Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The dilemma of having a nuclear option without a gun

Of all the big party politicians (that's big parties, not necessarily big politicians) my favourite by some margin is Dr. Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for nearby Twickenham and currently the government's Business Secretary.

Not only is he a brilliant economist and a political big player by anybody's standards, but the man also has a likable manner, exudes honesty and integrity and generally comes across, in the simplest of parlance, as being "a nice bloke".

It is not only his televisual persona that persuades me of this. I have met Vince Cable on a few occasions, chatted to him in Marble Hill Park when I happened upon him on a family outing, and also had the chance to exchange a few brief words when he came to offer local residents his support at two brief public gatherings outside West Middlesex Hospital and Mogden Sewage Works earlier this year.

What really warmed me to him on those occasions was his very genuine humility. The body language was that of somebody who considered himself to be a guest on our turf and, whilst of course not deferential, his manner was respectful in a "thanks for inviting me into your living room" kind of way.

It didn't have to be like that of course. A man of his political stature could have strutted into focus, stood in front of the residents who had gathered to meet him with a pretentious "look at me" kind of grin as the cameras clicked away, then hopped into a big black car and been whisked off with an insincere royal wave to his next photo opportunity. Let's face it, it's been done in these parts before and not so very long ago.

Instead once the formal business had been done he hung around and chatted to ICG members every bit as much as to his own party folk who had turned out for him.

Today it would seem he is to be found wiping a little egg from his face. Not in the literal sense in the manner of a John Prescott or a Nick Griffin, but egg of a metaphorical kind following a report in the Daily Telegraph that he has allegedly made comments to the effect that he has the power to bring the coalition down and could walk away should the relationship between his party and the Conservatives begin to go rotten.

His exact comments, which he seems to admit to having made, include the following:

“Can I be very frank with you ... I have a nuclear option, it’s like fighting a war. They know I have nuclear weapons, but I don’t have any conventional weapons. If they push me too far then I can walk out of the Government and bring the Government down and they know that.”

Speaking personally, I don't feel there is anything particularly dishonourable about what Dr. Cable has said.

I can of course understand why, as a member of the government, he is a tad embarrassed. But my immediate feeling was one of "I know just how the man feels".

Not that I am making a comparison of scale or importance between the coalition of which I and the ICG were a part when managing Hounslow and the one that governs our country today, naturally. But whilst the scale might be vastly different, the principle remains the same. It is a peculiar feeling indeed to have at one's disposal the means to cause a nuclear explosion without being in possession of the necessary tools to swat a troublesome fly.

I have related before how the senior officer team during the 2006-2010 coalition administration in Hounslow was mobilised to action the demands of the senior coalition partner and to frustrate those of the junior partner (the ICG). Whether this situation was deliberately inspired by our partners, or whether it was officer-driven insubordination that our partners simply ignored, is largely immaterial. Historically speaking the only fact worthy of record is that it happened.

It was 12-18 months before the local elections that the first signs of this bad faith began to make itself obvious to us. It was probably less than twelve months before we went to the polls when it had become a problem of such magnitude that ICG members began to speak openly of walking away.

We had the nuclear option, and more than once we considered using it. We knew our partners were desperate to deliver a fourth 0% budget in 2010, a few months before a general election at which they had high hopes on both a constituency and a national level. We knew we could damage these hopes and dent our partners' aspirations within the borough.

On the other hand we had a responsibility to those who had elected us to exercise power wherever we could. We were making some good progress in our own backyard, and on the Area Committee, in spite of the quite brazen and blatant non co-operation of the Environment Department at and between its meetings.

My colleague Paul Fisher had just completed a year on the Executive in which he had performed magnificently and had every reason to look forward to a second. Another colleague, Jon Hardy, had just joined the same body and both I and he were keen to showcase his undoubted talents. Call it poor leadership if you will, but it just did not seem right to me to pull them away in their prime, and that is even assuming I could have done so.

As the months rolled on the nuclear deterrent failed increasingly to deter. The closer the election came, the more cynical it would have appeared to have pulled out. Chief officers made noises to the effect that it was all a misunderstanding and that they would like to talk through our difficulties with us, although clearly they were simply playing for time and we knew that was the case. If I had had a political pistol I could have held it to certain people's heads and had a good chance of achieving some justice. But all I had was a nuclear trigger which, if detonated, would have blown us up along with the quarry.

Fortified by the belief that the local elections of 2010 would once again result in No Overall Control and that there was a good chance we would be in a position to return to the negotiating table with a much stronger hand than we had played before, we let it ride. In the meantime our partners and the chief officers both impatiently counted the days until the election of the Conservative majority administration they both assumed was on the cards had come about.

In the event of course we had miscalculated, and our partners had miscalculated even more so. The rest is history, but valuable lessons have been learnt.

In the meantime I find myself reflecting upon the fate of the Liberal Democrats in the current government coalition. The equivalent situation, I suppose, would be the Civil Service openly undermining the Lib Dems but I don't think the comparison is an exact one. There is too much scrutiny around the place for this to be permitted to happen.

Instead the Fifth Column the Lib Dems need to be looking over their shoulders at is, in my view, the national press. There is a strong Conservative bias in these circles and, if the same tricks are used against the Lib Dems as were used against us, this is whence the real poison will come.

It would appear that the big man from Twickenham was deliberately set up by the guttersnipes of the Telegraph. It is going to be a long four years.

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