Cameron must breathe new life into the coalition

Published in the London Evening Standard (July 25th, 2011)

“We had lost our virginity on scandal,” wrote Tony Blair, reflecting on the furore over Bernie Ecclestone’s million-pound gift to the Labour Party a few months after taking office. Scandal, he said, was “an absolute nightmare in government”, stealing up unawares and consuming vast time and effort while facts were established, lines worked out and positions staked.He was candid about how hard it was to react while a raging storm buffeted the government. “Your senses and decision-making are upended, tossed about on the waves of some fresh ‘revelation’ until you fear that you will never get to calmer waters.”

Now David Cameron has lost his virginity on scandal. As he prepares to head off with his family on holiday next week, his Government battered and bruised by the turmoil over links to News International, he will be hoping for less choppy waters ahead.

The Prime Minister can be pleased with how he salvaged a situation that was spiralling out of control. Once again, he proved himself the Harry Houdini of British politics, a charismatic showman able to shake off shackles threatening him with doom. As bookmakers slashed the odds of survival, his performance last week in the Commons, then to his own backbenchers, was a timely reminder of his unique political skills.

While Mr Cameron found his voice on the scandal, there were few echoes from his Cabinet colleagues.

Where was the praetorian guard defending the Government, the cadre of loyalists who could be depended upon to step forward and brave the fire in a time of crisis?

Blair, of course, had people such as Jack Straw, John Reid, David Blunkett, Margaret Beckett, John Prescott and Alan Milburn, who were never afraid to throw themselves on a microphone. But there is a dearth of confident and combative performers in the Coalition’s upper ranks, a problem that needs to be addressed rapidly. Instead, it was left to backbenchers to put the Government case when the going got tough.

There are several reasons for this. First, the wipeout in 1997 left a diminished talent pool at the top of the Conservative Party. The effects continue to be felt today. Then there is the professionalisation of politics, with MPs emerging from think-tanks and research posts rather than a broader spectrum of jobs, creating a more callow political class.

Additionally, two of the Coalition’s most adept performers were hors de combat – Michael Gove’s wife works at The Times, silencing the Government’s most eloquent minister, while George Osborne was the person who suggested hiring Andy Coulson. This has not stopped some grumbling about the Chancellor’s “Macavity tendencies” at No 10, however.

But what is increasingly evident is how this Government has seen so many reputations shredded over its first 14 months in office, while so few have been enhanced. This is unusual. It is also hampering its ability to get across its message.

The list of those who can head off on holiday pleased with their performance is short. Home Secretary Theresa May has performed above expectations, demonstrating calm competence and a useful ability to put out fires, while the underrated Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has the demeanour of an undertaker but gets his points across proficiently, and Danny Alexander’s quiet efficiency has won plaudits at the Treasury. But smart political operators such as Ken Clarke, William Hague and Jeremy Hunt have stumbled unexpectedly – there remains, however, highest praise for Hunt’s ability behind the scenes.

Above all, the Prime Minister needs a pugnacious party chairman to tour broadcasting studios in a crisis. Mrs Thatcher had Norman Tebbit, who would cross a street in search of a fight. Mr Cameron has Sayeeda Warsi, who has been anonymous in recent weeks. She would do better as international development minister, replaced by either current incumbent Andrew Mitchell or Mr Hague. After all, the post of Foreign Secretary is not the job it once was since policy has been dictated from Downing Street.

There is unlikely to be an immediate reshuffle, although the promotion of ministers such as Greg Clark, Grant Shapps and Ed Davey would strengthen the Cabinet. Mr Cameron believes in keeping people in post for longer than has been the case in recent political history, a noble stance. Indeed, his loyalty to friends and colleagues makes him a more admirable person than one prepared to stab his brother in the back, then step over his corpse in the ruthless pursuit of power.

But it is not enough to govern in the belief the public will never take Ed Miliband seriously as a potential prime minister. Political graveyards are filled with people who underestimated their opponents.

Yes, events of recent weeks have shown the need for a stronger sales force for Cameron’s brand of Coalition politics. But the bigger question mark is over the core message. This Government arrived in office all guns blazing, determined to transform the shape of public services. Since the stumble over health service reforms, it has shown signs it has lost faith in such radicalism. It has retreated on some fundamentals of modernisation and this week we may see more evidence of the shaky state of the economy, the biggest threat to the Prime Minister’s re-election.

Mr Cameron must return from his summer holiday determined to reinvigorate his Government, armed with a renewed sense of purpose, bold new reforms and possibly even tax cuts. Ultimately, however good his ministers, they are only as good as their message. As Mr Blair wrote regretfully, time passes quickly in government.

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