THE usual question when a government gets itself in a desperate fankle is to ask whether it is the result of a cock-up or a conspiracy. Unfortunately for the administration led by David Cameron, neither explanation is a source of solace for him this weekend after a disastrous week that raises very real doubts about the coalition’s competence in power.
Adherents to the conspiracy option say the government’s advice to stock up on fuel – leading to panic buying, long queues, fuel shortages in many areas and widespread inconvenience and frustration across the entire country – was actually a Baldrick-like cunning plan. Its aim was to thwart the Unite union, which was threatening a stoppage that would have jeopardised fuel deliveries to forecourts during the Easter holidays. Some Tory sources say this was intended to echo Margaret Thatcher’s defiance of the miners in the mid-1980s. Just as she ensured stockpiles of coal would be sufficient to dent the impact of the strike, so a nation of car-owners with full fuel tanks would render useless any industrial action by Unite. Cunning, perhaps. But also calamitous, as anyone who has passed a forecourt in the past three days can attest. Public inconvenience cynically manufactured for political ends? A return to Thatcherism? So much for caring Conservatism and the Big Society. In some ways it would be better to be able to believe that the handling of the fuel issue was cunning, because that is a characteristic in a government slightly preferable to incompetence. However, given ministers’ lack of cleverness in recent weeks on a whole range of issues, incompetence is the verdict we have to arrive at.
This government, it seems, is so disorganised and lacking in even the most basic co-ordination of its message that it allows official advice to be issued without even the most cursory examination of its effect when it reaches the real world. Since the ignominious exit of Andy Coulson from Downing Street, the government’s grasp of how people live outwith the Westminster bubble has been tenuous at best. With last month’s departure of strategy guru Steve Hilton, that fingernail hold on the actualité seems to have been lost entirely. Which brings us to Francis Maude. Maude is credited with much of the recent social liberalisation of the Conservative Party – the attempt to dispel the image of the out-of-touch “nasty party”. This has made him a hate figure of the Tory hard right. And in this role he has sometimes seemed an incongruous figure: the smooth millionaire who talks about “kitchen suppers” being presented as the Tory somehow most in touch with the real world of 21st-century Britain. That incongruity last week manifested itself as black farce when Maude advised the nation to store petrol in “jerry cans”, despite this being illegal and a fire hazard. Tragically, while one York woman, 46-year-old Diane Hill, was taking the minister’s advice she suffered 40 per cent burns when the fuel she was decanting caught light. Last night, her condition was described as “critical”. For his advice alone, never mind the awful consequences for this particular woman, Maude should resign. It is unacceptable that a government minister should offer advice to the public that could result in serious injury. The Prime Minister should treat him with the severity his offence requires and demand his resignation. This weekend, it beggars belief that the government message on fuel is still confused and contradictory – saying we shouldn’t go to the pumps unless we would normally, but we should keep our tanks half full. Finding itself in a hole, the government is still digging. Cameron needs to get a grip, and fast.
Force to reckon with
MOVES towards a single police force in Scotland have been contentious on a number of levels, with dark warnings from some quarters about the loss of local accountability, the growing politicisation of policing and a worry about too much power being in the hands of whoever is justice secretary in the Scottish Government.
This newspaper has, however, given the plan its general support in the belief that a single force will improve efficiency in the fight against crime, in addition to the obvious potential for cost savings at a time of cuts in public spending. Our support was, however, contingent on suitable methods being found for local communities to be able to hold local law enforcement to account for its actions, and for there to be sufficient checks and balances on ministerial responsibility.
The Scottish Parliament is the ultimate expression of the popular will, and a parliamentary commission would seem to be an appropriate body to provide oversight of ministerial action and inaction. Such a commission should be structured to provide an element of geographical representation to ensure all parts of Scotland would have the ability to have a say. This would counter the concern that a single Scottish force would be “Strathclyde Police writ large”. This would be a positive step for Scottish policing.