Tony Blair and Gordon Brown allowed too little of it. David Cameron’s Government, on the other hand, is engaged not so much in debate as civil warfare. On every faltering major policy ministers are either at each other’s throats or so much at odds with one another that it is difficult to discern what the official line on a policy is. From privatisation of the forests, and climate change, to reform of the NHS and the House of Lords, the Government is all at sea. As Jon Craig notes on pages 16-17, David Cameron’s reaction to serial U-turns is to dump on any hapless minister caught holding the wrong portfolio at the wrong time. That against a background of continuing economic gloom with worse to come.
Foreign policy is not exempt. Foreign Office minister Nick Harvey told MPs, in reply to a question from Rotherham MP Denis MacShane, that he could “entirely see the comparison” between calls for Muammar Gaddafi to be broughy before the International Criminal Court and the position of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. “It would seem to be”, said Mr Harvey, “that the international forces that reached the conclusions they did about Gaddafi are highly likely to arrive at a similar conclusion.” Given the scale of the killing, torturing and abduction being carried out under al Assad’s orders that is a fair point. But, within minutes of the minister’s statement, the Foreign Secretary William Hague begged to differ: “There are important differences, of course, in the level of international support and concern about Syria… we are in a different situation in respect of Syria than we are in respect of Libya”.
And if policy differences weren’t sufficient to question the viability of this coalition to govern, there is the broiling revolt within
the Liberal Democrats over Nick Clegg’s leadership.
In the latest test of public opinion the Lib Dems and their leader were given the punishment that their mendacious, lickspittle role in the coalition deserved. But the Tory vote held up, not least in areas where Labour will have to do much better if it is ever going to conceive of governing Britain again.
So, against all that is going wrong for the Government, why isn’t Labour doing better? Supporters of leader Ed Miliband, Tribune among them, are increasingly worried that a void is opening up where Labour’s voice should be. Policies are under review but it is the fundamental and binding principles which hold society together, principles of fairness and equality that are under attack from the coalition. Surely Labour has something more positive, more bold, to set out without prejudicing the outcome of the policy reviews which are in danger of imposing a self-denying ordinance on the party?
Anyone hoping that behind the silence emanating from Ed’s bunker frantic energies are being put into a secret weapon would be sorely disappointed. It isn’t. Four years until the next general election may seem a long way away, but elections are not won in the last few weeks. Something needs to stir.