The Early Skirmishes

That last PMQs was typical of most I’ve seen with Gordon Brown. You end up being so frustrated with his evasive answering that you want to throw something at the television.

The problem is that Brown is so much more comfortable in public when he is denying reality. Or, rather, when he puts forward his alternative vision of reality constructed in the cocoon in which he lives: that he is an economic wizard who can lead Britain out of the wilderness of the recession without cutting any services in the meantime, unlike those ghastly Tories.

What is worse, is that the higher echelons of the Labour Party seem content for Brown to live in this fantasy island. Other ministers who have the misfortune to be grounded on planet Earth have to announce Labour’s planned cuts – see Alistair Darling’s “deeper and tougher than Thatcher” and Stephen Timms yesterday, also saying that the NI rise will cost jobs. You can’t blame them I suppose – it beats Brown throwing things at them.

Anyway – where was I? Oh yes, PMQs. It was astonishing. Brown said it’s not his fault that there were not enough helicopters in Helmand, but the fault of the generals who advised him. Again, he did not answer directly questions on robbing pension funds or whether businessmen had been deceived. Brown just launched into a bunch of election soundbites that didn’t answer the question.

He did, perhaps, have the best joke, saying to Cameron “To think he was the future once”, a cute paraphrase of Cameron’s first barb at Blair at PMQs. But the problem with Brown telling jokes, however funny we are told he is in private, is that he delivers them in public the same way that he delivers economic forecasts. And Brown shouldn’t be making jokes about the future. Gordon Brown has been, and always will be, part of the future only in the same way that going bald and your teeth falling out are part of  your future.

Anyway, Cameron won PMQs pretty convincingly.  Nick Clegg piped up with a question about party funding. Attacking Labservative’s funding has been a common theme of Liberal Democrat attacks recently. You’d have thought with their track record, it’s the last area they’d want to highlight.

The opening days have been dominated by rows over National Insurance tax rises. I will bow to the great Malcolm Tucker on this one:

And probably the most thrilling part of the whole thing is the “battle” over national insurance which, brilliantly, no one understands. The Tories have tried to brand NI a tax on jobs, which has the merit of being such an oversimplification that it actually makes it harder to understand what they’re talking about. My advice on NI: move on, nothing to see here.

Chris Dillow’s excellent post here scuppers any Tory attacks that NI rises are a tax on jobs – seeing as in Finland a lower NI rate had naff-all impact on creating jobs. It doesn’t seem as if Labour know what they’re talking about either, mind you – Brown is trying to use it as a way in to his Alternative Reality, where the next election is about “Labour investment versus Tory cuts”. It isn’t, of course, but as mentioned above Brown’s team seem happy to let him wander his happy place and think that it is. It will be interesting to see how St Vince-of-making-jokes-about-Mr-Bean’s criticism of the “nauseating businessmen” goes down. As usual, I think he’s spot on.

This week we’ve also seen Cameron’s latest ploy to attract wavering Labour voters. They are doing this by using lefty buzz words. A month ago they unveiled plans to let people set up “co-operatives”, a policy so half-baked that it was probably written on the back of a half-baked potato. Now Cameron is using the language of equality:

We are already committed to pay transparency and accountability, but I think it is time to go further. The government plays an important role in helping to shape society, so if we win the election we will set up a fair pay review to investigate pay inequality in the public sector.

Some of our most successful private sector companies operate a pay multiple, meaning that the highest paid person doesn’t earn more than a certain multiple of the lowest paid. We will ask the review to consider how to introduce a pay multiple so that no public sector worker can earn over 20 times more than the lowest paid person in their organisation. There are many complex questions that the review will need to address, but I am confident it will not only help tackle unfair pay policies, it will improve cohesion and morale in the public sector too.

This just doesn’t sound convincing, though. If any government were serious about tackling inequality, it would start with the private sector where inequalities were starker. It would also have a coherent policy on gay rights. This post is far too long anyway, but I’ll direct you here for why Cameron has a wrong diagnosis of the inequality problem, and here for why the Tories don’t seem too concerned about making society more equal.

Before I go, a quick word about polls. The absolutely indispensible political betting have the Lib Dems gaining at Labour’s expense, which is very interesting. It’s also, presumably, something which Labour will try and keep from Gordon Brown, so they can leave him in his happy place, talking to the 13 staunch Labour supporters that are left about how nasty everyone is but him.

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