Yesterday the press hit a new low for the Prime Minister. The papers plastered a photo of him visiting a hospital, with the sign for the Fire Exit prominently displayed above his head. Apparently, in the mad world of the media, this is a gaffe. We are into that phase that I remember well from the dying days of the Major administration, where photographers are out to get any bad or ludicrous picture they could of the Prime Minister at bay (and in 1995-7 of any senior Conservative). In the words of the spin doctors, â€œthe narrativeâ€ is a useless Prime Minister and whether he will go, so the pictures have to fit the story. In his last General Election campaign as Prime Minister John Major was prey to several photo opportunities that were turned into metaphors of his likely defeat.
It is time to take stock of what matters. There was nothing wrong with the Prime Minister visiting a hospital. It is not possible for a democratic politician to get out and about without allowing people to take photos that can juxtapose the unfortunate or the ludicrous against their profiles. Some in the press will say that a professional spin doctor outfit will, as in the early days of Blair, dragoon and control the media to shut down any possibility of embarrassing angles or unhelpful backgrounds. They got away with it then because Blair was popular and enjoyed considerable political authority. A more battered and less popular government will not be able to do it, and as a government loses authority more people exercise more skill in getting the unflattering shots. As far as the public are concerned, our problem this morning is not that we have an â€œaccident proneâ€ Prime Minister who gets into the picture the wrong way. Our problem this morning, as yesterday morning and as tomorrow morning, is that we have a Prime Minister who taxes us too much and spends the money badly. Itâ€™s the economy stupid. The Credit Crunch was brought on by reckless borrowing. In the UK the government is the borrower of last resort, the architect of off balance sheet finance on a huge scale, the author of all sorts of expensive PFIs, and now the proud owner of a mortgage bank in run down mode.
Instead of hiring another spin doctor to try to change the narrative, or extra staff to herd the photographers, the Prime Minister should make some of his army of spin doctors redundant. If the expensive spin doctor appointed to avoid embarrassments for the PM canâ€™t do the job â€“ and that seems to be true from the evidence of the recent press â€“ then get rid of him. If the army of spin doctors cannot secure a better press, then slim it down. Spend less time with the spin doctors, and more time trying to get the underlying issue right. Spend less in the public sector by cutting waste and needless spending , and the UK economy will start to improve. Gordon Brown should go back to the period of his greatest success, the early years when he was still married to Prudence and kept a much better balance between spending and revenue. Even then his Pensions Tax was ticking away, but the overall budget was more realistic and the economy performed much better. He was popular in those days. No one took silly photos of him, because there was no need to.
As a Conservative I am delighted to see the leadership turmoil in the Labour party. It helps our party cause. As someone who wants to see my country well run, it fills me with concern. In the phoney campaigns for a change of leadership, fought by shadowy figures through intermediaries, stalking horses and unattributable briefings, one thing stands out. No-one is yet coming forward with the changes the UK needs to give people a better chance in life, and to sort out the economic problems. The nearest anyone has got is those Labour MPs who are calling for the cancellation of the Vehicle Excise Duty increases scheduled for next Spring (see a previous post) and the cancellation of the further increase in petrol tax. They do not go on to say how they would pay for this, in a budget which already contains far too much borrowing, itself just deferred taxation with the extra problem of having to pay interest on the loan. They do not offer any immediate financial relief to people, by proposing cutting the existing level of petrol tax or any other tax. They do not propose a permanent solution to the sting of the abolition of the 10p tax band, after this yearâ€™s one year only promise of some compensation.
The truth is that the country needs a new budget and a new economic policy more than it needs a new Labour Prime Minister. The â€œcrownâ€ maybe on the thorn bush after the battles of May 1 and Crewe, but who wants to pick up such a tattered bauble, and who in Labour has more of a clue about what to do to save the country were they to seize the diadem? The most likely runners to take over from Gordon â€“ Milliband, Johnson, Straw â€“ are all cabinet members. We hear no leaks or hints that they opposed the last budget, no suggestion that they are desperately trying to get a change of economic policy, no briefing that they went to the Cabinet with a proposal to lighten the burden on the voters of Crewe and elsewhere in a way which would win some support back. Changing the leader could just be shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. The rock of election defeat still looms out of the mist of economic incompetence.
If Labour wants to help themselves and help the country, they should be debating this week how to get much more value out of their public sector, and how to send some money back to the hard pressed voters. If they are not careful Boris Johnsonâ€™s better housekeeping at City Hall will sweep through the over bloated costs of the government of London, resulting in a tax rebate for all London taxpayers. That would simply underline what most electors already know. You could deliver what this government delivers for a lot less money, and leave the taxpayer more of his own cash to get on with meeting the soaring costs of living.
So what should the Tories do now? Mr Timpson should show himself a dedicated and caring MP for Crewe, highlighting all the problems of his constituents in the House. Conservative local government should get on with the job of curbing costs and cutting Council taxes, as Hammersmith and Fulham has been doing. The Conservative leadership can leave the personality squabbles and rows to Labour to do for themselves. We need to carry on shining a light onto the governmentâ€™s biggest failings. We need to show time and again just how much money has been wasted, and how given the chance we would spend more wisely. If Labour do not reform and curb their public sector it does not matter a jot who is their Leader.