The government’s capacity to manage competently has become badly unhinged in the last 10 days. In quick succession the 5p top rate cut combined with the granny tax in the budget, the scandal of secret business dinners at up to £250,000 a head with Cameron and Osborne, the absurd but telling saga about costlier pasties, and now the transparent attempt to profiteer politically from the tanker drivers causing a national panic are, together, a sign of government in serious disarray.
It is probably 3 years to an election, so there is still plenty of time for the government to recover, but a reputation for competence once lost is difficult to regain. In many ways the techniques of this government are similar to those of the Blairite administration, with a priority each day to control the news headlines, a determination to squeeze the last drop of political advantage out of every incident that arises, an over-dependence on the leader and the small unelected clique around him, yet no vision or sense of long-term direction.
Labour is thus propelled into a strong lead in the polls, around 10 points ahead, though that could be temporary because all governments go through mid-term wobbles. However Labour has its own problems, in particular the lack of a commanding narrative. Nobody can reasonably expect, whatever the government taunts, that an Opposition party still 3 years from a general election will set out a programme of detailed policies when the situation that far ahead is wholly unpredictable and could be dramatically different from now.
But that does not mean that Labour shouldn’t have the outline of a jobs and growth strategy as the best way to tackle the deficit, the reform of finance after the banking crash, the regeneration of manufacturing as the antidote to long-term economic decline, the reversal of obscene levels of inequality, a more proactive role for the State in relation to markets, the restoration of the public service ethos against uncontrolled free markets, together with a major house-building programme.
If Liam Byrne announces today, as it is reported he will, that he will resign to contest the Birmingham mayoralty election if that is voted for on 3 May, there is a real chance to resurrect and energise Labour’s policy review, which Byrne has hitherto headed, in order to create a dynamic and powerful message of Labour’s key aims that will resonate and excite a nation which has vainly been awaiting such a message for far too long. If Labour is to grasp the insurgent role that is needed rather than seemingly the reactive incumbency role, it is an opportunity that must not be missed or fudged.