Dave doesn’t do detail – that’s the Government’s problem, not bad PR

December 30, 2012 10:11 am

Over the Christmas period we read that David Cameron is planning yet another relaunch of the Government in the New Year, attempting once again to put a decent gloss on over two and a half years in office – and in the face of mounting economic failure. Once again, the ex-PR man Cameron reaches for a new communications strategy. However, I would suggest that the Government’s real woes lie elsewhere, not in presentation or perception, but in substance and delivery.

Earlier this month, Matthew Parris sprayed the Times with hysterical outrage against right wing Tory backbenchers under the heading ‘Stamp on the grasshoppers of the rabid right’. He called for the purging of what he referred to as “the Party’s dark heart”. At this festive season I have no wish to intrude on family quarrels and no doubt that these policy rows have an impact on the public. Parris wrote “David Cameron stays so outwardly cool that he errs on the side of under reacting to the media chink”. In other words the Prime Minister doesn’t engage in controversy on policy or most significantly on detail. It’s almost as though in reaction to the work ethic bordering on hyperactivity of the previous occupant of Downing Street, Cameron is being cool to the point of being frozen and comatose through hypothermia. We all had some entertainment with the chillaxing episode and the Prime Minister’s apparent proficiency at Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja, but I fear it speaks to a deeper truth. Namely that ‘Dave doesn’t do detail’.

Many in the commentariat are quick to say that Cameron is someone who is let down by his current staff. They bemoan the exit of the tabloid-savvy Andy Coulson who departed to spend more time with his lawyers. They feel that Steve Hilton’s departure for California has left Downing Street lacking in creative energy. Their replacements are almost universally regarded as, to quote Clement Attlee’s famous phrase, “not up to it”.

But the problem is that in the Prime Ministerial system his example infects the rest of Government and the fish really does rot from the head down. The Downing Street ‘operation’ is rightly much criticised, but the staffers are merely a reflection of the bloke in charge. If the Boss is semidetached, no wonder that George Osborne feels it’s ok to swan off to Washington just before this year’s disastrous Budget. Or Cameron’s two main staffers were again in the US, kibitzing on the Presidential election while the Mitchell controversy was tearing the Government apart. There are also credible stories that when people go to an evening reception at Number 10 they don’t notice many of the offices still with the lights burning. And the consequence is a Government constantly tripping over itself.

I have no idea why Cameron recently axed several senior executives from his Council of Business Advisers or whether this was a sensible decision. What I find extraordinary is Number 10 briefing that he had been “too busy” to sign letters telling them. Why did no one just put the letters in front of him? More to the point, why didn’t he just ring or get someone very senior to do so? Did Alexander Graham Bell live in vain? According to the Church of Wales, no one had bothered to consult them about the gay marriage legislation. Agreed, the hapless Maria Miller is hopelessly out-of-her-depth, but who in Number 10 was keeping track and ensuring that the bases had been covered on what is inherently going to be such a controversial decision?

On the Sergeant Nightingale case, which I suspect is more complicated than the press presented it, what possessed the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, to write to Attorney General Dominic Grieve without first checking the nature of the reply he would receive? Why did he leak his letter before he had been clear about that response? These sort of elementary errors may occur with an administration exhausted after a long period in office, but to do them in the first half of the first Parliament demonstrates a rot that is deep and damaging as it comes from the real heart of Government.

Week after week at Prime Minister’s Questions, members of the House of Commons watch as Cameron has his answers whispered to him by Osborne. The excellent Channel 4 Factcheck almost works overtime as Cameron routinely gets the facts wrong. Week after week, Cameron is exposed by Ed Miliband for not being in command of the detail of the policies of his own Government. For a Prime Minister approaching his third year in office, this is embarrassing.

What’s more, the journalists and even his own MPs are beginning to sense Cameron’s reluctance to be scrutinised on the detail. He is unwilling to take journalists on foreign trips and he has abandoned the monthly press conferences. The Commons now has more recesses than before and the Prime Minister’s business managers deliberately organise Commons business so we rise ridiculously on a Tuesday so Cameron can dodge PMQs.

There may be many explainations for Cameron’s apparent disinterest in the day-to-day detail of his Government. His allies brief that he’s a team-player, that he likes to delegate. But his approach looks not so much hands-off as days-off. My own view is it arises from Cameron’s effortless feeling of superiority and sense of entitlement that stems from his background. As Ed Miliband has said of this Government: “They think they are born to rule. The problem is they are not very good at it”. And it is a sense of incomptence at the top and the centre that is real root of the discontent bordering on dispair on the Tory backbenchers.

