by Jim Murphy MP
People watching political events unfold over the last few weeks will have felt a sense of familiarity. A minister resigns amidst scandal. Eurosceptic Conservative backbenchers threaten mass revolt. Inflation and unemployment are steadily high while the government looks on. A party of government turns inwards when the country seeks leadership. A prime minister appears at the mercy of events rather than in charge of them. This is the Conservative government in the early 1990s, but now David Cameron has taken the role of John Major. And just to complete the set the Stone Roses have announced they are reforming.
We all remember the sleaze scandals of the 1990s. A minister resigned after lobbying on behalf of a businessman. Two PPSs and two ministers resigned following ‘cash for questions’. Current minister Alan Duncan resigned after making £50,000 from a deal on a council house. Jonathan Aitken was accused of secretly doing deals with Saudi princes and then sent to jail for perjury. And we do not need reminding of ‘toe job to no job’.
The Fox resignation was a different type of crisis. Liam Fox was found to have broken the ministerial code on multiple counts. His unofficial adviser was used to orchestrate a shadow political operation which undermined the civil service. He appears to have solicited undeclared donations. His and Mr Werritty’s funders have well established links to the Conservative party.
The nature of the wrongdoing has been clear for some time, but the full extent has yet to be revealed by a prime Minister who has refused to take responsibility for a crisis that happened on his watch inside the most sensitive of government departments. David Cameron will still not answer our questions.
In a similar way as John Major’s “back to basics” speech jarred with the actions of his ministers and MPs, so David Cameron’s words in the ministerial code “We must be…transparent about what we do and how we do it…above improper influence” jar with his actions during the Liam Fox scandal.
David Cameron may not have labelled some in his party as ‘bastards’ over Europe, but few would bet against him sharing that sentiment at the moment. Just as with John Major, at a vital moment for the future of the EU and therefore Britain a Tory government is debating internal party politics. Rather than engaging seriously with the Treaty which led the EU to come into existence John Major was desperately scrabbling for votes in the House of Commons. Rather than concentrating on the growing crisis gripping the European economy David Cameron is having showdown meetings with his MPs.
David Cameron today faces a revolt greater than John Major did on Maastricht, and it is of his own making due to his previous Eurosceptic posturing – Labour will save him from his right wing and vote with the government. The actions of many Tories, however, will appear an absurd and irresponsible distraction to people up and down the country worrying about their bills and their families’ futures. Even more so than John Major’s beef war – which he lost.
We need an adult discussion in this country on Europe, but the Tory Party has been sustained on a diet of Euroscepticism since Ted Heath left office. In defence, for example, we need to talk about how we can co-operate better overseas, as our forces have done so successfully in Libya. On trade, migration, workers’ and family rights and fighting crime Europe has a central role to play. People know that recapitalising the banks, dealing with the deficit crisis and developing a plan for growth are today’s priorities.
Instead, at the very moment when unity of purpose is needed we learn that the European fault line which once characterised the Conservative party still runs through its core. John Major aimed to put Britain at the heart of Europe, but David Cameron’s government has only proved that Europe is still at the heart of the Conservative Party.
There appears to be a theme to Conservative governments. Black Wednesday, one of the most memorable failures of post-war British economic policy, sent the pound falling, cost the Treasury billions and defined John Major’s period in Office. Now almost a million 16-24 year olds out of work and inflation over 5% define Cameron’s term so far. His dogmatic refusal to change course will only hurt further Britain’s families.
In the same way the Major government became out of touch we now have a prime minister who will not take responsibility for the consequences of his policies or live up to his promises. But there is one critical difference. John Major’s weaknesses seemed to be born from a lack of respect shown from his backbenches whereas David Cameron’s seem to arise from the disrespect he shows towards his. Major was fearful and Cameron is hubristic, but the result is the same – an out of touch government that puts party interests above the national interest.
This government is peculiar on Europe. There are Europhile Lib Dem MPs who daren’t say a word and many Eurosceptic Tory MPs who know only how to shout. It is time for some leadership from David Cameron. John Major wrote after his time in Office, “I was too conservative, too conventional. Too safe, too often. Too defensive. Too reactive.” On Europe, on the economy and on the conduct of his government David Cameron has a choice to make – to repeat the mistakes of the Major years or to learn from them. Which will it be?
Jim Murphy is the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire and shadow secretary of state for defence.