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