Diary

Someone was to blame - but not me

29 May, 2009

In an article in today’s Telegraph, Jeff Randall takes a humourous sideswipe at those MPs who have blamed the world and his wife for their persistent wrongdoing. He writes:

‘Many MPs whose fingers have been suspiciously near the taxpayer's wallet are desperate to deflect suggestions of culpability. In thrashing about for plausible escape routes, they appear unbothered by the facts and eager to frame anyone but themselves for their embarrassment. Ben Chapman, the Labour member for Wirral South, who overclaimed £15,000 on his mortgage, might have plucked his attempt at self-exculpation from the pages of Burgess's dystopian novel: "It is clear that I was misled by the fees office into the arrangement in question." Get it? Nothing to do with Mr. Chapman's behaviour; all the fault of perfidious bean counters.’

He goes on: ‘Thus we had Margaret Moran (Luton South) claiming £22,500 of taxpayers' money to treat dry rot at a house in Southampton, 100 miles from her constituency, so that she and her partner, who works on the south coast, could enjoy a cosy family life. This, she insisted, was acceptable "support". No less grotesque was Julie Kirkbride's last-ditch effort to save her skin by bleating about the pressures of being a working mum. In order for her to square the circle of parental and official duties, she "needed" a £50,000 extension, funded by taxpayers, to the home we had already subsidised.’

In order to understand this persistent excuse making we need to delve into a little psychology, specifically the theory of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when someone holds two contradictory beliefs or attitudes simultaneously with the resulting feeling one of discomfort or anxiety. To reduce this discomfort, dissonance theory tells us that people will seek to justify or rationalise their beliefs and attitudes, usually in such a way as to maintain the integrity of their ego. That is the case with our MPs.

They view themselves as both effective and benevolent yet are simultaneously confronted with evidence concerning their dubious financial activities. Were they to look at this evidence impartially, they would view themselves as we do: as incompetent, deceitful and thoroughly dishonourable individuals. Yet such an epiphany would batter the self esteem of any individual, never mind a monstrously egotistical politician.

So the alternative strategy is to engage in a tortuous process of self justification whereby discomfiting evidence is explained away using every contrivance in the book. So when an MP is engaged in tax avoidance it is the consequence of poor advice from the fees office. Phantom mortgages are the result of poor accounting. Clearing dry rot in a partner’s home is acceptable because of the need for a ‘normal family life.’ It was the system, stupid. Dodgy expenses have been supplemented with even more dodgy excuses.

Of course self justification, which comes naturally to us all, is not the only response to evidence that we are less perfect than we think. We can admit our follies and mistakes and hold up a mirror to our actions. We can focus on our failings and promise to learn from them instead of deflecting criticism. Yet this seems to be the exception, rather than the rule. There is nothing worse than seeing people in positions of public authority stubbornly deny any responsibility for mistakes on their watch. Hence the public outrage when Sharon Shoesmith, former head of Children’s services at Haringey, refused to apologise for failings over the baby P saga. Her lack of contrition was a mistake of the heart that people found hard to forgive.

Sorry may be the hardest word, but it may sometimes keep you in your job. Someone should tell our MPs.

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Feckless diplomacy has brought us North Korean intransigence

26 May, 2009

To understand why the West’s diplomacy towards Iran has failed, it is instructive to examine its policy towards North Korea. Once again, this tyrannical, Stalinist outpost has defied international opinion by carrying out a prohibited nuclear test. Despite an agreement to shut down the Yongbyon plant and account for its nuclear programme, the regime has flexed its military muscles with cavalier disregard for its neighbours’ security. This behaviour has rightly provoked an outcry from the West, followed by vague threats of sanctions against Kim’s regime. Tough measures are certainly needed to deter North Korea from further aggression.

A leader in The Times today suggests that Kim’s regime is irrational and that it remains impervious to the threat of outside force. This view is questionable. Kim Jung Il’s policy of nuclear brinkmanship is arguably a perfectly rational response to 15 years of feckless Western engagement.

In 1994 the Clinton administration reached a deal with North Korea whereby it would shut down its nuclear facilities in return for receiving half a million tons of oil and the construction of two light-water nuclear reactors. In John Bolton’s words, this represented a ‘prayer to negotiate the North out of its nuclear weapons.’

