Saturday 20 November 2010

Dissecting the Lord Young row

The sacking resignation of Lord Young as the Prime Minister's enterprise adviser was, in many ways a perfect political storm. In less than 24 hours a row erupted, pressure was applied by the opposition, and a resignation duly ensued. This political event that will be forgotten in only a few short weeks - and probably hasn't even resonated with the general public - was book ended by two interventions by journalists that define the terms of engagement in modern politics.

Christopher Hope and Paul Waugh, of the Daily Telegraph and Politics Home, are two of the genuine good guys of British political journalism. Both are very effective journalists while, unlike some of their trade, scrupulously fair. I'm not claiming that I've never been on the receiving end of one of their stories, just that a couple of days later they'll even up the score.

Looking at what Lord Young said, factually it was fine, it wasn't even callous - despite what Labour's broadcasting attack dogs claimed - he was however rather loose with his use of language. Lord Young comes from a different political age, one where long lunches with journalists allowed a broad range of views to be exchanged without undue cause for concern.

When I woke up on Friday morning, on seeing the story, I assumed immediately that Lord Young wouldn't last the weekend. I take no pleasure in my assessment being right, more concern that we have a political class now who are unable to veer from the line to take for fear of creating a major row.  

Chris Hope's reporting was accurate, he didn't mis-quote Lord Young or take him out of context, but once the story was published Labour went into overdrive waiting for Number 10 to react.

The next element to create the perfect political storm, once Labour's attack dogs began their work, was the reaction from Number 10. This highlights the importance of good rapid rebuttal. David Cameron was quoted as being 'very unimpressed' and that Lord Young's comments were 'inaccurate and insensitive'. What needed to happen - if David Cameron wanted to keep Lord Young as his adviser - was a succession of independent economists and commentators should have been lined up to back up Lord Young's comments. This may have happened, if it did it was ineffective, as what became clear throughout Friday was that there was only really one story in town.

Ironically, almost at exactly the same time Lord Young was drafting his letter of resignation, the IEA think-tank backed his analysis. This was the kind of intervention that may have diverted the story from its path. Ultimately however the equation looked something like this:

A politician wasn't careful with their words + a journalist spotted an opportunity + a slow news day + an unsuccesful rebuttal operation + a successful attack dog operation = a resignation.

The other end of the bookend I talked about earlier came from Paul Waugh on Twitter who said, 'Didn't G[ordon]Brown once boast this recession was not like 90s cos more in work + those w[ith] variable mgages doing ok? Just askin'.

In this summary, Waugh gets to the heart of one of the fundamental things wrong with the way we conduct politics in this country. It is one of the reasons politics in the US has almost ground to a halt. Politicians are unable to have an opinion while journalists are too eager to find fault in what they are saying.

Unless things change then we will get more of these political storms and will move toward a political world inhabited by on message robots who the public despise.

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