People often say (rightly) there is not enough candour, and not enough humour, in politics. Why did Boris Johnson rise as he did? In part because of candour and a rare sense of humour. Why is someone like Dennis Skinner a living Labour legend – and one of the few MPs who came to hear GB’s last words as leader at Party HQ last week btw? – because of his candour and his humour.
So what have we learned about the new Treasury Chief Secretary, Lib Dem (sic) David Laws? That he doesn’t get candour and humour, which is why instead of taking the one-line note from his outgoing Labour predecessor Liam Byrne – which said there was no money left – in the spirit in which it was intended, he used it to grease even further up to new boss George Osborne (who, I suspect, will have been less impressed by Laws’ stunt than Laws.)
Liam Byrne probably assumed his shadow Philip Hammond, with whom he will have established some kind of relationship, was going to be taking over in the Treasury Number 2 job if the Tories won. It is usual for ministers to leave some kind of personal and private note to their incoming successors. It is not unusual, especially after all the harsh things said in an election campaign, for such letters to err on the light side.
What poor Liam cannot have realised is that the Coalition we helped bring about by stopping the Tories from winning a majority would have someone quite as humourless as Laws in its midst.
I don’t know the man so I may be doing him a great disservice. He may be a real bring-the-house-down merchant once he shakes off the politicospeak , the oddly scrunched-up forehead and the over-groomedness which is all I have ever really noticed about him until now.
But there is something close to nauseating about the speed with which he has moved from arguing during the election campaign that we should not be bringing forward planned cuts to the public sector until we get proper growth in the private sector going, to his position now, that he got it all wrong and Boy George was right all along.
Facing both ways is something of a Lib Dem speciality, but Laws is clearly a master of it. Even as he is nodding along in appreciation of the Osborne axe-polishing (at least George believes in it) he is sending out emails to worried Lib Dems saying that he is there to keep an eye on things, and put a brake on Osborne’s excesses. It is the first sign that he is finding the rigours of government – where you have to make decisions and explain them rather than apologise for them – more difficult than he expected.
He will always put ‘social justice’ at the heart of any decisions he makes, he tells his Lib Dem colleagues. Well let’s see how that squares with the cuts coming down the track for children, the disabled and the homeless, and let’s see how Lib Dem voters feel when they realised that is what their much desired hung parliament is bringing.
My hunch is that when the pressures from within the Lib Dem party mount, as the reality of difficult decisions bites, some of the new ministers will find it too much to bear – Vince Cable is top of my list of predicted resigners – – and will peel back to the comfort of Oppostional criticism.
Laws has two big advantages. He is clearly perfectly at ease facing two ways. And he is close to being a Tory already. Indeed my other half, who knows more about policy than I do, says he is to the right of the Tories in some areas of public services policy.
Whatever course he chooses, though, he will find life in government a lot easier if he can get a sense of humour from somewhere.
The kind that can see the funny side when, in the same breath, George Osborne says cutting quangoes will be at the heart of their cuts plans; and announces the new Office for Budget Responsbility (er … quango) to help him.
Meanwhile, nice to see one of the storylines from Yes Minister emerging as a central plank of the Tory strategy. You know the one – we spent the whole campaign saying the public finances would be a mess, and hey, they’re actually less of a mess than we said, but we will say they’re a bigger mess, and that means we can hopefully persuade people that the planned tax rises we had denied we would make are really Labour’s tax rises not ours.
If they are Labour tax rises, bring back Darling, I say!
And where’s Clegg and all his mania gone? I warned him he should get a department or disappear without trace. Buy hey, he and William Hague are sharing Chevening … aw sweet!
It has been the great Liberal cry down the years, the thing they have fought and marched for … What do we want? Country houses. When do we want them? Now!
*** Buy The Blair Years online and raise cash for Labour http://www.alastaircampbell.org/bookshop.php.