Thursday, March 20, 2008

The definition of hypocrisy

Chutzpah is not a term usually associated with Andrew Smith, former Cabinet Minister and, for the time being, New Labour MP in Oxford East. From those who know him, the highest compliment is 'he's a nice man.' Commentators have been less kind. But, considering what Mr Smith has just managed to do, perhaps assessments should be revised.

Mr Smith was not among those yesterday who rebelled against their own government over Post Office closures. It's not really his style: he prefers to be considered a loyalist to the Blair / Brown administrations. When he was in the Cabinet, that was understandable. Quite why he continues -- unless he's the only person who thinks he has a chance to return to the long table in Downing St -- is not so clear. Let's be charitable and say it is out of conviction: he actually believes in the policies for which he votes. There would be something honourable in that.

Problem is: he started the week waving off from Oxford Rail Station a local journalist weighed down with 'Save Our Post Offices' petitions. The journo departed with Smith's endorsement ringing in his ears - and, in return, Mr Smith got the coverage in the local paper, complete with unflattering photo. So, on Monday, Mr Smith was determined to save post offices from cuts imposed by the Labour government; by Thursday, he was voting with the Labour government in favour of those same closures.

Mr Smith has not bothered to explain what made him change his mind, so we can only speculate. Perhaps he baulked at the fact that the motion postponing closures was proposed by the Conservative party -- that's understandable, especially when the Tory tradition of privatizations made the cutting of public services something of a national pastime. They are no doubt hypocrites, but they're left standing on the foothills in comparison to the heights of hypocrisy that Mr Smith has managed to scale so rapidly in one short week.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Mr Smith has slipped up, as he has done time and time again. And only weeks before local elections in Oxford. But, perhaps this is where Andrew Smith's Machiavellian skill truly lies. After all, Labour on the City Council, despite being the largest party, sit comfortably on the opposition benches. They're not very good at it, but it seems to suit them. Indeed, they may well realise that their best way they can assist Mr Smith in his desperate attempt to hold on to his ultra-marginal seat, only 963 ahead of the LibDems, is to stay stuck there, in opposition. They probably judge being in administration a tough challenge -- and they'd be right that it's beyond their competence. So, Mr Smith's singular act of hypocrisy might not be an act of folly by a mediocrity but a skilful move intended to do what it will surely achieve: remind people exactly why they shouldn't vote New Labour in May. Then again, he needn't have bothered. We can do that well enough, thank you very much.