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When asked in opposition why he wanted to be prime minister, David Cameron replied: “Because I think I would be quite good at it.” This was a cocky thing to say, but confidence, even effrontery, is a good trait in a politician. I want my prime minister to back himself. Britain has a history of brash and popular leaders, from Gladstone’s grandiloquence to Boris’s braggadocio. The problem for Mr Cameron is when impudence turns to incompetence. If it turns out he isn’t “quite good at it”, as is the growing suspicion, what’s left but chutzpah?
His government has had another sorry week. George Osborne’s Budget continued its radioactive decay, emitting particles of tabloid energy, leaving behind more policies with unstable half-lives. A 3p-per-litre rise in fuel duty planned for August was postponed. Petrol joined pasties, caravans, charities and skips on the list of recent reversals. Chloé Smith, a junior Treasury minister, was sent to explain the change on Newsnight. Unwilling to say when she had been told of the U-turn, Ms Smith underwent a gentle mauling on live television. Concluding his interview, Jeremy Paxman asked: “Do you ever think you’re incompetent?”
It’s a bad sign when a government minister faces this question. All administrations have ups and downs. But this is more than midterm blues. Too many policies have been sloppily conceived, poorly executed and ineptly retracted. There are several able cabinet ministers but several others look suspiciously amateur. Incompetence is a sharp badge to wear for too long. It obscures the good the government has done: opening up data, trying to devolve power, intervening in Libya, experimenting with free schools, mutualising public services, bolstering shareholders, expanding apprenticeships and liberalising planning. And it risks making a metashambles out of an omnishambles; this was the fortnight the coalition seriously began to diverge. Michael Gove didn’t tell Nick Clegg about his idea to abolish GCSEs. On Monday, Mr Cameron’s speech on welfare was about what Conservative – not coalition – policy would look like in 2015.
Mr Cameron is a better man than Bob Diamond, Barclays’ chief executive. But his government’s recent troubles have echoes of Barclays’. First, the Barclays claim that the Libor scam was the work of junior traders is akin to the government’s blame-shifting to the civil service. Mr Cameron has an iPad app that feeds him data about public attitudes and the performance of ministers. But without a commitment to act on the data, or to find out what is really happening on the ground, it risks becoming policy’s equivalent of a value at risk model.
Second, neither the government nor Barclays senior management seem to grasp the extent of the public anger at what seems to be one set of rules for an incompetent cabal of overpaid London elites, and another for the rest.
Third, and most important of all, the week showed that politics is still playing catch-up with the financial crisis. There was a revealing purity about the Libor scandal: prices were deceitfully rigged in a benchmark market for interest rates. No advocate of the moral qualities of free markets, such as Mr Cameron or Mr Osborne, can stand by when there are failings on this scale. In January, the chancellor wrote in this newspaper that “what we need now is a greater application of free-market principles, not cosy protection for vested interests”. There is an urgent case for the government to look again at whether its reforms of the financial sector live up to this ideal.
Britain is familiar with posh politicians. The trouble comes when they, or any politician, are seen to mock what people hold dear. “The best way to cause people long-lasting pain is to humiliate them by making the things that seemed most important to them look futile, obsolete and powerless,” wrote the philosopher Richard Rorty. In opposition Mr Cameron did a better job than Gordon Brown at grasping this point. In government, he has shown emotional intelligence, too. The immigration cap will be either useless or mildly harmful to the British economy, but it is not the policy of a government wholly out of touch with people’s concerns.
The blind spot is a small but important one: economic security. The government famously said that we are all in this together. Whatever the incentive effects of the 50p tax rate, its abolition smashed that hard-built edifice. Meanwhile, Mr Cameron has only sporadically addressed stagnating median wages and the high unemployment rate. It is no coincidence that two of the biggest gaffes have involved petrol. They hint at a government unaware of life at a margin that is wider than they presume.
There is growing frustration among the coalition at the civil service’s inability to execute its policies. It is a complaint common to governments after a few years in power. My first boss joked that Whitehall was the channel for the “reverse butterfly effect”: politicians spark chaos in departments, who transmit the current through bureaucratic layers and then, years later, a butterfly flaps its wings in, say, a jobcentre. But ultimately civil servants jump to the height decided by their political bosses.
There needs to be an unrelenting drive not just to announce policies but to implement them too. (At least the ones that aren’t reversed.) The prime minister is in need of savvy special advisers who spot pitfalls and are empowered by him to hold ministers to account. Not since Clement Attlee has there been a first-time government with such reforming zeal. Yet there appears to be little sense of what the priority is for the next three years.
This should be to prove that capitalism can work for the many and not just the few. “The problem facing western democracies is doubt about the ability of government to deliver rising living standards ... My argument is that the way to address this doubt is not to run away from capitalism but to run towards it,” wrote Mr Osborne in January. The future of this government will depend on whether he and Mr Cameron can do this without falling flat on their faces.
The writer is the FT’s executive comment editor