by Michael Dugher
Incumbency in office provides tremendous advantages. The Tories have always understood this. Seeking out ways to change the rules of the game to benefit them in the future (boundary changes, proposals for changes in party funding, may all be cases in point). There are also public relations benefits of being in government too, as David Cameron understands very well. If you are the prime minister, when you organise a barbeque and invite the leader of the free world to share a burger or a banger, the pictures look great and they are beamed out by a grateful media. Also, in government, you make the news. In opposition, more often than not, you have to get into the news. But government can have its downsides too.
In government, it can sometimes feel like you are trying to steer a heavy goods vehicle, rather than drive a light and nippy sports car. Without strong leadership, there is always a danger, in managing the big beast that is Whitehall, that decision-making can be sluggish and slow, bureaucratic not political. No 10 can provide a great backdrop for a photo-op, but it can also sometimes be like a bunker (trust me on this).
As the “firestorm” surrounding phone hacking and news international has raged, Cameron has proved hopelessly slow to react. Worse, he has seemed unwilling to take necessary decisions quickly, to get a grip of the problem and to set the agenda going forward. Just 15 months after taking office, he has already become a prisoner of the civil service mentality, an approach that can – at its worst – be based on the premise that everything is terribly complicated and difficult and therefore it’s probably better not to say too much or get too involved. But most seriously for the prime minister, he has failed utterly to understand the depth and the scale of public anger and what therefore needed to be done as a matter of urgency.
Preparing for PMQs with Ed Miliband two weeks ago, in the aftermath of the shocking revelations about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone, we knew David Cameron had four problems. Firstly, how to respond to our call for a public inquiry; secondly, what to do with News Corp’s controversial bid to take over BSkyB; thirdly, whether he would join Ed’s call for Rebekah Brooks to resign; and fourthly, what he would say about his appointment of Andy Coulson as the downing street director of communications.
I was convinced that Cameron would understand that these were the key issues and that he would have worked hard all morning preparing his responses to deal with them at PMQs. In the end, though, David Cameron came to the chamber almost completely empty-handed. “If offered”, he said somewhat weakly, then Brooks’ resignation should be accepted; he was adamant that Coulson was/is “a friend”; News Corp’s bid for BSkyB should still go ahead – without referral to the competition commission as Labour had called for months ago; and though we would need an inquiry (or two), the prime minister hadn’t really thought through how or when that might happen.
Watching PMQs two weeks ago, I couldn’t help thinking that surely David Cameron must have known that such inadequate answers to such important questions would leave him looking weak, complacent and out of touch. Gradually, over the next week, Cameron was forced to climb down on all the big issues: there would be a judge-led inquiry with proper powers; Brooks should definitely go; Coulson was in trouble “if” he had lied (though Cameron could not explain why so many warnings about Andy Coulson were not heeded by No 10); and finally, the Government would support the Ed Miliband’s cross-party motion in the House of Commons calling on Rupert Murdoch to withdraw his bid for BSkyB (a motion whose imminent prospect of being voted through led to Murdoch’s decision to withdraw his bid).
David Cameron’s weak flat-footed handling of the phone-hacking scandal also appears in marked contrast to his response to the MP’s expenses crisis three years ago. During that period, as leader of the opposition, Cameron gave the impression of understanding immediately the level of public anger and he was constantly trying to be on top of the story by calling for action. In contrast, in recent weeks, Cameron has been completely reactive, looking like he has been in denial as to the depth and scale of the crisis. As one No 10 insider was quoted as saying in Saturday’s Independent: “We have been behind the curve – frankly, all over the place”.
Supporters of the prime minister argue that in government it can be harder to take quick decisions. Others, more desperately, have defended Cameron’s slowness to react as a consequence of him being “tired” following his brief visit to Afghanistan or because of the demands of office as we near the summer recess. But critics of Cameron have rightly said that it shows, once again, that he “doesn’t do detail” – or even that he simply doesn’t do the work. As a consequence, Cameron failed to get a grip of the crisis.
Yet the problem goes much deeper than this. The phone hacking scandal has, at times, been complicated to follow, but most of the people have been left with a nasty taste in their mouths. They know that some bad people have done some terrible things and that somehow their prime minister is mixed up with some of these people. The revelations last week about the extent of the contacts between news international executives and the prime minister – including the ill-judged hosting of Coulson at Chequers after he had resigned – can only serve to reinforce this.
Unlike Ed Miliband, David Cameron has been utterly incapable of speaking for the country, not least because of the prime minister’s close relationship with Brooks (arrested yesterday) and because of his close personal friendship with Coulson. This has brought into question Cameron’s judgement and the prime minister has been diminished by the scandal and his handling of it. Last Saturday’s devastating Telegraph leader accused Cameron of being part of a “quasi-masonic circle” and that “government had given way to the shallowest form of crisis management”.
What Macmillan called “events, dear boy, events” can blow you off course in politics and ruin even your best laid plans. But they can also be the making of you. Your response to events defines your leadership every bit as much as a dozen set-piece speeches about your “vision” or your “plan”. It is about showing that you “get it” and that you are on the side of the public. That requires both agility and a feel for issues. After just 12 months in office, Cameron seems to have lost his touch. A year after our defeat, Labour’s response to the phone hacking scandal at news international shows that we are more than just capable of being an effective opposition, as important as that is. It shows that we have the leadership and the potential to be government once again.
David Cameron still has serious questions to answer: about the warnings he received over Coulson when he brought him into government, about what he knew when Coulson resigned, and about his closeness – throughout the BSkyB deal – to Brooks. If Cameron has learnt anything in the past fortnight, it’s that he had best come up with some answers – and fast.
Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East, a shadow defence minister and parliamentary private secretary to Ed Miliband.