The Dave of Reckoning

I’m not the first person to work out that the Conservative Party has found itself in a pretty good position following their somewhat unexpected election victory. With Labour mired in cavernous divisions, UKIP smarting from defeat and the Liberals wounded in their worst result since the alliance’s jubilatory inception in the early 80s, the Tories are left with a clear choice: run wide to leave the legacy for which the famished backbenchers are pining or go for the apex and enjoy an unbroken streak of fifteen years in power. Only one tiny little problem stands in the way of a clearly signposted, win-win situation: our tactful premier.

David Cameron has, of course, announced plans to step down in 2020 and set in motion the election for a brand spanking new successor. I don’t blame him; it’s probably the right decision. By the time he leaves office, he’ll have led his party for fifteen years, nibbling at the Iron Lady’s high heels. But even John Major, the criminally underappreciated golden boy of Mrs. Thatcher’s latter reign, admits you’ve got to move on from that most prestigious of posts after a while – the stresses and strains of an indescribably important job, combined with the inevitable disconnectedness of high office, forces a sell-by date upon any self-respecting Prime Minister. Tony Blair chimes with him on this one, admitting that there’s a time for everything, not least power, not least perception, not least concession.

So ‘Call Me Dave’ is set to pull off a very rare trick and go out on a high, no matter what. But it’s inevitable that the pre-election appetiser he’s arranged for television viewers across the land will be a mêlée of competing ideas and principles, a battle for the life and soul of the party exemplified in just a few contenders. Nevertheless, obvious names are few and far between. Mighty acorns rarely prosper in the shadow of the great oak.

For those of you who are checking opinion polls and scratching heads at the sight of the words ‘great oak,’ bear in mind Michael Train-Spotting Portaloo’s really rather perceptive point about the types of people who we choose to lead the nation. There are, in fact, only two. One is the jobbing Member of Parliament who finds himself next in line to the throne whether he likes it or not – yes, they’re exclusively male so far. The other – and you’ll have no trouble guessing one divisive figure that fits into this category – are the ‘destiny’ politicians who enjoy a meteoric rise to power and the most sensational downfalls when they eventually manifest themselves.

In some ways, this mirrors the struggle between monopolists and competitors which keen students of capitalism and players of ‘Anti-Monopoly’ will certainly grasp. To this observation, I’ll add one of my own: since the era of media-fuelled British politics began with the Profumo Affair and ascent of pipe-smoking Yorkshireman Harold Wilson, the highest office of Government has alternated between these groupings without fail. Standing on the shoulders of their respective giants are Heath, Callaghan, Major and Brown.

It seems we like change in this country, played out like a soap opera fuelled by the Daily Mail. So we’ll probably end up with a suitably dreary man in a suit if that highly unreliable method is anything to go by. And I can tell you it probably isn’t. Come to think of it, Portillo’s curious admiration for Wilson suddenly seems somehow appropriate. But I’m straying from the matter in hand.

David Cameron was only elected Tory Leader after four years in Parliament, and from there he revolutionised his party with an injection of vigour and the pleasant, open face of an airbrushed fashion model or well-sandpapered cricket bat. From the depths of ridicule, the Conservatives rose to become a truly electable force in a remarkable comeback almost worthy of Nelson Mandela, Slade or Lazarus. When the architect of this return to form finally steps down, it’ll be the end of an era. And that’ll be equally remarkable in itself: a political career that doesn’t end in absolute failure, and a ‘destiny’ Prime Minister who passes the baton with dignity and pride.

When a Referendum Impedes Democracy

Exactly why you’d want to set any sort of threshold at no less than 1.985% is beyond me. Eric Pickles, the precise little man that he is, evidently noticed this peculiarity not too long ago and tried to hack off the precise little fraction at the end. Not everyone agreed, though, and so it remains. Personally, I’d much rather he brought it up to 2% – which, after all, would have been much closer to the original. In fact, I wish it was a lot, lot higher.

Perhaps it might be worth explaining what all this is about. At present, a local authority wishing to raise Council Tax beyond a certain upper limit must take the case to the people and hold a referendum to rubber-stamp their grand plan. No prizes for guessing what that ceiling might be.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem like a bad idea. If the voters elect a party on clear taxation pledges which they promptly break at the expense of Joe Public, he’s empowered to foil those dastardly plans with a simple cross in the ballot box. He can fight them in the Council Chamber; he can fight them on the city streets. Consummate democracy in action, you might say. In practice, it’s not that simple.

Naturally, a Labour Council facing pressure from central government would see greater proceeds from Council Tax as a necessary evil under difficult circumstances. However, they just can’t make it happen. The referendum would, almost inevitably, turn out to be an expensive, elaborate folly of rejection and irritation. Joe Public might not have total commonsense, but he does at least possess the illusion of that seemingly rare quality: for him, turkeys voting for an early Christmas are doubtless worthy of their grisly fate.

It’s awfully lucid here in Newcastle, the great Tyneside community of which Jesmond is a leafy suburb. Red-bannered flyers condemn Liberal plans to pour capital down the drain of democracy, all because they’ve got wind of the cash crisis on the horizon. What those leaflets don’t explain are the tricky calculations going on behind the scenes. Essentially, slash-and-burn tactics under the pretence of low taxes just about win elections, costly referendums most certainly don’t. I’m pretty sure they know it’s ultimately suicide: eventually, the local authority won’t be able to offer the services which the law says it must provide, and then they’ll be in real trouble. The problem is that there really isn’t much of a choice.

As rare as this admission may be, it all strikes me as a good example of the Tories backing their Blairite nemesis into a corner with very deliberate political games, hence the unsuccessful attempt to lower the threshold in the first place. Perhaps the rise of Corbyn’s decidedly retro brand of loud and proud Socialism will get things changed, but I doubt it. After all, it’s the left’s own aversion to federalism which is being used against it in Labour heartlands such as Newcastle.

But if we wanted a truly democratic approach, we could just have a simple system through which we vote out the party which breaks promises and gives other schools of thought a chance in their place. We could call it an election.