Pyongyang took advantage of Western largesse by secretly resuming work at Yongbyon and withdrawing from the nuclear non proliferation treaty. Further six party talks continued and appeared to bear fruit in 2007 with the shut down of Yongbyon. But a year later the North Koreans resumed nuclear processing while shipping nuclear technology to Syria, further endangering the stability of the Middle East. Western carrots proved to be largely ineffective.

All the inducements offered to Iran to end its nuclear programme have been similarly futile. For years, the EU3 offered one financial incentive after another to Tehran, often in the teeth of US opposition, and all to no avail. Iran’s intransigent leaders could no more be talked out of their nuclear ambitions than the North Koreans. For the mullahs, it is a matter of national honour that their country flexes its muscles in defiance of ‘The Great Satan’ and becomes the region’s dominant power. They see no better way to secure this ambition than by joining the elite nuclear club.

After years of bankrupt policy, Western leaders need to get real with the autocrats of both countries. UN sanctions will be watered down (by China and others) while further financial carrots will prove futile. Tough talking is one thing but the bite should be as strong as the bark.

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The start of a British revolution?

24 May, 2009

After another week in which MPs expenses have come under intense scrutiny, the wave of public anger shows little sign of abating. On the contrary, the anecdotal evidence suggests that the public’s emotions are at boiling point with their political representatives. Up and down the land, MPs have returned nervously to the constituents and faced sustained displays of public indignation. A number of MPs have been forced into early retirement and others will soon face a similar fate.

It is hard to find many parallels for what we are experiencing. Perhaps the nearest equivalent is the Iraq war of 2003. The conflict certainly generated heated debate but it was possible to find people passionately supportive of ousting Saddam as well. And no one was turfed out of a job (as an MP) in 2003 for supporting the invasion. Similarly in 1997, amid a media orchestrated wave of anger with ‘aloof’ Royals, one could find diehard Republicans who scarcely cared about the People’s Princess. No, the current rage is unprecedented because it does not divide us. After all, is there anybody who believes that horse manure is a legitimate expense?

For some, this is a disturbing indication that we have gone too far. Writing in The Times on 23rd May, Matthew Parris commented that Britain had ‘gone beserk,’ and that it was ‘in one of its periodic fits of moral horror’ before adding ‘There is no arguing with a spasm of popular anger.’ His point was echoed by David Aaronovitch who argued that ‘Twenty-five light bulbs, 20 grand on security, a bath plug, a boiler, a property “flip” that earns a grand, a shared cleaner…does not add up to “clawing greed”, constitute a “sordid culture of abuse” or justify the assertion that Parliament's “moral authority is at the lowest ebb in living memory”.’

Well we can agree that corruption is as old as British politics and that occasionally, fits of outrage are somewhat misdirected. But both miss the point somewhat. In themselves, these dubious (in some cases fraudulent) claims are a drop in the ocean compared to total government spending. This is not a Continental level of corruption nor is it on the scale of the African kleptocrats who amass billions of pounds, dollars and rupees. But expense-gate does matter, and it has rightly generated a storm, because it is a perfect microcosm of the failings of our political class.

Firstly, it reveals how our political class is out of touch with those they claim to serve. No MP could justify to his constituents a claim for moat cleaning, wisteria or duck ponds. No MP could justify deliberate tax avoidance as part of the Commons ‘rules.’ Yet these egregious breaches of morality are suddenly acceptable within the Palace of Westminster. It is as if these MPs are living in a kind of manufactured Westminster bubble that severs them from the concerns of ordinary voters. People rightly question why politicians can escape the consequences of fraud and chicanery when they would suffer for the same thing.

Living in the Westminster bubble leaves our politicians out of touch on other issues too. From mass immigration to multiculturalism, from state education to the NHS, from violent crime to the EU, our mainstream politicians regularly licence views that are remote from the experiences of their constituents. Consider how many times we are lectured about the moral need for higher taxes, how many times we are informed that state education are great, how often we are made to feel guilty about criticising mass immigration and Islam. Yet we can all see that many state schools are dire, that MRSA is blighting the health service, that violent crime is increasing and that unrestricted immigration has brought disaster. It is no surprise that MPs are frequently told to live in the real world.

