Leader: Westminster scandal does its damage

22 April 2009

WE HAVE been here before. A political party, used to power, becomes alarmed at its falling popularity ratings. The attack dogs are unleashed, or, in less flowery language, a few officials busy themselves with political point-scoring rather than the business of government. They are exposed. The media, swimming fast towards the party whose ship is higher in the water, make a meal of the machinations. The other parties announce that they would never sink to such depths. The row dies down.

In Westminster, these are usually seen as squalls that just have to be weathered, some fiercer than others. But the Damian-McBride-email scandal came hard on the heels of the dodgy-expenses-claims scandal. The cumulative effect is that the stock of all politicians drops yet further. The long-term consequence is that a disillusioned electorate will stay away from the polls and thus undermine the legitimacy of the next Government. The shorter-term effect is more worrying, however. The UK is in the midst of a financial crisis of huge proportions (despite the efforts of politicians to talk the economy up). More serious even than that, there is evidence emerging almost weekly that the effects of climate change are worse than feared. Yet we have the depressing sight of the Government fiddling about with party politics while the world burns.

If ever there was a time for consensus politics, it is now. But if the UK is to make a realistic response to the financial and environmental challenges it faces, the consensus has to stretch beyond Westminster. One reason why many sensible politicians have been horrified by the McBride episode, and were quick to say so, is that they recognise that it undermines both relations between the parties and with the electorate. Anti-global-warming measures were always going to be uncomfortable. Whatever sweeteners the Chancellor might have offered in the past, had he been so minded, there is now nothing in the pot to fund them. The target of a 34-per-cent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020, outlined in the Budget — much less than the 42 per cent called for by scientists — looks to be inadequately funded. There was a time when the Government might have appealed to the good will of members of the public, encouraging them to make sacrifices — higher taxes, restricted travel, dearer energy — with some hope of success. The degree of disil­lusionment is such that there is now little point. The public will not work for the common good while it believes that politicians are interested only in scrabbling for power and for personal gain.

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