The head of the top civil servants’ union, the First Division Association, has accused the government of being “utterly dysfunctional”, of carrying out “government by announcement”, and of not having any clear plans to deliver their promise to halve the deficit within four years. “When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, no clear direction ever emerged from him,” he declared.
So much we already knew, of course, but this is really a quite unprecedentedly blistering attack from such a figure. It is an illustration of the disarray in which the government now finds itself.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, have been making the case for significant and early spending cuts for some time. George Osborne has rightly made it clear that he wants to tackle the deficit by cutting spending and not raising taxes. And he has indicated that serious cuts need to be made, and that an emergency budget very soon after the election will start making those cuts.
As the Conservatives under David Cameron have made that case, they have been able to bring public opinion with them. True, they have not provided the detail of the cuts to be made, but they have won the argument on the principle. The government have been left scrambling to catch up – so much so that Alistair Darling has even been talking about pay cuts in the public sector.
Meanwhile, Ken Clarke was giving an interview to the Times, and sabotaging the Tory case. He urged the Tories not to make “damaging and unsupportable” spending cuts. He hinted that VAT might have to rise to cut the deficit. The whole interview comes across as being a commentary on the current situation, rather than being a contribution from a player in today’s top-level politics. If Clarke had simply been a retired former Conservative cabinet minister, the interview would not raise any eye-brows.
Coming from somebody who is on the Conservative front-bench team, and therefore supposed to be taking part in the political struggle and not just commenting on it, it is a disgrace. Clarke should be ashamed of himself. He is letting down his colleagues on the front bench, and letting down all those party workers who will be battling for a Tory victory at the election. His contribution to the debate was completely at odds with the policy of his own party, and therefore weakens David Cameron’s battle to win a Tory government.
We can do without this. Mr Clarke’s heart is clearly not in this campaign, even though he had the gall to say in the Times interview:
“All the quotations that people get on me pre-date my return to the front bench. I now accept collective responsibility.”
I beg to differ. That interview itself provided plenty of damaging quotations.
Mr Clarke has a background in government and Conservative politics of which he can be proud. It would be sad if he now became a liability. David Cameron should make it clear to Mr Clarke that if he wants a continued role in the Shadow Cabinet, and then a post in a Conservative government, he should make a genuine commitment to that collective responsibility.
The coming election campaign will be hard-fought and despite the opinion polls, is likely to be tricky for the Tories to win. Off-message bumbling interviews from somebody who seems not to care whether they succeed or not, we can do without.