The second issue raised by the expense scandal is the flagrant misuse of public money. Among the inappropriate claims uncovered by the Telegraph were the following gems: £16,000 claimed by Tam Dalyell for 2 bookcases and Gerald Kaufmann’s £8,000 plasma TV. What stinks here is not just that these items were illegitimate political expenses but that they represent a extravagant misuse of public funds. Gerald Kaufmann could have bought his own television or charged for one costing a tiny fraction of £8,000. Nothing better illustrates the truism that when politicians get hold of your cash, they are liable to waste it.

The right lessons have got to be learnt from this appalling fiasco. Firstly, Parliament needs to be strengthened at the expense of the executive. To avoid the charge that MPs are the mere playthings of their party, they must be given more free votes on issues that do not relate to manifesto commitments. The power of the whips should be reduced and MPs must decide the composition of select committees. This way, Parliament can more effectively hold the government to account. Finally, there must be a referendum on EU membership following a complete disclosure of the powers we have given up to Europe.

Secondly, the electorate needs to be strengthened at the expense of Parliament. The American idea of recalling politicians back to their constituencies needs to be taken seriously. Where there is clear evidence of corruption and wrong doing or where an MP has broken a manifesto pledge, he or she must be liable to face the wrath of the voters back at home. We must be able to know how much our MPs cost the taxpayer and where and when they are claming expenses.

But none of this can happen while the current crop of MPs still sits in the Commons. A summer general election is essential so that voters up and down the land can remove the rotten apples that have blighted our political life.

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The Iranian-Palestinian connection

19 May, 2009

Behind the smiles and the familiar bonhomie, the sharp differences between Israel and the US over regional security are being exposed. President Obama has endorsed a Palestinian state in all but name on Israel’s borders and called for further dialogue between the US and Iran. Prime Minister Netanyahu has stopped short of embracing a two state solution, believing that with the Middle East in its current state, any such development would be premature and dangerous. He prefers economic development within the disputed territories as a prelude to a workable political settlement.

Netanyahu is clearly the more realistic of the two, not least because he is alert to the connections between a Palestinian state and the Iranian terror machine. Consider the simple facts. Iran has used terror proxies to spread instability and violence across the region. These proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, have precipitated aggressive acts against Israel in recent years which have led to bloody regional conflagrations. The current regime in the West Bank led by Mahmoud Abbas is weak and could face a coup by Hamas in the near future, a disastrous outcome which would leave Israel at the mercy of 2 neighbouring (pro Iranian) terror states.

With Iran’s nuclear ambitions clearly insatiable, and with the West seemingly powerless to prevent them, the dangers for the Jewish state are clear. Even if Iran could be deterred from a nuclear strike on Israel, there would be little to prevent the regime from passing on its nuclear knowledge to other terror groups, or terror states. The resulting instability would be terrifying.

Obama, together with Israeli doves and other Western leaders, sees Israeli disengagement as an ‘opportunity for peace’ and as the prelude to Arab-Israeli harmony. From Tehran’s perspective, a precipitate Israeli pullback also provides opportunities, except that these are to carve out a third Iranian ‘sphere of influence’ next to Israel (after Gaza and South Lebanon) as part of a scarcely concealed bid to extend their dominance from the Gulf to the Mediterranean.

Fortunately, some of Israel’s Arab ‘allies’ understand the Palestine-Iran connection very well. The leaders of the Sunni quadrangle (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States) are quaking in their collective boots at the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran. They fear that a nuclearised Tehran would try and impose its will at will, stirring up discontent among Shia communities and undermining pro Western regimes across the region.

Two things are obvious, and Netanyahu understands both. There can also be no viable settlement without a strong and credible Palestinian leadership willing to implement serious political reform, end incitement, and destroy forever the misguided dream of a ‘right’ of return. Secondly, a two state solution will not work unless the Iranian menace is tackled. Arab leaders don’t always get the first proposition but do get the second. Obama understands neither. Yet he is the leader of the free world.

