Today David Cameron will attempt to re-launch the Conservatives local elections campaign. After weeks of awful headlines, bad opinion polls and a parliamentary party in near open revolt, the panicked prime minister will engage in a blitz of broadcast interviews and a visit.
The blame game as to why things are so bad for the Government has already begun. Almost everyone blames George Osborne. Some Tories simply blame the Lib Dems. Many others, including now a good number of Tory MPs, blame David Cameron and No 10 for being out of touch.
But interestingly of late, an increasing number of Conservatives are pinning the reason for the Government’s difficulties on poor presentation. There are mutterings that the Government media-management operation is not up to scratch. Some have said there are not enough ‘special advisers’ in the Government and are blaming recent problems on the civil service. This may explain why the Government is drafting in more spin doctors including, it would seem, by putting almost every member of the Taxpayers’ Alliance on the payroll of the…err…taxpayer. Many mourn the departure of the former News of the World editor and close Cameron confidante Andy Coulson, who left the prime minister’s office to spend more time with his lawyers after the phone hacking scandal.
But if Cameron believes his problems are simply about PR, he’s even more out of touch than we thought. The Government’s in bother not because of bad PR, but because of bad policy. It’s the substance, not the spin, that’s at fault.
The truth is that not even the ex-tabloid hack Andy Coulson could have spun the Government’s ‘granny tax’ to the Daily Mail. Nor could he have convinced former chums on The Sun that it was right to give a tax cut for millionaires whilst at the same time clobbering motorists, caravaners and pasty-eaters. After last month’s budget, David Cameron will never be able to say again that “we’re all in this together”.
And it is not just on the economy that Cameron has looked hopelessly out of touch. Last week’s fiasco over the deportation of Abu Qatada was just the latest evidence of incompetence after the causing of petrol-panic at the pumps. It’s one thing to look incompetent and out of touch over pasties and sausage rolls, it’s quite another to appear so when dealing with Qatada, once described by a judge as Osama bin laden’s right-hand man in Europe.
But perhaps the biggest political scandal to hit David Cameron was ‘donorgate’ or, to use the twitter hashtag, ‘cash4cameron’. The revelations that Cameron’s chief fundraiser and treasurer was allegedly offering access and influence to people who were prepared to give the Conservatives a quarter of a million pounds were profoundly damaging. But the way the prime minister chose to handle the affair was even worse.
Ed Miliband immediately called for an independent inquiry. David Cameron refused, choosing to hold an internal Conservative party one instead. Ed Miliband published details of his meetings and dinners with people who have given more than £7,500 to Labour. David Cameron published some dinners in No 10 – but only with donors who gave the Tories more than £50K (monies less than 50 grand were said not to be “significant”) – and this from a man who said that sunlight was the best disinfectant.
But it is not just that Cameron has refused to match Miliband on transparency, he now won’t match Labour on reform either. This month, Ed Miliband called for big changes to the funding of political parties in a bold move that would see not just a cap on spending, but a cap on donations of £5,000 – including from the trade unions. The Conservatives won’t go there. The focus in Westminster is often on the weekly joust between the prime minister and leader of the opposition at PMQs. But when it comes to new politics, Ed Miliband has not just been out-performing David Cameron, he’s been out-reforming him too.
In their recent poll for the Sunday Mirror and the Independent on Sunday, Com Res put to people that at the last election, David Cameron and the Conservatives promised change. When faced with what the Government is doing, only one in five said they felt that Cameron was “changing things for the better”.
The prime minister will be desperate to put a good spin on the Government’s difficulties. He may dismiss it all as media froth or mid-term blues. He will say he has a plan for the economy and, against all the evidence and economic data, he will maintain that his plan is working and that it is fair. David Cameron’s background is in PR. His whole premiership has been about photo-shoots with fashion mags. But until he realises that it’s the politics, not his presentation, that’s the problem, no amount of fight-back or re-launch is going to help him.
Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and shadow minister without portfolio