Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Conway, Hain, dithering and decisiveness

Peter Hain and Derek Conway have not exactly edified British politics lately, in their different ways. Neither can have any excuses.

But what of how they were dealt with by their respective party leaders?

Gordon Brown expressed specific criticism of “an incompetence” but general support for his man’s integrity and abilities, and insisted: “The matter must rest with the authorities, who will look at these matters.” He held to this position, through a torrent of ridicule, until the Electoral Commission referred the case to the police – at which point Hain resigned.

David Cameron, after the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee condemned, fined and suspended his man, had his office issue a statement saying: “Derek Conway has apologised fully on the floor of the House of Commons and the Whip has not been withdrawn. The appropriate punishment is being administered.” The next day, after a bout of derision from the press, party activists and millionaire donors, Cameron decided to withdraw the whip after all.

But while Brown’s position seems to have been consistent, while Cameron changed his mind, it’s clear that the latter is operating on a consistent principle. Look back to what he said about the Hain case.

On January 12, the BBC reported that “so far the Conservative front bench haven't bayed for [Hain’s] blood and are waiting to see what any inquiry throws up”. That turned out not to be quite right. The next day, when he had seen what ferocity the Sunday papers had thrown up, Cameron said: “I think if he goes on like yesterday I think his time will be up. I think it's no good when all these questions are being asked just to sort of come out and read out a statement and then scurry back indoors again.”

And the day after that:

Cameron says that if there are lots of questions being asked of a minister like Hain, then the minister should "get out there" and explain himself "in the court of public opinion". "Then you might have a chance of keeping your job." Hain should explain himself, or leave the cabinet, he said.

So Brown’s view was that Hain’s position depended on what the official investigation into him decided. Cameron’s view, as criticism of Hain and Brown mounted, came to be that how things appeared in the media should be the determining factor. (The “court of public opinion” generally holds that they’re all a bunch of crooks, no evidence needed.)

Cameron applied this approach scrupulously fairly to Conway. When Conway was found to have misused public money and given a parliamentary punishment, no further party punishment was deemed necessary. When the public criticism mounted, though, he had to lose the whip. That, we’re told, is ‘decisive’ – compared with Brown’s ‘dithering’.

Two exciting new definitions, then: to dither is to fail to give the media a quick and bloody resolution to a story; to be decisive is to see which way the wind’s blowing and then fart in that direction.

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