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A wave of public anger

15 May, 2009

Judging by last night’s Question Time, there is an understandable chorus of public indignation sweeping the land over the expenses scandal. One politician after another was heckled, hissed and booed after it was revealed that they had made fraudulent and immoral claims at the taxpayers’ expense. Even Ming Campbell, that much lauded ‘paragon’ of liberal virtue, was exposed for wrong doing and heckled accordingly. In each case, the politicians fended off accusations of greed or corruption by engaging in a tortuous process of self justification, attempting to extricate themselves from the quagmire that is their current reputation. How Sir Fred Goodwin must be loving this. He knows that politicians have replaced investment bankers at the apex of Britain’s hall of shame.

What clearly annoyed last night’s audience was not just the dubious way that unscrupulous politicians were augmenting their income. It was the fact that politicians had got away with something that would have cost ordinary taxpayers their jobs or freedom. Fraud is a criminal offence and dubious expense claims often result in instant dismissal, for us ordinary mortals that is. But so far, no MP has been de-selected while the chance of criminal convictions remains slight. The double standards are galling.

The level of public anger probably reflects something else. Occasionally in politics there are events which unleash a torrent of pent up fury at any particular moment. One thinks of how the widespread support for the petrol protests in 2000 reflected public anger at the increasing tax burden. Then there was the Brand/Ross affair which drew public indignation at the coarse standards of our major public broadcaster. Perhaps this is another seismic moment that will help to define modern politics.

For this affair has exposed not just the breathtaking arrogance of many MPs but their radical disconnection from the rest of us. Some are so cocooned in the Westminster village that they are switched off from the concerns of ordinary people. They are caught up in their own narrative in which the flagrant misuse of public money is a mere embarrassment, a trifling and peripheral matter, rather than a stain on Parliament. And the most egregious form of self justification is one where the individual admits that things are wrong, but not because of their own failings. Thus the deafening chorus of blame for the ‘system,’ not for individual MPs. Yet MPs created the system and knew that its basic rule proscribed any expense that was seen as ‘a misuse of public money.’

Of course we must never engage in a witch hunt. Not all MPs are tainted by corruption and some, such as Norman Baker, have long urged the publication of MPs expenses. Not all second home allowances are wrong and not all expense claims are fraudulent. And not all MPs enter politics to defraud the taxpayer. But one can no longer claim, at least with a straight face, that this is all about one or two rotten apples in an otherwise gleaming basket. Only a general election will allow us to keep the baby while throwing out the bathwater.

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Speaker Martin is a disgrace to his office

12 May, 2009

Nothing has been more nauseating in the last 24 hours than the sight of Michael Martin lecturing MPs on the expenses fiasco. Nothing better illustrates his contempt for the public and for those MPs brave enough to defy his idiotic interventions.

His attack on Kate Hoey yesterday was simply astonishing in light of the growing public anger over MPs behaviour. Hoey had questioned why the Speaker wanted to call in the police to investigate the leaking of expenses. As she pointed out, it was surely more appropriate for the police to investigate the dishonourable activities of MPs. Martin’s patronizing response demonstrated just how out of touch he was with the public: “Is it the case that an employee of this House should be able to hand over any private data to any organisation of his or her choosing?”

So instead of rounding on Parliamentarians for their disgraceful abuse of expenses, he chose to vent his fury on the media. Instead of insisting that MPs return the money they obtained fraudulently, he was angered by the leaking of information from Parliament. But whatever the concerns about the security of private information, the leak is a peripheral concern right now. The primary issue, the one that ought to exercise Mr. Martin, is the tarnished reputation of Parliament. The Speaker’s priorities could not be more twisted.

And this is hardly surprising. For this breathtakingly supercilious twit has presided over the systematic abuse of the expense system. He fought to prevent publication of MPs expense claims and was therefore an integral part of the conspiracy to defraud the public. Worse, he failed to defend Damien Green from an unnecessary police with hunt when the MPs only crime was to embarrass the government. The longer Michael Martin sits in the Speaker’s Chair, the more he demeans the great office he represents.

If MPs are sincere about cleaning up politics, they must force this man from office in the impending no confidence vote and return him to the backbenches. No doubt Kate Hoey or Norman Baker would make excellent replacements. And once this is done, Parliament should be dissolved for an immediate general election. It is only then that we will be able to remove from office all those shabby, deceitful and corrupt politicians who have treated us with such contempt.

