By John Charles Dyer, UK Correspondent
A press conference the morning of 7 Jan 2013 began a week of headlines good, bad and ugly for the Coalition.
The relaunch of the good ship lollypop
David Cameron and that other fellow held a press conference 7 Jan 2013. They intended yet another “relaunch” to happy headlines, under the banner of a “mid term review” of progress. In case the British public might not have fully appreciated the positive nature of this oh-so-special special moment, BBC — armed one suspects with a backgrounder — helpfully explained.
As you might expect, the world has been permanently, utterly and magnificently enhanced by their mutually adult relationship.
I confess to muttering aloud.
“What if they gave a press conference and nobody came? Another launch? Ho Hum. Like, don’t I have a flower show to cover? How about a Royal visiting a charity? Anything. ”
Within the week embarrassing and ugly headlines replaced the happy
The press caught a senior Cabinet official on camera. He carried an internal memo. Passages of text were visible in the shot. Those passages recorded a discussion of the merits and drawbacks to suppressing a companion piece to the document the Coalition released.
That companion piece was not released the day of the press conference or, indeed, prior to the revelations caught on camera. Subsequently– and after Labour confronted the Prime Minister during Prime Minister’s questions — an embarrassed government released the companion piece, protesting it had always intended to do so.
The "rest of the story" document catalogued 70 Coalition failures.
The original "review" provided very little substance, a fact relentlessly exposed by Channel 4 News' Gary Gibbon the night of 7 Jan. Much of it consisted of touting "process steps" linked to goals as if the process steps were the goals accomplished. Some of the "accomplishments" are anything but universally applauded.
But with the revelations the following day, the relaunch's hoped for happy headlines became the embarrassing story of high level cover up — and a promise of transparency broken.
No one who reported it dared call it an intentional leak, so I won't either. Regardless, no amount of Coalition effort could put this genie back into its bottle. It was spilt milk.
8 Jan 2013 Parliament adopted the 1% cap on benefits over strong opposition
The opposition made significant speeches. David Miliband, Labour Leader Ed Miliband’s brother and some time rival for leadership, argued eloquently the problem with welfare is unemployment not the unemployed. He characterized the 1% cap as “rancid” wedge politics — nothing to do with saving money. Sarah Teather — a Liberal Democrat and former Coalition Minister — spoke in obvious discomfort against both the cap and the nasty rhetoric that packaged it. It was a powerful act of conscience — as powerful for her discomfort as it was for her words.
Nevertheless, many Tory MPs greeted all thought and passion with derision and laughter. Anti climatically the government won the vote 328 to 262. The win was a foregone conclusion. The closeness of the vote was not.
The very next day Coalition spokespeople informed the Press the Treasury would back off contemplated changes to the basis for calculating cost of living increases to Old Age Pensions. The contemplated change in method would have resulted in real terms cuts.
The Express was ecstatic — with both the 1% Cap and the relief to pensioners. But the wedge nature of the divisive political strategy thereby became even clearer, sharper and uglier.
The Ugliest headlines were still to come
A Parliament committee inquiring into the handling of the Andrew Mitchell “Plebgate” affair interviewed Sir Jeremy Heywood, the nation’s top Civil Servant. The cross examination elicited stunning admissions as to Downing Street’s lack of vigor and curiosity in investigating and defending Mitchell. Speculation of an “inside job” grows.
10 and 11 Jan the Prime Minister was forced to claim the Obama Administration supports the Prime Minister's strategy in Europe after two American officials publicly warned against it. Philip Gordon — a senior foreign service officer — was explicit. Diplomacy will no doubt smooth over the differences, but the message, which comes at a critical moment for the Prime Minister, is clear. Confusion grew as 11 January Chancellor Osborne announced in an interview with a German magazine Britain would stay in the EU "only" if the EU changed. By week-end the matter of Europe had once again become full throated controversy with Tory and Labour "grandees" lining up against each other and a policy not yet articulated. The Tories perennial Achilles heel lies turned up and exposed. The entire flap intensified this already intense, high stakes issue of global significance.
10 Jan 2013 the news screamed the ugliest headline of the week.
The Parliament that limited COLA increases to 77 pence per week for the nation’s poorest wants a 31 per cent increase for itself. Parliament didn't think it fair to approve more than 77 pence a week so that a grant designed only to meet minimum needs would maintain ground against inflation, but Parliament thinks it fair it receive £20,518 a year on top of a salary already more than twice the national average (not to mention expenses). The body that sets Parliament's increases approved only a 1% increase for the next two years (or £658 a year), but that is still more than 12 times the cash Parliament granted Britain's poorest.
We have entered the third age of the post war era
The first age of the post war era was that of those immortalized by Tom Brokaw as “the Greatest Generation.” The second was the age Disney immortalized as belonging to the aspirational "future leaders of the 21st Century.” The Baby Boom's idealistic aspirants have now given way. We have entered the third age. It is the age of the “Greedily Corrupt.” The ethics of Gordon Gekko guide public policy.
As a razor-edged chill, lightless night envelops Britain, one can't help but wonder what will be the match that ignites the social gas leak. It can't be long now. You can smell the gas — Britain is primed.