By John C. Dyer, UK Correspondent
29 March 2012. London. David Cameron’s government has not been able to buy a decent headline since the Chancellor announced the 2012 budget. It may be the momentum has shifted against the UK’s “teflon” Prime Minister - both across a formerly friendly press and in the polls. The situation raises a serious question for the United States.
Polls already show what may be as much as a 12 point shift from Conservatives to Labour. One poll, results published 28 March, even shows Labour now leading both Coalition partners together.
It may be premature to declare this The big shift. Even if it is a factual change it may be transient.
But it doesn’t feel transient. The pundits are not treating it as transient. Pollsters have not yet disclosed the specifics pertaining to undecided voters, but I would bet a small lunch that the figures show a possible shift from undecided to decided. Perchance the Prime Minister failed to notice, the media helpfully reminded him.
Tory Treasurer Cruddas and “dining for donors”
Even as the government reeled from the initial budget reaction, another story broke that must have felt like a body blow. The Sunday Times “stung” the Tory Party Treasurer, secretly taping him offering influence and a private dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Cameron in Number 10 in exchange for big bucks. Cameron offered this perk to persons he thought were lobbyists serving big donors. The Daily Mail seemed especially fascinated by this news, carrying Cruddas promise that the deal would be “awesome” for the presumed lobbyists' businesses, the subsequent resignation of Cruddas and, in case anyone missed it, the guest list of those who had dined.
Reaction was swift and severe. Labour predictably called for an independent inquiry. Channel 4’s Cathy Newman brilliantly cross examined a shifty-eyed Tory spokesman, Michael Fallon. I have little doubt he left the camera feeling like he had just endured a frontal lobotomy without anesthetic. The conservative Daily Telegraph unequivocally condemned the questionable practice. I can reveal that an e-petition has been filed seeking a Commons debate on the appointment of an Independent Prosecutor, and funding of an office to investigate not only Cruddas but several different allegations of ministerial misconduct lodged against several Cabinet Ministers.
VAT on heated Pasties
The government couldn’t even catch a break on “pasty-gate.” Among the hidden nuggets I predicted would emerge it emerged this week that the budget subjects the Cornish folk food, pasties, to VAT if served heated. How the provision will work has caused confusion the helpful have tried to clear up and provoked threats of litigation from a food chain. The Daily Mail chuckled that all sorts of politicians had become born again pasty lovers. The Telegraph went after Osborne. Litigation from an interested retailer and amusement/bemusement in the press aside, the newly revealed application of VAT buried in the budget also brought considerable heat on the Chancellor, highlighted by both the Independent and the Guardian.
Fuel Transporters Strike
The bad news cycle continued with press reaction to the Government’s handling of a) negotiations with the Unite Union over wages, benefits, and working conditions for drivers, and b) a possible fuel transporters strike looming in the future. Although no strike has been called (and the Union must give 7 days notice before doing so), Cabinet Secretary and negotiator Francis Maude recommended car drivers top up and even keep a spare can of petrol on hand in case of strike. The Government also unveiled plans to order the Army to substitute for drivers in the event of a strike.
If the idea was to bring pressure on the Union, it backfired. Retailers accused the government of intending to create a crisis in order to solve it. Drivers took up Maude’s advice with the result pumps went dry and fuel prices soared as drivers panicked. Jon Snow added that of the government's David Hendry to Channel 4's collection of lobotomized brains.
Amid assessment the government’s gambit had gone horribly wrong, the government admitted Maude had made a mistake. In case the government had missed the connection between the coverage of the pasty affair and the strike, the Sun helpfully connected the dots.
Pasties and silly PR in advance of a possible strike may be more symbolic than substantive, but they are the kind of symbolic issues that pave the way for the press and voters alike to look differently at the substantive issues. One of these is the deficit.
The government’s austerity programme was supposed to be worth the pain because it would bring the deficit into line. But it is clear from the budget detail that the government would have had to admit that, 2 years in, the austerity programme has failed to solve the deficit had the Chancellor not penciled in £10 billion in to-be-determined further reduction to welfare, and a more than £2 billion raid on the reserve fund for Afghanistan that appeared suddenly in the budget announcement last week, and a £.5 billion “crawl-back” of funds from the NHS budget.
The economy is another such issue. And here too the news cycle was not kind to the hither-to-fore teflon Prime Minister. The BBC and Metro announced the glum news. The nation’s GDP shrank more than expected in the last quarter of last year. For those who did not understand, the Guardian made it clear. The UK economy is sick.
Despite the advice or public concurrence of numerous “experts,” the Bank of England, the OECD, and the IMF, UK’s austerity and privatization have failed both to appreciably claw back the deficit or dig the economy out from its hole. In fact, austerity seems to have only made it worse.
Which brings us to the US
In two previous articles I pointed out that the US, through its involvement in the IMF, has been promoting the European Plan adopted also by the UK. I questioned not only the wisdom of the plan but of the hypocrisy of the US promoting that plan for Europe while rejecting it for the US.
That the US continues to do so now is particularly perplexing. Not only has the US resolutely refused to institute such a programme for itself, but the evidence mounts the US is right. The US economy is doing better than Europe’s. In fact, only one nation in Europe seems to be growing significantly, and it is the one country that rejected the European Plan, Iceland. The Eurozone appears headed for recession. I argue the UK already is in recession. Ireland, Greece, Spain, Italy- the tales are all of gnashing of teeth and pain of almost Biblical proportions.
So, is it US policy that Europe should fail in order for the US to succeed? Althouth I do worry about certain trans-Atlantic "partnership" organizations, I suspect such suspicions give the US too much credit for strategic thinking, at least on this issue. The partners may be capable of it, but that does not mean the US is doing it with the economic issue.
But it is perplexing.
Also perplexing is the US relationship with the UK. The week prior to the budget announcement President Obama feted Prime Minister David Cameron in what the press in Britain described as a love fest. To me it sounded more like, the family that kills together stays together.
Or is it, sticks together? It was just days later the Chancellor announced the surprise move to raid the Afghanistan reserve, taking over £2 billion off the deficit he would otherwise have had to declare. Was this a case of friends helping friends?
The last thing the US needs is for Europe and the UK to one day conclude that the US sandbagged their economies in order to preserve its own. The US already has too many who view the US that way.
I am not one of them. But it does beg the question, what is the US doing in Europe. It also leads to a very serious question for the US. It may be a premature assessment, but it seems to me the British press and voters may have figured out the Coalition. As the earth beneath their feet begins to crumble, has the US?