Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown

What was the reason behind the smearing of Hague last week?

Was it a pre-emptive strike by Coulson to defuse his little local difficulty with mobile phones? Was it a nasty Labour smear? Did a couple of hacks just get lucky and did Guido pick up on the story to feed his adoring minions?

Or is there something else behind it?

Right now, with a new baby, solid Tory standing in the opinion polls and his feet under the desk at Number 10, Cameron looks master of all he surveys and in control, but he must be aware that things will not look always look so good. The cuts will start to fall over the next twelve months, VAT will rise in 2011 and Tory councillors may start to feel the heat at next year's elections. It looks highly likely that Liberal Democrat councillor base will suffer some serious pain and that will be a challenge to the coalition. If the economy tips back into recession - and I suspect that it will during the first two quarters of 2011 - then the pressure will be all the harder to take and cracks may appear in the Tory ranks, a significant number of whom really aren't happy at the concessions made to the Liberal Democrats and think that Cameron has gone a bit native as a result of hanging around with Nick and the boys.

You never know, but if there is dissatisfaction, then there might be calls for Cameron to go and Hague would be an ideal interim - or even permanent replacement. He remains popular within the party and is a fine political performer - I suspect that he might have been able to deliver a narrow majority in Cameron's place. Could last week's shenanigans have been a deniable operation to scupper any future potential challenge to put Hague in place? These sort of personal attacks have a nasty habit of emanating from within parties, rather than from outside. John Bercow had to suffer a vicious whispering campaign about his personal life and he's by far the only one. Many of the personal peccadilloes of politicians are tolerated within the Westminster Village and aren't reported outside because they simply aren't news. For years nobody bothered reporting the fact that Peter Mandelson was gay, not because journalists were scared that he would hunt them down and bury their bodies, but because it was such an open secret that nobody really cared. It only becomes an issue when somebody wants it to be out in the open and you should always ask why a story breaks at any particular time.

Of course, the one who should really worry Cameron - if the wheels start coming off - isn't Hague, but the prince across the water, the current Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. He's a man who has peccadilloes aplenty - usually blonde and decidedly female - but his image seems untarnished by human failings that would wreck other careers. In that sense, he is rather like the late Alan Clark, a lounge lizard lothario whose track record of seduction surprises nobody - we expect our cads to behave in exactly that way, just as we don't really blame the fox when the hen house door is left open. Don't ask me to explain why the British public and media will shred one politician's career and leave another's untouched, but for a golden few, the rules are different.

He may be an excellent performer on Have I Got News For You, but under that shock of blonde hair is a very sharp brain. The character of Boris as the overgrown schoolboy is just that - a role he plays exceptionally well - but I would urge you to watch some of his interviews about the current Tube strike. Gone was the overblown accent and language and in its place was a much sharper and more serious Boris, an entirely different beast that we have rarely seen in public.

Johnson is currently safe from national criticism - he won't be held to blame for the economy if it all goes hideously wrong next year and is actually ideally placed to run a headline-grabbing defence of London's budgets against the Chancellor. He will gain credit for the 2012 Olympics, even if he loses the mayoral election just before and should be well-placed at the fore of the national mood. Cameron will be the bad news boy, leading his shock troops into slashing public services and it may be felt that the Tory party needs a little decontamination of its own prior to the 2015 election. Johnson could be the perfect choice - especially if a tame MP with a safe seat can be prevailed upon to decide to spend more time with his or her family in return for a promised peerage when Boris ascends.

To set the right narrative, Boris is reported to be threatening to resign if funding for Crossrail is slashed or if he can't get enough money to support the improvements to the Underground - something that he later denies, but it is telling that he still won't announce a plan to run again. And in a speech, he makes a surprising admission of concern about the direction that the government are taking on the economy, even admitting the economic knowledge of Ed Balls
You may remember that during the election and in the run-up to the June budget, we were told that it was necessary to avoid a Greek-style sovereign debt crisis. We were told we would have to slash the deficit or else the markets would punish us with cripplingly high interest rates. Well, the deficit is still more or less what it was, and yet interest rates and bond yields are at historic lows. Of course it is a good thing to bear down on wasteful public spending, and the deficit must certainly be reduced. The question is how far and how fast this can be done without provoking a double-dip recession – and the risk is that if there is a serious downturn at the end of the year, it is the coalition that will cop the blame.

Don't worry about Hague, David. Boris is the one to watch.

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