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The shaming of Parliament

9 May, 2009

Westminster politics is in deep crisis. The latest revelations of financial chicanery, courtesy of the Daily Telegraph, are truly appalling. They paint our politicians as a corrupt and deceitful lot who are intent on fleecing the electorate for their own gain. The expenses system is revealed to be an utter sham, together with those who administer it. Second home allowances are designed for MPs with constituencies outside London. They have been flagrantly abused by politicians who see them as a means to augment their parliamentary salaries. The deceit is shameful.

Predictably the politicians affected have refused to own up to this mess. Ministers have lined up to tell us that it was ‘the system’ to blame or that the Commons rules were not clear. Actually the basic rule on expenses is clear and stipulates that there should be "no grounds for a suggestion of a misuse of public money". If ministers think they have not misused public money, they are living on another planet.

But they are not solely to blame. Part of the problem is that parliamentary officials signed off these fraudulent claims in the first place. Perhaps they were just incompetent or (more likely) felt intimidated by their political 'superiors' and felt they could do little more than advise against undue extragavance. Clearly politicians’ expenses were regulated as badly as our beleaguered banks. But it is disingenuous for MPs to offer their version of the Nuremburg defence: We were only following rules! There is also the question of whether it was right to fleece the public using such dubious interpretations of the ‘rules.’ This is the issue that should exercise the conscience of every MP whose behaviour is now under relentless scrutiny.

So what do we do? In the most blatant cases of abuse, MPs should be expelled from the Commons; in some cases, pursued by the police for criminal misdemeanours. We need a new, impartial administrator, elected on a yearly basis, who can scrutinize MPs expense claims with increased rigour and competence. Speaker Martin, who oversaw the entire rotten system, must be forced out once and for good and replaced with someone who commands the respect of the House. Only then can we have a system that works properly in the interests of the public.

Until then, the repercussions from this affair will be dreadful. With local and European elections coming up in June, the only beneficiaries will be the small, fringe parties that thrive on public discontent with Westminster politics. The BNP, among others, love to exploit the view that ‘the mainstream parties are equally bad’ and that ‘MPs are out for their own interests.’ It will be hard to argue against them.

Indeed for far right politicians, this is a god-send. Traditionally, their big rallying cries have included violent crime, immigration and the EU. Now they can add the financial corruption of MPs to their charge sheet – and who can blame them?

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Paul K

Edgware, England

09/05/2009

MP's are being shown up for the greedy, currupt fatcats they are. When billing the taxpayer £3k for house repairs after quitting as an MP, Peter Mandleson replied that the system needs to change. Gordon Brown again blamed the system. Let's be clear the MP's created this system for themselves in the first place! They are abusing the system and breaching guidelines, and pulling every trick in a system that is also run by them. They've now been found out, a shameless cash grab to milk as much as possible the very people they are supposed to be looking after. In other areas of employment, they would be sacked with probable criminal investigations undertaken.

Paul K

London, England

09/05/2009

The abuse of the MP expense system is beyond reproach - £20,000 for dry rot treatment on a seaside holiday home, £70,000 for a home 12 miles from his London home, £25,000 for security, Jack Straw only pays back when rumbled and Peter Mandleson just blames the system when he claimed when no longer an MP, 3 main residences in one year switching as each one being done up, £550 to clean a rug, even one claiming on a place that his civil partner has a mortgage on, chocolate, clothes, tampons, pornography, silk pillows; The abuse of taxpayers money is endless. If anyone did that with inland revenue, or indeed at their own workplace it would be a very different outcome

Paul K

London, UK

09/05/2009

And of course tax payers should pay for over £300 worth of silk pillows for someone's 'second home'. Many are claiming a second home, when their main home is less than 20 miles away! Everyone else travels to work, why can't MP's?????????

Another clumsy intervention from Jacqui Smith

07 May, 2009

Jacqui Smith’s record on liberty isn’t good. I’m not talking about the Damien Green arrest, the DNA database, ID cards, or a host of other draconian policies. I refer to her inconsistent approach in barring people from the UK. Ever since she prevented Geert Wilders from entering the UK on the grounds that his presence was not conducive to the national good, she has faced justified criticisms of double standards. She excludes politicians with tendentious views, such as Wilders, but is passive in the face of Islamist intimidation.

