by Michael Dugher
According to yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, one Downing Street aide described the events of last week as “very weird”. Certainly the fall-out from Liam Fox’s resignation will continue to dominate events at Westminster this week, not least with the report of the inquiry into Dr Fox by the cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell, expected tomorrow.
Andrew Rawnsley correctly observed in his column that “in the grand scheme of things, most resignations from the cabinet don’t have a discernibly lasting impact. They only do so if the voters and media draw from them larger conclusions about the government”. But the events of the last week were not just weird, but telling. And we have learnt a lot about both the character and conduct of David Cameron’s out of touch government.
Ed Miliband spent last week out and about. He visited businesses in Worcester, Southend and London, talking to apprentices and company directors about the big challenges facing our economy. Together with Ed Balls, he has launched a five point plan for jobs and growth which would help get Britain’s economy moving again. In Parliament and outside, Labour has been challenging the Tory led-government to do more to help businesses and help get people back into work, so that we can reduce government borrowing and help build a better economy for the future.
But, in the week when unemployment reached its highest level for a generation, and since the Tories were last in power, David Cameron has spent the past seven days trying to work out how to stem a steady stream of allegations surrounding his defence secretary. Across Barnsley, in my own constituency, the number of people claiming job seekers’ allowance (JSA) has gone up eight per cent in the past 12 months; the number of 18-24 year olds on JSA has gone up 11 per cent. Yet it seems that the prime minister has been worried about one man’s job, that of Liam Fox, rather than the jobs of millions of people across the country.
It is the politics of calculation, rather than the economics of regeneration, that has most occupied David Cameron this past week. His main concern has been the right wing of the Conservative party, not what is the right thing to do by the country. There is a strong view that it suited Cameron to have Fox in his cabinet, despite their historic animosity. Fox was the main cheer-leader for the right. His presence was a reassuring one, including for many mainstream Tories who worry that Lib Dems exercise disproportionate influence in the coalition. No 10 will also be nervous as to what problems Fox may cause now he is outside the tent. A Liam Fox memoir, especially highlighting Cameron and Osborne’s attitude to defence during last year’s SDSR, would not make comfortable reading for the prime minister or the chancellor.
In recent days, Downing Street insiders have tried to portray Fox as a Lee Harvey Oswald figure – a sort of crazed loner. But revelations at the weekend concerning the Atlantic Bridge organisation mean that David Cameron stands accused of allowing a secret right wing group – tied to climate change deniers, energy market deregulators and those wishing to liberalise the health sector – to exist at the heart of the Conservative party. Atlantic Bridge was forced to close last year after the charity commission found that the organisation, that was able to take advantage of tax breaks afforded to a charity, was a fundamentally a political one, with ties to the controversial American legislative exchange council. Fox was the chair of Atlantic Bridge’s advisory council, a body that also included cabinet ministers William Hague, Michael Gove and George Osborne, as well as defence minister Lord Astor and senior minister Chris Grayling. Hague’s defence yesterday that he and his colleagues were simply “names on the letterhead” won’t wash.
But the Fox affair also speaks to Cameron’s weak leadership. A little more than a week ago, as the revelations about Liam Fox and his unofficial adviser, Adam Werritty, began to mount, David Cameron was saying not only did he fully support Fox, but that he was content for the ministry of defence to investigate themselves and their own defence secretary.
After calls by Labour that there needed to be a proper investigation by the cabinet secretary, Cameron backed down and asked Sir Gus O’Donnell to look into it. As it became increasingly clear that Fox acted in a way that was in breach of several aspects of the ministerial code, the prime minister refused to consider referring the case to Sir Philip Mawer, the independent adviser on ministerial interests.
Cameron was at his complacent best only last Wednesday at prime minister’s questions, when asked a very simple question by Labour MP Pat Glass. She asked whether a minister who breaks the ministerial code should keep their job? Cameron’s reply was to say that the ministerial code is very clear that it is for the prime minister to decide whether someone keeps their job or not. But he concluded his answer by saying: “Let me be clear, I think the defence secretary has done an excellent job”.
Many people will have been appalled by the casual disregard for ministerial rules seemingly displayed by Liam Fox. People need to know there is not one rule for members of this government and another rule for everybody else. But they also expect strong leadership from their prime minister. Only a year ago, David Cameron said that people expect the highest standards of conduct from their politicians and that “we must not let them down”. A week is indeed a long time in politics. Cameron and Osborne famously said that we were “all in this together”. But at the end of an important week in Westminster, when growth has been downgraded again and there is yet further evidence of the squeeze on people’s incomes, it is clear that this out-of-touch government is focussed increasingly on itself, not the public.
Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and shadow minister without portfolio