But that does not mean he is unpopular (despite lots of potential reasons for this to be so), or that he will lose the next general election. It is just an example of an era, post-2010, which has seemingly been defined by a lack of seriousness of purpose on the part of the major parties.
Cameron has scored a few political successes. He has done what few would have predicted: he has put together, and held together, a coalition that has lasted nearly two years and will quite likely last five.
He has been successful, thus far, in winning public support for his eminently populist handbagging of his EU partners, although only time will tell whether he was wise to do so. He is generally felt to have had a “good war” in Libya.
But as regards defining a domestic policy direction for his government, he has relatively little to show: an austerity program, showing strength but courting unpopularity; and education reforms which are competent and probably modestly positive with the public, although mostly despised by Labour. The rest is largely either a blur, with no significant impact made, or a mess.
Now compare and contrast with his coalition partner. Clegg made a textbook populist pitch before the election, “an end to politics as usual”, before demonstrating eighteen days later, via the person of David Laws, that he represented just the opposite.
Being a junior coalition partner encourages populism, because of one’s limited impact on events and the inevitable going along with large numbers of things which you do not like. There’s not much else you can do: hence the rubbish about “alarm clock Britain”, Clegg’s desperate and probably doomed scrabbling around for a distinct identity for his party.
And lastly - in the order in which the media currently treat the three parties – we come to Labour. Miliband at times seems populist, but it is not in the sense that most people would recognise. And this is because his populism is mostly directed inwards, at his own party, and what they want to hear.
But it is not really populism at all: he rather appears to believe those things about “good” and “bad” businesses, or the elusive “progressive majority” in the British electorate, which align him with the more idealistic wing of his party. His high-risk denunciation of Murdoch, for example, was made out of genuine and admirable principle, it resonated publicly and it paid off.
But, although his recent banker-bashing has also clearly resonated with the public, it was not so much a risky course of action, as simply an unwise one. Why? Because he has mistaken people’s grumpiness about the overpaid with a real sea-change in public opinion, strong enough to force significant reforms of modern, international business practice. Whereas, as the Economist’sBagehot points out:
“Although Britons are cross about high pay, few seek capitalism’s overthrow: they dislike corporate fat cats for being fat, not for being cats. As for voters’ stated desire to see bankers suffer just retribution, they need to explain their dislike of well-paid BBC or railway bosses who did not cause the credit crunch.”Such views are understandable: people are currently being asked to suffer. But the lack of consistency which Bagehot identifies reveals them to be a fundamentally emotional, rather than a rational, response. For this reason, it is also difficult to see them being sustained once the cuts are over, the economy recovers and money is back in people’s pockets. And this in turn will, once the public is done with its uncharacteristic business-grumpiness, make Labour look anti-business. Which it increasingly does.
Meanwhile Cameron, recognises that Miliband will periodically stumble on something, like high salaries, which resonates outside his own party. And he is quick to shamelessly bandwagon-jump with some soothing, but ultimately vacuous, words of his own. Gesture politics, like getting Hester to waive his bonus. Cameron can get away with it, because people ultimately trust his party on business. But Miliband can’t get away with it: people mistrust Labour on business, in the same way that they mistrust the Tories on the NHS.
So, in the end, bankers’ salaries is just another example of yet another policy area where all parties are saying odd and rather futile things. In the case of bankers, it is either something they do not really mean, or something they mean but without specifics and with no long-term future. It is a low-rent politics, and one which it is difficult to see as serving the interests of the British people.