To what extent does any government define itself? Is history written by radical ideas and political ideology – or are the reputations of political leaders at the mercy of events?
Churchill’s enduring position as “Britain’s greatest leader” was forged in his response to global conflict, while Attlee is forever linked with the creation of the welfare state. Thatcher is remembered as an economic liberaliser with a clear political mission, while Tony Blair is forever synonymous with the war in Iraq.
Just now, David Cameron can’t look either way. Any effort to set a clear, proactive narrative is undermined by revelations about the past – and he will have to endure events rather than rise to them. Leveson has proved an embarrassment for the media and political class. The forthcoming banking inquiry will suck in politicians, civil servants and bankers alike. Both inquiries are an important outlet for national soul searching – but both will shut the stable door too late. Cameron will hope the banking inquiry exposes poor decision making and questionable integrity on Labour’s watch. But this simply replaces the self-flagellation of a party dumped from power with a more public process that draws in figures from across the political spectrum.
The government may edge that political battle, but it won’t emerge unscathed. And while the attentions of Cameron’s policy and communications teams are focused on the events of the past, the big challenges of the future – issues such as long-term care, decisions on which will be kicked into the next Parliament – will go unanswered.
Cameron needs a challenge he can rise to today, or a period of calm to set a course for the future.
Jon Bennett is a director at public relations and public affairs consultancy Linstock Communications