What brought about the unusual change of tone at PMQs yesterday? Brown was mildly bemused by the line of questioning. It confused Iain Dale so much he judged Brown the winner. “I can’t really understand the logic of Cameron asking about internal House of Commons issues when there are far more important things to talk about” blogged
The Telegraph’s Iain Martin speculated that “Cameron was trying to suggest he is on the side of those with their noses pressed up against the Westminster window (voters) who dislike what they see going on inside in terms of expenses, high living generally and a refusal to listen to voters legitimate demands … I suspect, however, that if it was shown to a focus group of civilians they would understand it much more easily.” Exactly correct.
The regular Ashcroft financed deep polling asks questions not just about voting intentions (it examines more deeper qualitative lines of questioning about motivations) has revealed a watershed change in voter psychology. The general public now views politicians with contempt, two years of tales of sleaze since Cash for Honours up to the current fiddles by the Speaker, have shifted the public’s attitude beyond merely seeing politicians on a par with estate agents. According to the polling “the public think politicians are either incompetent wankers or crooks” Guido was told by one Cameroon.
Michael Gove has been at the forefront of an internal debate about what to do in the face of what is not just voter disenchantment with politics, it is real voter disgust with politicians. Gove and Steve Hilton argue that politics as normal won’t do, root and branch change is needed. Transparency, real change, not just lip service or an attempt to change perceptions is required. Osborne and Cameron, though more pragmatic, are sympathetic to the argument. It is one Dave himself made in a little noticed 2006 speech to the Power Inquiry:
Public faith in our political institutions is draining away and being replaced by a progressive and debilitating alienation. I wish I could say that this is also a universally accepted truth among politicians. But, incredibly, there are still some people in Parliament who don’t really get it.
Of course, they accept that things aren’t great but there’s also a sense that it’s just a passing phase or a product of public annoyance with a particular government. That’s part of the Westminster Disease.
You’d be amazed at the complacency that pervades the corridors of power. Put simply, despite paying lip service to the need to re-engage the public, the political class is in denial.
I believe it’s time to wake up.
The speech went on to make a number of recommendations, such as increasing the number of free votes, something he urged Brown at PMQs to allow Labour MPs for the Lisbon Treaty vote. The speech also dealt directly with the sleaze dilemma of the political class:
It’s ridiculous that the final, indeed often the only, arbiter of ministerial probity is the Prime Minister. That system of self-regulation inspires little confidence. The only way we can start to repair the damage done to the reputation of politics is to insist on genuinely independent scrutiny from top to bottom. And that must include the Ministerial code.
These are themes that Cameron plans to return to in the coming weeks as the repercussions from the expense scandals will continue to reverberate. Older politicians remember warily Back to Basics and are urging caution. Hague and Davis in particular see in the issue a Pandora’s box out of which will fall many MPs on their own benches who have paid off multiple mortgages (and worse) courtesy of the taxpayer.
Yesterday he got Brown to agree that MPs should no longer vote for their own pay rises, or gold plate their own pension arrangements. Cameron intends to push for more transparency and reform. The modernisers believe that they must inoculate themselves against the Westminster Disease by siding with the people. In America Obama and McCain are both successfully running against Washington. Cameron is going to try to run as the change candidate who stands against the shadowy, sleazy old ways of Westminster. He can talk the talk, can he walk the walk?