by Pat McFadden
Last week I wrote that competence or the lack of it had become a key problem for the government. A number of issues were responsible, beginning with the unnecessary government provoked petrol crisis and running up to the farcical inability of the home office to add up the number of days in three months when trying to deport Abu Qatada. All of this means that politics is being looked at through a different lens compared with a couple of months ago.
This different context in which the government is no longer getting the benefit of the doubt lies behind the recent shift away from the Conservatives and towards Labour in recent opinion polls.
But this week, something even more serious than government competence came into question. It is the government’s purpose. If the coalition had one purpose it was supposed to be “sorting out” the economy through fiscal austerity. There isn’t a debate or question time that goes by in the House of Commons without some reference to this from government ministers. It’s the glue that holds the Tories and Liberals together – all that stuff about “sorting out Labour’s mess” and “working together in the national interest.”
Except it isn’t working. The economy is back in recession. All those Cameron and Osborne quotes about the economy being out of the danger zone look hopelessly, as the phrase of our times puts it, out of touch.
The whole justification for everything the government has done has been to restore economic growth. But we don’t have growth. The economy is shrinking. We did have growth before the government set out on this road but since they came to office we only have 0.4% growth over two years and the economy is still 4.3% below its peak in the first quarter of 2008 – a sharp contrast with the United States which recovered its peak level of output last year and is now above that level.
It is one thing to put people and businesses through pain if it is producing results. But if it isn’t, and you don’t know what you’re doing, that is quite another matter.
Every new government has a honeymoon period for a while. Every newly defeated opposition will have to spend some time licking its wounds and not being listened to much. But after two years a clearer picture of the government is emerging.
We know that Mr Cameron likes being prime minister but we are far less clear why. What does he want power for? In what ways does he really want to change Britain?
Rumour has it the prime minister recently asked top civil servant Jeremy Heywood “do I work for you or do you work for me?” This is not a question that would have been asked of civil servants during the Blair years. Whatever else may be said about those years, the government had a purpose and spent much time trying to ensure policy matched the purpose. Leave aside the guff about new Labour control freakery. Cameron’s belief in that lazy metropolitan critique led him to establish a deliberately weak No 10. That decision has been coupled with an unwillingness or even worse an inability to map out a proper strategy for his government. Governments need a driving purpose and a clear idea of what they are there for.
The first chicken for this government came home to roost when the prime minister found himself landed with a huge NHS reorganisation cooked up while his own office was asleep or sticking to the bizarre theory that they didn’t really need to know what government departments were up to (memo to PM – there is only one government and you have to answer for all that it does). There have been other events since then and now the Tory party is desperately casting around for someone to impose direction and yes, whisper it, some control on what the government is doing.
Left without a central driving purpose the government has nothing to cling to other than the deficit reduction plan. But in the absence of growth and with the deficit plan not producing results, there’s an even more serious question for the government than competence. It is the question of what this government is for.
Pat McFadden is Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East.