David Cameron boardroom pay and putdowns

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The coverage of David Cameron’s views on any Scottish independence referendum have been analysed in detail. Those comments did rather eclipse the coverage of his interview with the Sunday Telegraph. The Telegraph is obviously the most pro Tory of the broadsheets but they do seem to be even more sympathetic than usual in their coverage of the interview: not only the article by Patrick Hennessy above but also Matthew d’Ancona who bordered a little too close to sycophancy</a. and a further analysis by Hennessy.

Amongst the most novel of Cameron’s comments was his attempt to steal some of Labour and the Liberal Democrats’ clothes by attacking “Crony Capitalism” the “Casino Boom” and “merry-go-round.” He is quoted as saying:

“The market for top people isn’t working, it needs to be sorted out.”
“Let’s empower the shareholders by having a straight, shareholder vote on top pay packages. We’ve got to deal with the merry-go-round where there’s too many cases of remuneration committee members, sitting on each other’s boards, patting each other’s backs, and handing out each other’s pay rises. We need to get to grips with that.”

He is apparently suggesting binding share holder votes on remuneration packages when senior directors join and leave companies and we are told Vince Cable the Business Secretary will shortly announce a consultation of the subject.

At one level this can be seen as the Tories having to give the Liberal Democrats something: they did after all have a truly dreadful year in 2011. They lost their beloved PR referendum and there were more questions on the wisdom of what looks like Nick Clegg’s steady march to personal political destruction coupled with the likelihood that almost the whole of his party will be caught in the ruin of his near inevitable demise. Cameron has always well understood the needs of his Liberal Democrat partners / vassals and giving them something was necessary. In addition of course ensuring that he mentioned it first did no harm in helping in the Liberal Democrats’ destruction. Cameron wants the Liberal Democrats in the coalition until the very moment of the next election whereupon he anticipates their near total destruction.

The BBC’s Robert Preston has an article suggesting that the merry go round the PM complained of may not be as clear as it seems and that the proposed reforms may not have that much effect. Expecting the big institutional share holders to curb boardroom pay may be an unrealistic hope and Cameron may well know it and not be especially worried. It is important, however, that Cameron keeps up the apparent validity of his “We are all in it together” narrative. Cameron must ensure that he reflects the anger of many about the pay of the super rich both bankers and company directors who have seen their pay increase by 50% last year. As Cameron notes in the Telegraph interview:

“The mood has changed.”
“I’ve been struck that you now get the criticism of pay at the top, and of bank bonuses, from a business audience.
“There is a very strong sense that small businessmen and women working hard, grafting away, building a business and not paying themselves huge amount of money, are furious with these rewards at the top for people who aren’t taking the sort of risks they’re having to take.”

Many even amongst the moderately wealthy will see, amongst the bankers and business elite, vast salaries often for remarkably modest success or indeed for downright failure and may disbelieve the “We are all in it together” narrative. Labour, in the past, made the mistake of proposing taxes on the moderately wealthy. Although such taxes might well have helped not hindered many amongst the middle classes: they were seen by them as a potential bar or impediment to the successes they might realistically aspire to. In contrast very few have a remotely realistic chance of gaining the sorts of telephone number salaries of those directors. As such Cameron is on fairly safe ground when he attacks and threatens such super rich individuals.

The attacks on the super rich are an important part of the image Cameron needs to portray. He in an enormously rich individual himself and one from a background of immense wealth and privilege. As such demonstrating his concern for the 99.9% of society poorer than him and, if possible, minimising the perception of himself as one of those who most definitely is not suffering in it with the rest of us is vital. In that context, he possibly did more damage than is at first apparent with his rather foolish remark about Ed Balls of whom he said: “it’s like having someone with Tourette’s permanently sitting opposite you.” Cameron has apologised and Balls said he was not personally insulted but Cameron’s remarks “do offend many people up and down the country suffering from Tourette’s.” Cleverer and more cutting though less reported were Balls’s other remarks:

“Sometimes David Cameron gives the impression that he deserves to be there and nobody deserves to criticise his views and his policies,” he said. “He obviously attempts, whether it is women – who he patronises – or me, who he makes offensive comments about.”

The idea that Cameron is someone who feels he “deserves” to be there is a potentially useful attack line for Labour and plays into the narrative of vast personal wealth and not being able truly to relate personally to the problems almost everyone else is suffering. Cameron is in danger of playing into that narrative surprisingly frequently. His cutting, witty put downs may delight some on the Conservative benches and may raise a smirk from true blue Tory supporters, but they do sound very like the sort of put downs one would expect of an old Etonian. One can almost conjure up an image of him uttering them to an unfortunate younger member of the school who had offended him or a Harrow batsman at their annual cricket match at Lord’s (actually I do not think Cameron played much cricket at school but the image persists).

Labour must of course be extremely careful of appearing to be envious of success: that has sunk their ambitions on a number of occasions before. As noted above appearing to attack or place a limit on success is not welcomed by even modestly off yet aspirant voters. However, the image of an uncaring out of touch Tory party is one which, if they can engender, could pay dividends. An updated version of Harold Wilson’s attacks on Alex Douglas Hume as the 14th Earl of Hume could be useful. Clearly nowadays such simplistic attacks could be described as harking back to the rhetoric of class struggle but equally if Labour can find a snappy updated line of attack focusing on Cameron and indeed his government’s personal wealth and privilege it may bring electoral rewards. Cameron is no doubt aware of this and moves such as his proposals on remuneration for the super rich can be seen in that regard. However, he might be wise to think a little more carefully about the brilliance of his put downs: they could begin to remind people of the Bullingdon Club.

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  • abucs

    It’s good to see some politician revisit the issue of top-end accountability. Hopefully he sticks with it.