Chloe Smith hits the buffers – but was it all her own fault?
As political TV interviews go, this one was excruciating. One that I expect is going to be recalled by many a political watcher.
It should have been a fairly straight forward interview: The Government’s initial policy was A, it listened to representations from B, became clear that we were not aware of all the facts when deciding on A so new policy is C. Well done to those backbench MPs who campaigned.
Smith got caught when Jeremy Paxman asked her when she was told there was a new policy. In the grand scheme of things, it was a storm in a teacup. Or at least it should have been. Because of weak media performances, Chloe Smith – not the change of policy – is now the story. So much so that the ITV Anglia 6 o’clock news were calling her “Calamity Chloe”
Lines to take
I’ve written more than enough lines to take in the civil service to know when I’ve been fed one. Even the most fair-weather political watcher knows when someone is telling something they really believe vs when they are being given a ‘line to take’. Smith resorted to ‘lines to take’ that were completely inappropriate for the questions that were being asked by Paxman – such as “When were you told of the policy change?” Which is a fair question.
She was then asked about her supposed change of views on the back of the policy change. Things become tricky with the convention of collective responsibility. It doesn’t matter what the minister thinks, what matters is the collective decision of the government of the day – of which all ministers are expected to fall in line. Repeated U-turns make this convention much harder to stand by – not least because very busy ministers start becoming worried about what their government’s policy really is. This uncertainty can be catastrophic.
The reason I supposed Smith didn’t want to answer the question was that not being involved in a key discussion on the proposed policy change reflects badly on her status as a minister, badly on how Treasury ministers work, badly on the Cabinet in terms of how it functions (allegedly they weren’t told until the announcement was made in Parliament) and catastrophically on the Chancellor. This, I assume is what Smith would have thought was coming if she conceded on that point. The problem was, waffling made it worse.
Did the circumstances change?
I alluded to this point above – was there something that ministers did not know at the time of setting the original policy compared to the time when they decided to change the policy? This was the thrust of Paxman’s second question. Rather than responding to say “This is what’s changed and why I no longer stand by the reservations I originally had”, Smith responded with waffle. It showed.
Why did the Transport Secretary not know about it until not so long ago?
A serious question which no junior minister should be dropped into the bear pit with Paxman over – because it’s calling into question how the entire government of the day is managed. Better in such situations to say “I’ve not been party to discussions between the Chancellor and the Transport Secretary” – which would have been a reasonable response for a very junior minister. Paxman was right to state that change in fuel duty is likely to be of direct interest to the Transport Secretary – just as changes to interest rates are likely to be of interest to the Minister for Housing. What is revealed here is the power of The Treasury over policy portfolios held in other departments. In terms of how this Government functions, what Paxman seems to be getting at is whether the change in the duty was a negotiated and agreed policy change or whether ministers in the Department for Transport were simply informed and expected to run with it.
Could Smith have said far more with far less?
Definitely – but by that time she seemed rattled. Paxman wanted to get Smith to confirm how the U-turn would be funded. When she said it would be from underspends in other departments, Paxman asked for examples. One reason Smith could have given for not giving them to Paxman was that they had not been properly analysed and would rather not respond rather than give incorrect figures only to have to retract them later on.
On Paxman’s final point – didn’t it make a mockery of cutting the deficit being the number 1 priority if underspends were funding tax cuts, she could have responded that the impact that this would have would support businesses and possibly lead to an increase in tax revenues. But then this would have led her open to attack from her Labour opponents on whether the cuts are ‘too far too fast.’
Could this all have been avoided?
Yes – easily. Either Osborne could have gone on, but the Chancellor seldom does Newsnight. A number of people pointed out that Gordon Brown seldom did Newsnight either. In which case wouldn’t it have been better to have put someone on who was familiar with all of the issues rather than a badly-briefed, under-prepared minister? In such circumstances a backbencher can normally be found. In this case, they had one ready and waiting – Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow who has been fighting for this policy change for quite some time – both in the Commons and outside. He’s appeared in the media many times – particularly locally, and he has engaged with the general public over it in his surgeries. (His constituency is a short trip down the M11 & trainline from me). He’s also blogged on the issue.
I’m not saying Halfon would have done a better job than Smith – whose constituency is nearby in Norwich – because of gender or background. It’s simply that he is more up-to-speed on the subject area than Smith – who has 2 full time jobs as junior minister and constituency MP – could hope to have.
In one sense it wouldn’t have looked great for the Government declining to put a minister up on Newsnight, but they do it all the time. Labour was the same. Quite often they’d put out a press release or a statement to the programme and leave it to a backbencher to fight their cause. What I struggle to understand is why communications managers within the Conservative Party did not do exactly that and ask Robert Halfon to take the Newsnight seat.
As it is, it looks like a setback to a young junior minister that some people had tipped for the top. Like others who have found themselves floundering in similar situations (memory reminds me of Yvette Cooper and David Lammy several years ago) I’m sure she’ll recover. It also looks – in the Westminster and politics bubbles at least – like the short term political impact of the policy change has been muted as a result. (This is irrespective of the medium term economic impact might be). Finally, it has called into question (again) the judgement and character of the Chancellor – questions being asked and accusations being made most damagingly from his own side.
It could so easily have been avoided.
[Edited to add]
This post by @FlipChartRick takes a different view, but is worth looking at – as are the first two comments – http://flipchartfairytales.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/this-was-no-car-crash-chloe-smith-will-go-far/
Anne Perkins in The Guardian looks at it from a gender perspective – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/27/fuel-duty-osborne-chloe-smith-newsnight