And so the Prime Minister’s latest U-turn – sorry, listening exercise – finds him posturing as the hard man of the fight against crime. A fight that the figures show we’ve been winning for the last 10 years anyway, but that would be to allow the facts to get in the way of a good narrative.
The narrative the PM wants us to hear is of course the one about being tough on crime, and fearlessly locking people up no matter the cost. The more interesting narrative, however, is the one about how this government seems to work. It goes something like this:
- A minister comes up with a cunning plan (the Lansley model) – or
- A cunning plan is entrusted to a minister (the Clarke model)
- The cunning plan is endorsed by the PM, by the Deputy PM, and the entire cabinet
- The cunning plan becomes embarrassingly unpopular
- The hapless minister is left to squirm for several weeks or months
- The PM decides that a listening exercise is called for
- The cunning plan is declared not a plan, but merely an idea for general discussion
- The listening exercise results in the cunning plan – sorry, discussion document – being ditched
- The PM denies he ever liked the cunning plan in the first place
- The hapless minister is hung out to dry
- The PM displays his flexibility, his lack of dogma, and his willingness to listen to the people
- A new cunning plan is hatched
As Oscar might have said, to lose one cunning plan might be a misfortune, to lose several looks like carelessness. The lady may not have been for turning, but Posh Boy revels in whirling like a ballerina on acid.
All well and good, and I suppose one might say that it’s better for a bad plan to be ditched than for it to be relentlessly pursued. Except that the ditching is entirely independent of whether or not the plan was a good one or a bad one. In the NHS case, the U-turn is undoubtedly a bonus. But in the justice bill case, the plan had quite a bit of merit. In both cases, the plans have not been jettisoned because a coherent case has been made that they should be: on the contrary, they have bitten the dust solely as a result of electoral and party calculus.
So, we’re going to be tough on crime. Not because anyone has shown that being tough on crime does anything useful. Not because anyone has adduced evidence that more prisoners equals a safer society. Not for any reasoned argument, but simply because the usual frenzy of tabloid hypocrisy has upped the ante, and this Prime Minister hasn’t the bottle to stand up to it. Yes, we’re tough on crime, but very soft indeed on intellect. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think that’s anything to be proud of.