Thursday, 9 October 2008

There's no "I" in "crisis"

Opposition generally seems pretty easy. There's three basic messages to get across, no matter what the issue or the government response. To wit:
  • Bollocks!
  • That's our policy, you know
  • If we'd had power four years ago, we'd have avoided this whole mess.
It gets harder when there's a real crisis, and you need to back the government. The risk (and opinion poll movements would suggest it's a real one) is that by agreeing with everything they say and do, you make the incumbents look less like the clowns you portray them as and more like competent, reliable statesmen to whom the nation should turn in times of trouble. Not the best message for an Opposition to send.

So what's to be done? One option, which seems to have found favour, is to rework message two above: after you've been told/agreed what the government response will be, go out and announce it as your preferred solution to the problem. This makes you look good, especially as the tedious business of hammering out the details creates a window in which you appear as a visionary and the government as ditherers.

Another option is to publicly agitate for action you know can never be taken. The Tories pushed both Brown and Darling quite hard on the question of bonuses yesterday - asking for guarantees that officers of failing banks would get none at all. This sounds good (why should we reward failure???) especially as all the government would say is that remuneration would be an issue. Seems a bit mealy-mouthed, doesn't it?

Of course, the bail-out package isn't mandatory. The government's making the money available, it's not making forced purchases. It's up to the banks to volunteer for it. Now there are a lot of good reasons for them to do so, in terms of staying in business, and you can argue pretty convincingly that they should do it regardless of their personal bonus. But, given the past 6 months, we can make some pretty good guesses about how personal incentives affect bankers' decision making processes. So maybe the time to make decisions about "rewarding failure" is after they've signed up to government ownership, and not before. Holding out the carrot of "some kind of bonus, maybe" will get a solution faster than a guarantee of "no bonus" - because then the incentive is to risk some other solution.

The question is, do Cameron and Osborne know this? I suspect they know exactly what the government is prepared to say on bonuses, and have found an easy way to make themselves look good. Now that's responding to crisis.

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