Giving us the finger
It was just after 8am on a Monday morning some years ago and I was lying on my side on an examining table, facing the wall, knees drawn up to my chest, trousers round my ankles. As the doctor approached and I heard the sitcom snap of the latex glove, I did what I always do in awkward situations: I said something inappropriate.
‘Hell of a way to start the week, doc — for both of us!’ Even now I’m quite proud of that line. It had timing, pathos and, I’m sure you’ll agree, displayed tremendous personal courage in adverse circumstances. Like many good jokes it was based on tragedy presented as comedy. For some reason, though, the doctor didn’t laugh. And then he stuck his finger up my bum and I wasn’t laughing either.
Here’s the deal — or at least my deal — with letting your GP near your backside: 1) he has listened carefully, and been seen to do so, as you have explained the symptoms; 2) he has then deployed his vast expertise and experience to discount the need not to stick a finger up your bum — regrettably, he will explain, a simple palm on the brow won’t suffice; 3) he has sensitively sought and received your permission to go ahead; 4) you are clear that this temporary discomfort is for your own good; 5) you accept that the more attractive option, that he does it to someone else entirely, will not in this instance tackle the root cause. It’s all a question of fairness.
What George Osborne did to the country in last week’s Budget broke these rules. And the country has responded, as any reasonable person would, by emitting a startled ‘yaroo!’ and leaping from the table while simultaneously pulling up its trousers and smacking him in the puss.
I have spent quite a lot of time defending this Government and the Coalition that preceded it. I haven’t recognised the cheap characterisation of it by the bonkers Left and even by some moderates who should know better as a vampiric, rich boys’ club — a sort of sinister, middle-aged Bullingdon — that is looking out for its own and has no care for those stuck further down the social and economic scale. I’ve no time for those who throw around the accusation that Conservatives have no understanding of common humanity — indeed, this is the kind of tribal demonisation that has come close to destroying our Union and that is currently ripping apart American politics.
Equally, I’m under no illusion that David Cameron can be a bit of a shit, or that George Osborne’s pampered existence has afforded him the space and time to formulate the peculiarly arid calculus that defines his politics. But then what about Gordon Brown, the full story of whose brutality and malice has yet to emerge? What about the vile Ken Livingstone and the unspeakable John McDonnell? What about jailbird Chris Huhne? Society-wrecker Alex Salmond? It’s politics — it attracts a type.
It is also a Government that has often enough done what it believes to be the right things for the right reasons. Michael Gove’s boisterous spell at Education was the most thrilling public policy adventure of its era. Similarly, his tenure at Justice — which, given his Brexit flame-out is sadly likely to be extremely brief — has brought his radical instincts to the intractable subject of prisoner rehabilitation. In both cases, the focus has been on reforming hard-to-reach bits of society and helping the people trapped there: likely to fail, unlikely to bring much glory to the guy in the hotseat.
Gove is, I think, a good man who has repeatedly come a cropper because his limited ability to compromise his principles smashes up against the immoveable Cameron/Osborne nexus, which is — also not unreasonably — fixated on winning and retaining power. Every politician operates on a sliding scale between principle and expediency. Gove sits closer to the former, his masters to the latter.
Iain Duncan Smith was the Government’s other conviction-driven politician. His surprise resignation on Friday evening is ascribed to a number of causes, depending on who is doing the ascribing. There is probably something to them all — the sharpening stresses of being a Brexiteer in the Cabinet, the repeated clashes with Osborne over the impact of austerity on welfare reform and keen disagreements about fiscal priorities, the feeling that he was not treated with respect by the duo of Downing Street, and perhaps a growing awareness that his ambitious Universal Credit (UC) project was doomed to failure.
The delivery of UC was the sole reason for IDS’s presence in government — he said on taking the job of Welfare Secretary that it was the only post he would have accepted; he resisted all subsequent attempts to move him from it. His intellectual and moral journey on welfare, which famously began during that visit to Easterhouse while he was Tory leader and which has involved a lot of clever and committed people along the way, has lasted almost 15 years. If you doubt his methods or his competence you should not doubt his motivation or good intentions. That he has now brought it all to an end is not a decision he can have taken lightly.
With IDS gone, and Gove neutered and seemingly in the exit room, the question arises as to what the Cameron administration is now for. Without the moral impetus of these men — flawed though both may be — all that remains is, apparently, Osbornism. Last week’s Budget is only the latest incident to expose that as a slightly grimy and degrading brand.
If, on the sliding scale, you sit too close to expediency, if there are ultimately no principles that cannot be sacrificed in the name of coming out on top, then over time you reveal a hollow core. Nothing rang truer in IDS’s post-resignation statement than his charge that benefits paid to the disabled were being hit while those paid to wealthy pensioners were being protected. This imbalance is something even the Government’s friends have warned about. It has become an increasingly glaring injustice with every passing year.
And yet political calculation — the elderly vote, and vote Tory; the poor and disabled do neither — triumphed again in the Budget. And then, when the widespread, cross-party nature of the opposition became clear, the cuts to the Personal Independence Payment were suddenly nothing more than a ‘suggestion’. Then they were ‘kicked into the long grass’.
What on earth are we supposed to make of all this? Malign? Self-serving? Detached? Ignorant? Cowardly? All of these things? There certainly comes a moment at which you can no longer credibly argue that you are acting in any way from a social conscience; when you are no longer entitled to lay claim to the mantle of fairness; when the well of public sympathy and goodwill dries up — when you are simply giving us the finger. For me, last week’s Budget comes perilously close to that moment.
If it weren’t for the catastrophe of Corbyn’s Labour, I suspect this administration would probably be starting to look like a fag-end government, stripped of its early reforming zeal, engaged in an attritional civil war over Europe, focused more on its own survival than the country’s wellbeing. Yet as things stand, the Tories will still win the next election at a canter — and George Osborne may even yet be PM. And then what?