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Bruce Anderson

The government cannot wait for something to come along — it must arrest the sense of drift by itself

Politics is like a rugger match in permanent session. If you are not pushing forward, the other lot will be pushing you back. Wise politicians should never forget the best-known adage to emerge from the rugby field: "Get your retaliation in first". This month, the Tories forgot that advice.

It is highly desirable that Ministers should have a proper holiday. But someone must always be in charge. Once the main Olympics was over, no-one seems to have been in control of political presentation. Yet newspapers needed copy: it could not all be sport. If the government does not provide sensible material, the sillier sort of backbencher will use the empty space between his ears to fill the empty spaces in the papers. Although it is not necessary to descend to Blairite depths, modern government does require news management.

That said, there has to be something to manage. Hence a growing susurration of Tory discontent. A lot of Mr Cameron's natural supporters are worried. Some of them believe that the August vacuum was only a symptom of a far graver malady, that the Tory wing of the government no longer knows what it stands for: that the government is becalmed. Although this is an alarmingly widespread impression, there is a problem. What does the average voter want to hear? Good news on the economy. What does the average Tory activist want to hear about? Ways to sort out Europe. In each case, disappointment is inevitable; there are no straightforward solutions.

But unless ministers want to be overrun and kicked into touch, they will have to find something to say. This should not be impossible. There are achievements, especially in education and welfare. Long-standing problems have been tackled, and it is absurd that ministers should be so bashful when it comes to extolling their successes. There is also health. Is the Lansley Bill a good thing or a bad thing? Apart from Andrew Lansley himself plus a handful of junior ministers, officials and advisers, who knows? That needs to be corrected. Unless the government can explain itself, claim improvements and take the credit, it will lose the health match.

The two "Es" are harder, but as there are no easy answers, what about some hard ones? Ministers ought to trust the public. I suspect that even vehement discontent is compatible with deep-lain realism. Even as they curse the politicians, most people sort of understand that if there were a simple way out, the government would already have taken it. Admit mistakes, especially as regards over-optimism; treat the electorate as if it were grown-up; level with people — no dumbing-down — and the response might well be cautious, reluctant respect.

That could all help, but more is needed. The government has to recover a sense of agenda, otherwise it will seem like macro-Micawberism: waiting for the economy to turn up. Such an agenda ought not to be impossible, because there is an area of social policy which urgently requires radicalism: our welfare-dependent underclass.

As has been argued in these pages before, the vast law-abiding majority in this country have allowed themselves to become far too pessimistic. According to the figures, 250,000 young males are responsible for half of all crime. Louise Casey, one of the senior officials in this area, has talked about 120,000 acutely difficult families. Those are not huge figures. A concerted assault on this chronic social weakness should not over-tax the powers of government.

This summer, London has been full of enthusiastic youngsters. Bars, cafes, clubs, restaurants: London's status as a tourist centre has been ratified by the smiling faces and eager demeanour of the world's young who have poured into town to work. So where are the Brits? Where are our native-born supposedly unemployed?

Leaving aside the cost to the taxpayer — and the average taxpayer might well be unimpressed by such a blithe dismissal of his concerns — welfare-funded idleness is corrosive of morale and character. The American commentator George Gilder once wrote that the conclusive argument against corrupting welfare was not the waste of money. Rich counties can afford to waste money. The real evil was the waste of people.

The welfare and education reforms will both help to tackle that evil. But more is needed. This is where politics and policies could provide mutual reinforcement. If striking language were deployed to expound bold new proposals, no-one would be able to accuse the government of being adrift.


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