hit home.

If the hacking crisis leads Mr Cameron to be more questioning of the advice he is given; if it encourages him to take a firmer grip on issues and demand a more strategic approach, then it could turn out to have been better than a mixed blessing.

For Mr Miliband in the other hand, the worry must be this; if, even after such show of leadership, there is little evidence that the electorate is warming to him as a potential Prime Minster, what more can he do?  Up until now his team could put his lack of credibility down to his inexperience and a series of misfortunes, but what if people don’t like Ed even when things are going his way?

All political careers end in failure. But the standing of some leaders improve when people see more of them. Thus it was for many years with Thatcher and with Blair  People may not have liked them as people, but these politicians had credibility as leaders and there was a sense that when they got involved with an issue it was more likely to be gripped. Judging by how his Commons performance yesterday - while far from perfect - seems to have moved on the story this may, I suspect, currently be true of Cameron.

Then are less fortunate figures for whom the sad truth seems to be that the more people see of them the lower they are rated. This was the case with Iain Duncan Smith as Tory leader, with Neil Kinnock among swing voters and with Gordon Brown as Prime Minister. Despite the great two weeks he has had, and the plaudits he richly deserves, team Miliband will be kept awake at night by the worry this might also prove to be true of their boss.  By the time of his Labour Conference speech we will be closer to finding out.

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