View from the House – David Walker

Tony Blair says New Labour will legislate to ban fox hunting.

Fat cats, however, are a different prey, and Stephen Byers has been putting on his pink coat. Utility regulators are to marshal and penalise companies which pay their executives excessively, although it’s not quite clear how yet.

As for the private sector, PricewaterhouseCoopers has just done a great survey of remuneration, and the trade secretary wants institutional shareholders to study it and judge whether price-earnings ratios justify boardroom rewards.

It’s slightly disconcerting to see Byers preaching the virtues of democratic capitalism while Blair extols free enterprise and money making when they have never run anything remotely commercial. Tory predecessors were no more attuned to the corporate life. All their pretend knowledge of how the private sector works didn’t make their policies any better.

Politics is a business for professionals, after all; worries start when politicians are entrusted with running things or, as in the Passport Office, leave others to make decisions without proper mechanisms for review or supervision. (The Passport Office fiasco surely spells the end of the experiment in arm’s-length executive agencies. When crisis hits, it’s the politicos who have to carry the can.)

Foxes and fat cats illustrate a point about New Labour half-way through term: it has become extraordinarily difficult to predict how ministers leap on any issue. Banning fox hunting could be interpreted as illiberal intervention. Equally, it could be seen as the realisation of an old party promise, indicating how anxious the prime minister is to hold his ‘broad church’ together. The point is, Blair’s announcement of his conversion to the anti-fox brigade was so unexpected.

The press used to complain about leadership by focus group, then Blair put his neck on the line in the Balkans and Belfast. Courageous or foolhardy, he has followed his own sense of what’s right, regardless of opinion polls.

Is there now a danger that following your nose is a substitute for relying on principle or plan, or even a philosophy as loose as the ‘third way’?

David Walker writes for The Guardian.

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