Now she has landed herself in the brown stuff again after banning the American talk show host, Michael Savage. Savage is a controversial broadcaster whose views offend many people. He opposes illegal immigration into the United States and condemns gay marriage in forthright terms. He has labelled the Koran ‘a book of hate’ and called on listeners to burn Mexican flags in protest at immigration. He would hardly win an award for promoting community cohesion.

But he is understandably outraged to find his name on a list that includes Hamas terrorists, neo Nazis and Islamist activists. It is one thing to keep out a preacher or activist who incites violence against a section of the community. But it is entirely another to ban an individual simply for holding tendentious opinions.

Certainly some of those opinions appear bigoted and ill informed, as one might expect from a leading ‘shock jock.’ But people are entitled to offer misguided and offensive views without being regarded as an imminent threat to national security. Causing offence and inciting hatred are two different things, as our legal system recognises.

We should welcome any attempt to exclude genuine fanatics. But consistency and common sense need to be part of the government’s armoury too.

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The government is in meltdown. But are the Conservatives ready for power?

4 May, 2009

In the last 48 hours, Hazel Blears has ramped up the crisis which now threatens to engulf Gordon Brown’s premiership. In a recent interview, she savaged Gordon Brown’s leadership in the most forthright manner, dismissing his use of You Tube as a worthless gimmick. Now she claims she has been misunderstood (a favourite tactic of New Labour ministers) and that she is 100% behind him. Naturally this statement is as risible as the Prime Minister’s u-turn over the second home allowances. Ms Blears is 100% behind her own scarcely concealed ambition to succeed Mr. Brown, a politician whose authority is ebbing away by the minute.

Meanwhile Harriet Harman has 'privately' signalled her own interest in the top job while Alan Johnson is being put about as the populist candidate who can reconnect with the electorate. With the stench of Cabinet betrayal blowing through Downing Street, it is little wonder that Gordon Brown is having temper tantrums! Still, the odds must be on the Prime Minister remaining in Downing Street until 2010. This is a man whose pursuit of power has been relentless over the last decade. He will not stand down without a protracted fight and, in any case, it is never easy to unseat a serving Labour leader. More to the point, Brown’s rivals would all inherit the ultimate poisoned chalice. The moment they reached no. 10, they would face overwhelming pressure to hold an early election, one that would certainly result in a terrible Labour defeat.

But while Brown remains a limbo PM, maintaining power without authority, more misery is being piled on the British people. In the midst of rising unemployment and financial meltdown, the last thing we need is a disfiguring feud between Blairites and Brownites. An executive torn between factions cannot govern effectively. In any case, a change in Labour leadership will not solve the party’s most fundamental problem – the complete breakdown of public trust in those who govern us. In the eyes of the public, New Labour is a damaged product whose credibility has melted away.

All the promises made in 1997 - that there would be no return to boom and bust, that the economy was safe in Labour’s hands, that taxpayers money was needed to improve public services, that the government would offer openness and accountability - these have all been shot to pieces. The economy is in meltdown, businesses are failing, bankruptcies are rising and taxes are shooting up.

Vast amounts of public money have been squandered in a failed bid to improve public services. And the government’s obsession with spin doctors and media manipulation has corroded public trust in the political class. A different leader offering a new deal for the British public will enjoy only a temporary bounce in the polls. Barring sudden economic revival, or a war in the Falklands, Labour’s march to electoral oblivion cannot be averted.

Naturally, this gives the Conservatives an important opportunity. After 13 years in the political wilderness, they can finally return to power on the back of the government’s misery and abject failure. But in politics, there is a huge difference between victory and success. It is one thing to win an election, and another to reconnect with the electorate. If you ask most people what Cameronomics is all about, they will probably shrug their shoulders. The grand Tory narrative on public services, welfare reform and economic revival is not easy to discern, even if Cameron himself is a personable and telegenic figure. In 2010, many people will be voting against the government rather than for the opposition.

It is 30 years since another Tory leader stormed to power after defeating a failed Labour Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher arrived at no. 10 with the country in the doldrums and convulsed by union power - the sick man of Europe. Over the next decade, she helped to transform our national fortunes, overturning a post war economic consensus in favour of high taxes and strong state intervention. While she failed to alter that consensus completely, she laid the foundations for our future prosperity and national revival.

Will the same ever be said of David Cameron?

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