Brian Monteith: The thin veneer of mock outrage

Whipping up public opinion over nothing is a common political reaction to losing the argument, writes Brian Monteith

Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby

IN POLITICS there is outrage, and there is mock outrage. The former is when an act, more often than not intentional, is exposed for its deceit, duplicity and deviousness in betraying the trust of people who thought they had a voice or were being involved and consulted. The reason such outrage is real and present is because all-too-transparent evidence becomes available to expose the political double-cross.

Mock outrage is quite different, and can be identified by the lack of sincerity of those faking it – usually with the motive of trying to whip up public opinion when there is no evidence or justification to do so. With mock outrage the facts don’t speak for themselves – there are no facts, just hyperbole and faux indignation.

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Such a contrast of real and false outrage occurred last week over the alleged scandal of the Prime Minister’s adviser on political strategy, Lynton Crosby, while a government minister, Anna Soubry, was grilled by a parliamentary committee and revealed as being too clever by half – but certainly not clever enough to avoid its genuinely furious condemnation.

Lynton Crosby is an Aussie who advised Boris Johnston in both of his successful elections for London Mayor and now he works for David Cameron. Labour leader Ed Miliband fears him, as indeed does any left-leaning commentator. We know this because brave Ed is trying to make Crosby an issue in the way that politicians who cannot win an argument instead pick on advisors to try and use guilt by association and other dirty, devious tricks to convince the public that their opponents are not to be trusted.

The accusation is that because Crosby’s consultancy is employed by tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris, it must follow that the reason the coalition government decided against proceeding with the abolition of commercial packaging of cigarettes in favour of plain packaging had to be Crosby’s special access and influence. That there was no transcript, minute or even an overheard conversation did not get in the way of a good made-up lobbying scandal.

Naturally the media piled in, why not? Here we had a Prime Minister with a Machiavellian adviser linked to tobacco and a seemingly inexplicable policy U-turn.

Only it wasn’t. The Conservatives never offered to introduce plain packaging of cigarettes, indeed they had actually talked of dropping the previous Labour government’s idea of hiding tobacco products underneath the counter. If there was a U-turn it was the covering up of cigarettes while pornography remains on open show that happened under Cameron’s watch – but nobody except libertarians are writing about that.

Indeed, not even the coalition offered to introduce plain packaging – it only became a cause célèbre when the newly-appointed public health minister, Anna Soubry, one-time SDP member and later a returnee to the Conservative Party, decided to pin her colours to that particular mast. Unfortunately for Soubry there was a public consultation that came down convincingly against the idea of plain packaging by a ratio of 2 to 1. Soubry had lost – the public telling her firmly what it thought – and had to eat unpalatable and embarrassing humble pie.

But worse was to come for Soubry. This week the House of Commons European scrutiny committee grilled her about the European Union Tobacco Products Directive and complained bitterly about how she had ignored its call to discuss the draft directive which would ultimately influence all legislation in Britain. In short, it felt marginalised and sidestepped, and with good cause.

The minster’s guilt was apparent for all to see. She apologised at least twice and was full of excuses for her inability to give the committee ample information and opportunity to scrutinise the proposed directive.

But why? Two reasons appear obvious: firstly the EU tobacco control proposals would lay down a foundation for far stricter controls – such as the probable abolition of menthol and slim cigarettes as well as the removal of small pouches of loose tobacco. These are two objectives that suit the ideologically-driven Soubry, even though both play directly into the hands of a growing market in tobacco counterfeiting.

Secondly, the directive would still leave open the door for the minister to introduce plain packaging of cigarette packets using UK legislation, even though the public consultation she conducted rejected the very idea.

The minister failed to communicate any of this between January and June of this year and accordingly was hauled before her peers to account for herself.

The committee chairman, Bill Cash, was scathing of her approach and the Labour member Michael Connarty was no less forgiving. The minister had failed to make herself available to the committee and inform it of her intentions – a dim view was taken and members of the committee were clearly furious that parliamentary scrutiny had been avoided.

What should not be lost is that one of the biggest problems that the UK – or indeed even a future independent Scotland – faces is the scrutiny of EU directives. By Soubry choosing to avoid giving evidence and instead intentionally overriding the scrutiny process, she ensured that the EU would at a later date take the blame for her own ideological intentions.

This is exactly what gets the European Union a bad name and makes parliamentary scrutiny meaningless, and it is ministers like Soubry who give UKIP all the ammunition they need to attack its domination of British legislation without public consent.

When it comes down to genuine outrage, the comments of Bill Cash and Michael Connarty are real, while the attacks of Ed Miliband are contrived.

David Cameron can do nothing about Ed Miliband picking on Lynton Crosby, but in Soubry he has a minister who is causing him embarrassment. If I were Cameron I know upon whom my outrage would fall – and it would be real, rather than mock.