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The Coalition Has Reached Breaking Point and All Because They Can't Control Their Image

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Kieran Corcoran, a student of English at Selwyn College and former editor of the online student newspaper, The Tab, writes:

Our government is eating itself. By the time you read this, whatever examples I can think of will have been superseded by a new 'omnishambolic' backlash from their policy making, but I'll do my best to keep up with our esteemed members.

Politics, obviously, is style over substance and appearance over fact - if your points take more than 15 seconds to express nobody will listen. But this monstrously simple lesson is one that our government seems incapable of getting to grips with. Ministers won't be damned by what they're doing, but what it looks like they're doing.

In terms of sheer competence, although they're often on the blunt end of jibes, our current cadre of ministers are probably no worse than the last lot, or the ones before them or the ones before them. At any rate, they have the distinct advantage of not having been on top during the financial crisis. But the current government has one weakness the Blair government, and even Brown's to an extent, never had - the absolute inability to control how they're perceived.

Cabinet ministers have pretty much always been publicly-educated white male millionaires with an Oxbridge MA behind them - so why is it suddenly a huge issue now? Anyone with five spare minutes to think it through will realise that you don't have to share somebody's background to represent them politically, but this government's excellent and expensive educations have been an unusually huge stumbling block.

Of all people, Nadine Dorries was the one to hit the nail on the head and say exactly what needed saying. Obviously not on abortion, about which she is intolerable, but about the top dogs of her party being "arrogant posh boys who show... no passion to want to understand the lives of others." This trait of not being able to understand what people think, and what people are likely to think about you and the things you do, is this government's Achilles' heel. For a government headed by a former PR man, that's astonishing.

Astonishing but impossible to ignore. The fruits of this can be seen everywhere, but, as if asked for a one-hour demonstration of how to make oneself look as out of touch as possible, George Osbourne helpfully gave a one-hour tour de force in this year's budget.

The principle that a hot pie you buy in a chippy should be taxed the same as a hot pie you buy in Sainsbury's morphed into Pastygate, a perceived attack on homegrown business and every single Sun reader ever. The results have been ridiculous comparisons between the VAT on caviar, a cold, sealed, unprepared food, and a prepared and served sausage roll - but this kind of knowing misrepresentation sticks because the government have made themselves look like the kind of people who would crank up tax on common favourites for a giggle while making sure their canapés stay plentiful.

The decision to remove Brown's short-term and ineffective 50p tax instantly became a self-serving high-five to millionaires, and an attempt to cut tax avoidance a cynical raid on philanthropists and charities. "Maybe grab some petrol before the fuel strike" turned into "panic at the pumps", calls for resignation and easy headlines for a week with cheap splashes of inevitably busy petrol stations.

A hyperactive, twitchy media gagging to string up the posh boys hardly help things, but it's not their job to make the government look good. It's the government's job to make the government look good, and they're failing horribly. Financial gloom, encroaching unemployment and some genuinely disastrous policies hardly help, but with this record the government could probably even ruin something as straightforward as deporting an obviously detestable hate preacher. Oh...

In all of this, the real question we need to be asking ourselves isn't "can't they do anything right?" but "can't they say anything right?" - the trouble is that at first glance they look like exactly the same thing. And this is what will tip the government over the edge.

If you are a member of the Cambridge Union, and would like to contribute to this blog, please e-mail Ian Cooper on press@cus.org

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