Sunday 12 December 2010

Is David Cameron more trustworthy than Nick Clegg?

The British people seem to think so. Poor Nick Clegg was a high trust politician in April, with two-thirds of voters ready to trust him.

Now 61% of the electorate say they don't trust the deputy PM.

Only 25% trust Nick Clegg.

The British public began rather more sceptical about David Cameron, which is why he knew in advance that he had failed to win the election.

But 43% said they felt Cameron could be trusted before the election.

41% still think Cameron can be trusted now.

It has become time for Next Left to mount a "Be Fair to Nick Clegg" campaign.

Granted, we can not mount a completely convincing case against Clegg's own falling trust ratings: our client did not assist the brief by seeking those initial highs by posing as an "its time for promises to be kept" kind of guy. Nick Clegg changing his story over when he changed his mind over public spending, after his key witness refused to confirm his alibi, hasn't helped either.

But we do think, ahead of electoral sentencing, that Nick Clegg could plead in mitigation that David Cameron, his partner in the 'New Politics', has made a pretty good bid to do just as much to bust political trust.

"We both want a Britain where our political system is looked at with admiration not anger", as Cameron and Clegg wrote together in their foreword to the Coalition Agreement.

Let's take a look at just some of the evidence of Dave's contribution to trying to achieve that.

Five top David Cameron trust-busting moments

1. Cameron's promise to reduce the deficit without cutting any services

On the final weekend before the General Election, David Cameron went onto the flagship BBC1 Sunday morning programme with Andrew Marr to tell voters that he could reduce the deficit without any cuts to frontline services at all.

"What I can tell you is any cabinet minister, if I win the election, who comes to me and says: 'Here are my plans' and they involve frontline reductions, they'll be sent straight back to their department to go away and think again. After 13 years of Labour, there is a lot of wasteful spending, a lot of money that doesn't reach the frontline."

This one ought to be right up there with the LibDem university fees u-turn. No party was open and honest about the spending choices ahead. But on the very biggest issue in British politics. It was our current Prime Minister who told the biggest porkie in the final days of the campaign.

Could David Cameron have believed this when he said it on May 2nd 2010? We can not make windows into men's souls but we do know that it was not the Tory position by the time substantive Coalition talks on were well underway the following weekend.


2. Misinforming his backbenchers during the Coalition talks

But what has lost David Cameron most trust among his own Conservative MPs at Westminster is less his public pledge over spending and cuts but, whether by accident or design, telling his own MPs things that turned out not to be true during the Coalition talks, including that the Tories had to offer the LibDems an AV referendum because Labour had offered to introduce AV without a referendum (which they hadn't).

Newsnight political editor Michael Crick put it starkly.

One Conservative MP - far from a right-winger - reckons David Cameron lied to the shadow Cabinet and his backbench MPs at least four times in the hours leading up to the coalition agreement with the Lib Dems on 11 May.

So was the Coalition built on a lie?, as Crick asked. In England, many may prefer to call this a "misunderstanding", though what neither Cameron nor Clegg have ever been able to illuminate in their evasive interviews is quite how the misunderstanding arose.

As Philip Cowley and Denis Kavanagh report:

Cameron’s defence is that he did not deceive his backbenchers, because he believed it at the time.


3. Not needing to raise VAT in the first budget

"We have absolutely no plans to raise VAT. Our first budget is all about recognising we need to get spending under control rather than putting up tax."

David Cameron, April 23rd 2010, in an interview with Jeremy Paxman, broadcast eight weeks before the government's first budget did put up VAT after all.

David Cameron had long been clear that a VAT hike this would go against his commitment to "progressive" changes in tax and spending, saying this in April 2009:

“You could try as you say put it on VAT, sales tax, but again if you look at the effect of sales tax, it’s very regressive, it hits the poorest the hardest. It does, I absolutely promise you. Any sales tax, anything that goes on purchases that you make in shops tends to… if you look at it, where VAT goes now it doesn’t go on food obviously but it goes very very widely and VAT is a more regressive tax than income tax or council tax.”

Cameron and George Osborne worked hard to dismiss Labour claims a VAT hike was always the Tory tax rise of choice, so that friendly media outlets prominently reported this. This led Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome to argue that "the trust issue may hurt on VAT", once the decision to include the VAT hike in the budget was announced.

However, in fairness, Next Left had noted that the Conservatives took care to keep open the chance to emulate Geoffrey Howe's VAT dodge, by claiming they had never actually made a firm commitment to rule out a VAT hike. And the LibDems warned about this too, with Nick Clegg saying: "We will not have to raise VAT to deliver our promises. The Conservatives will. Let me repeat that: Our plans do not require a rise in VAT. The Tory plans do”.


4. Cutting child benefit

‘I’m not going to flannel you, I’m going to give it to you straight. I like the child benefit, I wouldn’t change child benefit, I wouldn’t means test it, I don’t think that is a good idea’, a David Cameron pre-election pledge at a Cameron Direct event in Bolton

David Cameron has apologised for this one.

"We did not outline all those cuts, we did not know exactly the situation we were going to inherit. But I acknowledge this was not in our manifesto. Of course I am sorry about that".

The usual excuse for having to drop a cherished policy is that Coalition partners have to compromise with each other. It doesn't work here, because keeping child benefit universal was a promise which both Coalition parties made during the election campaign.

But the furore about this broken promise did lead to David Cameron dropping his plan to ditch more of his own most prominent election pledges.

It is by changing his mind about whether he could ditch those "read my lips" promises that David Cameron has avoided the ignominy being heaped on the LibDems. He may be a serial offender, but no single one of his own broken pledges having yet gained such totemic status.


5. The cast iron guarantee over Lisbon

But a vocal group on his own side have had major trust issues with David Cameron long before the Coalition government.

The most important moment was his u-turn over a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, having offered a "cast iron guarantee" of a referendum.

While this enraged Eurosceptics, this u-turn was sensible. Cameron explained that it was because the Treaty had been ratified. However, the need for Treaty revisions meant that the opportunity opened up again.

As Daniel Hannan pointed out, however small, these "would allow David Cameron to hold the referendum which the late dissolution denied him". Except, of course, that Cameron didn't want to keep the pledge by then. And Cameron has promised Angela Merkel he can support some Treaty revisions without a British referendum.

Fortunately for the Eurosceptic right, David Cameron wants them to know that he has not given up on them, with a new referendum lock bill presented as guaranteeing a referendum on any transfer of powers, though Eurosceptics consider it worthless.

The Prime Minister disagrees.

Surely they should realise that, on this one, they can trust Dave.


Yet not just a large minority of the public, but even some of our most serious political commentators buy into the idea - mainly thanks to the 360 degree turn on pensioner benefits, reversing the u-turn before it had been announced - that David Cameron has not been as cavalier as Nick Clegg in breaking his word.

Here is the usually incisive James Forsyth, writing in today's Mail On Sunday, on the premise that Ken Clarke ditching the Tory election pledge on jail sentences for knife crime somehow crosses the rubicon:

Breaking one of Cameron’s personal promises is one of the great no-nos of this Government. All the way through the spending review, great care – and cost – was taken to protect any commitment that Cameron himself had made.

Downing Street is desperate to protect the Cameron brand. They know that a leader’s word has to mean something; the problems that the Lib Dems are having right now stem from the fact that Nick Clegg has had to break one of his own personal pledges.

David Cameron has certainly been a serial breaker of his own promises, despite Downing Street's attempts to propagate a myth to the contrary. If he is more trusted than Nick Clegg it may be largely because he has been rather better at hiding it.

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