Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Cameron's three Euro fig-leaves

Yesterday's main news was Italian President Silvio Berlusconi narrowly surviving a confidence vote in Rome’s Chamber of Deputies. Despite numerous reasons why he should be thrown out (not to mention, many would say, impeached), perhaps one of the clinching reasons for his survival was his claim that his country needed "continuity”, subtext for: Italy's in a pretty bad way, don’t rock the boat.

And, across Europe, the European debt crisis is being conveniently used by its crafty leaders as an excuse for, er, just about anything. In Spain, Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is using it to plead for unity and stay in office, when his economic mismanagement really merits an early election. Their countries already bailed out, Ireland’s Brian Cowen and Greece’s George Papandreou are just about hanging on, till next year at least. Ultimately they will probably all have to go but, in the meantime, the crisis is providing a very useful fig-leaf for all of them.

The principal reasoning of these European leaders is this: the country is in such a delicate state that it’s not the time to get rid of me. It’s the time to stick with me through the belt-tightening/tough measures/savage cuts (delete as applicable) required to save the country/Euro/world. In one sense, they have a point: we are where we are. There’s no point cutting off our noses to spite our faces, i.e. waiting for countries to tip over the edge and hoping the Euro goes down the tubes - that clearly won’t help anyone, as I argued in another article here. Sooner or later these leaders will get their come-uppance anyway, at the ballot box.

But we can also observe that the European leader who has practically stitched together a suit from all these fig-leaves is Britain’s very own David Cameron, trying his utmost to link Britain with countries involved in the debt crisis.

If we had followed over the last six months the advice of the Leader of the Opposition, we would be linked with Portugal, with Ireland.
- Cameron at PMQs, 1 Dec 2010

And, not content with bandwagon-jumping with Berlusconi and Co. – nonsense in the first place, as Britain is not even in the Euro and its debt is not in any kind of danger – to try and justify his continuation as Prime Minister and ideology-fuelled cuts programme, he has strategically added two more.

The second fig-leaf is simple: it’s covering the old Tory divisions over Europe. Look at the state the Euro’s in: we always knew it would never work. We are finally vindicated, after all these years of isolation. We don’t need to get out of our bunker and address the dogma within our own party or the damage it does to Britain’s interests. Now, how convenient is that?

The final fig-leaf, though, is the most damaging to us: Cameron is using the debt crisis to cover his own sleight-of-hand on Labour’s economic record. The wider economic crisis is largely over for Britain, for the moment at least, but, by cleverly finessing the debt crisis to prolong the impression of a "danger period", he continues to make the country feel that we are on the edge, bolstering his own rewriting of history.

The economy, the economy, the economy. It’s where the Tories are actually weakest, because they have deliberately exaggerated the difficulties Britain faces and blamed Labour for everything. Much of the media, as usual, has followed their game but they are on shaky ground and they fear they may ultimately get found out. And, by hook or by crook, we must win this battle of words and ensure that the lie is nailed.

Why? Not just because the cuts programme needs to be challenged. But also because we went through most of 18 years with a bad reputation on the economy, frankly, largely deserved. It would be a genuine tragedy to go through the next 5 or 10 with a similarly bad reputation but, this time, largely undeserved. We made mistakes on the economy, yes. But we need to put them in context: while we are in post-traumatic self-flagellation mode, we are coming practically to agree with our detractors. We brand anything else as denial, which is foolish (the public were more annoyed with us about other things, such as falling short on public service reforms or Iraq). The Tories have given us a stick and we are happily beating ourselves with it. Please sir, may I have another?

As Alastair Campbell rightly points out in a post yesterday,

it is still not too late for Labour to take apart the claims made by the coalition about why they are ‘being forced’ to make all these cuts. It will not be done overnight, but over time, and it needs to be done strategically, with determination and confidence.

Alan Johnson made a start in his excellent speech at the RSA but we need a coordinated attack, to hammer this line home at every opportunity.

In short, we can choose to drop this now and let history record us as poor on the economy, when we were on the whole, over 13 years, rather good. But how then will we manage to regain that economic credibility, that sine qua non for election-winning, which it took us painful years to win and have now somehow lost in the blink of an eye?

We won't, not any time soon.

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