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Freud Revelation Exposes Weakness in David Cameron's Technique

16/10/2014 10:40 BST | Updated 15/12/2014 10:59 GMT

The public, media and political response to the revelation that Lord Freud, in a fringe meeting at Conservative Party conference, suggested that some people with disabilities are not "worth" the minimum wage and perhaps should instead work for as little as £2 an hour, has been fascinating.

Weeks after the conference, Ed Miliband used the opportunity of Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday to detonate the bombshell. As well as making David Cameron blush with fury and embarrassment, the report of what Freud said led to an explosion of anger across the country. 'Lord Freud' trended on Twitter for the entire day and night, and numerous campaign groups issued statements condemning his remarks.

Interestingly, Tory MPs did not stick up for Freud, and in PMQs David Cameron was quick to emphasise that the national minimum wage is for everybody, including people with disabilities. He evoked his tragically deceased son Ivan, as he often does in debates about disability and the NHS, and that was the end of it - as far as PMQs was concerned.

BBC and Channel Four news broadcasts, as well as relishing the excitement of a controversial story, tried to contextualise Freud's comments by saying he was scurrilously and covertly recorded. And he was somehow trying to stand up for the rights of disabled people to work, even if employers do not think that their work is worth paying the minimum wage for.

Only the right wing Adam Smith Institute dared defend Lord Freud and give credence to his ideas, making the strangely anti-capitalist suggestion on Newsnight that employers should be able to pay disabled people below the minimum wage, with the state itself making up the shortfall.

But amid all the debates about whether Lord Freud has been callous, misrepresented, misunderstood or simply daft, something important was ignored by the mainstream media. Many papers quoted Cameron's angry riposte to Ed Miliband after being read Freud's words, but the content of Cameron's reply can render him hard to criticise. It is worth, however, making an effort because it is supremely bad politics and shoddy debating for Cameron to use the tragedy of his son to deflect warranted criticism about the treatment of disabled people and other key issues.

Having been read Freud's comments by Ed Miliband, who then said: "Surely anyone holding those views can't possibly stay in his government", Cameron snapped and said: "Those are not the views of the government, they are not the views of anyone in the government", and "I don't need lectures from anyone about looking after disabled people. I don't want to hear any more of that."

So, due to the experience of having a disabled child who died, Cameron feels able to shut down debate and shield himself from criticism about impacts he and his government has on critical issues like health care, benefits and pay. Leaving aside the fact that Ivan's complex care was delivered by health care professionals (a sector of the labour market that has fared poorly under the current government), it seemed shameful enough to many that Cameron used the recently-deceased Ivan in his electioneering for the 2010 general election. Four years on, and following brutal cuts that impact on the vulnerable and disabled more than most, it seems increasingly revolting to me each time Cameron uses that family tragedy to swerve questions or claim a level of insight or empathy that might otherwise seem lacking.

A vast range of experts and campaigners have criticised Cameron's government for cuts to crucial support for people with disabilities, workfare, the 'bedroom tax' and for efforts to asset strip the NHS by giving services over the commercial interests (often with links to the Tory Party). The continued evocation of Ivan to avoid important questions concerning the health and well-being of the nation is utterly shameful. It is akin to Cameron, if there was an allegation that the government was failing children who had been abused, saying "I don't need lectures from anyone about looking after vulnerable children. I don't want to hear any more of that." It just doesn't wash any more.

As we head towards the 2015 General Election, Cameron may well continue to use the same tactic to deflect questions about the impact of his politics on the most vulnerable people in society. He may manage to get to the election without being challenged by other politicians or much of the press on this. But judging by the anger expressed on social media when he did this in PMQs to shut down discussion of Lord Freud's foolishness, he may ultimately find that voters see through this exploitation of a little boy and a family tragedy.