So as the Number Ten spinners prepare Cameron’s next relaunch, and as Conservative strategists mull over more bad poll ratings for the Government, someone may want to have a gentle word with the Boss. As long as Dave doesn’t do detail, he may well find that he has even more time for chillaxing and computer games once his party are returned to opposition. I sincerely hope that is the case – and no amount of New Year PR is going to save him.

John Spellar is the MP for Warley and the Shadow Minister for Foreign and Commonwealth Office

  • leslie48

    If the opinion polls are to believed he is loosing many voters on the right wing to UKIP – but these numbers will soon look very worrying to the other main parties too. Labour needs to fire up its pro-Europe narrative before we are drowned in lies about the downside of the EU – despite the fact that France, Germany, Finland, Holland economies etc., are doing better than ours. The loonies are back on the lawns ready to distract UK politics yet again. We need to say for example that for many of our key industries such as Car Manufacturing ( egToyota ) and services ( the City) the idea of the UK being ex-Europe is madness. Little Englanders are on the march and combined with anti-immigrant sentiment they are dangerous.

    • Quiet_Sceptic

      Conversely, what about Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain? Will they be in the narrative?

      I’d like to see Labour run with a constructive but realistic narrative rather than some unrealistic pro-EU propaganda which cherry-picks the good bits and conveniently ignores the difficult issues.

      • leslie48

        No one said the European community is perfect ( although the 2008 global crisis clearly hit some countries like Ireland more seriously than say Finland)

        I fancy initial problems were down to the way banking & economic policies were run in sovereign states rather then Europe itself. It all started in America anyway.

        My point was that the far Right Wing will run stories which will confuse the electorate supported by the Express & Mail etc., Our job is to defend Europe morally, politically, socially, economically as democratic socialists/ social democrats. As what is now termed ‘the post crisis’ evolves the EU, the future migrants from Bulgaria etc., all those coming in 2014 will be merged into a hysterical right wing ideology.

        • Tubby_Isaacs

          I love the idea that we’re being dragged down “by the Euro”. Obviously, Euroland could be affected by our economy having done worse than theirs…

        • Daniel Speight

          Then maybe it’s best if Labour did support an in-out referendum. It will give the pro-European Union forces a chance to really explain to the public why it’s such an important decision. Many now have a feeling that from Blair onwards governments and politicians have been too cowardly to do this. In the end it’s an economic problem. Show the public that your answer is it’s sensible to stay inside the EU and economic suicide to leave.

          • leslie48

            Noticed that William Keegan in Sunday’s Observer expressed similar views about this being the wrong time to debate being ex-Europe or as he says “As if the conjuncture of a world financial crisis and a eurozone on life support is not enough, it looks like the big issue …..should we have a refererendum” He dismisses the idiocy of it.

            I would go further its a big trap by the Right Wing to distract from the serious ongoing economic crisis hitting the west; a crisis which challenges us on two fronts; how we “allocate” public spending post crisis and how we look at re-distribution/tax post crisis. The 2000s are dead ; the new post crisis reality is here ; the referendum serves to find a whipping boy – perfect fodder for a right wing revival which keeps the

            voter distracted from the ‘real’ real economic and social issues

  • billbat

    The reason Cameron seems so lazy and determined to have his leisure time is that he sees himself as Presidential and above politics. Thus he can patronise Ed Milliband at PMQ’s by giving his opinion on the questions rather than an intelligent answer. He sees himself as President Dubya and leaves everything to Gideon who he sees as Dick Cheney. That is why the reshuffle was such a disaster with Osborne’s choices being moved into jobs that they are not up to.

  • telemachus

    Problem is that Cameron has done it. He made the top Tory job against odds and then got No 10. But he has no agenda and no hunger. He is a reactive patrician and does not need the adulation. Contrast Tony Blair who drove through multiple party policies then in Government had the biggest and most radical legislative programme since Attlee. Even when forced out he has the drive to need to continue to succeed. Come 2015 Cameron will be glad to sit back and manipulate whatever quangos Ed gives him.

    • aracataca

      Correct Telemachus. For all the PR, spin and feigned energy Cameron is essentially a rather boring reactive patrician in the Macmillan mould.

      • Tubby_Isaacs

        That’s the Macmillan who got all those council homes built?

        Cameron isn’t remotely in his league.

  • Dave Postles

    Presumably educated at the expense of the rest of us through his dad’s offshore tax avoidance schemes.

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