Cameron lets his cynicism show, again.

by John Woodcock

Alastair Campbell’s  notorious “golden rule” on political sackings – that once someone had been subject to a press onslaught for ten days or so they had to go – may well have been apocryphal.

That no-one seems quite sure when he said it or exactly how many days the siege of government had to last before the hapless cabinet member was tossed over the castle ramparts suggests as much.

But Alastair’s rule has passed into Westminster folklore because it accurately encapsulates a wider phenomenon: namely, the power of media pressure in deciding who should be allowed to keep their job in the face of controversy, and who should not.

That sustained pressure has undoubtedly claimed political scalps which, once the storm of controversy has subsided, people realise ought to have remained on their owner’s head.

So on one level, it was shrewd of David Cameron to send out a message on becoming prime minister that he did not recognise the rule and would not be abiding by it. It was the obvious thing for a new premier to do – any signal to the contrary would be an incentive for the press pack to sustain its attack beyond the merits of a story in the knowledge that journalists were guaranteed to get a result if they held out for long enough.

But to be respected for refusing to be swayed when the press demands a resignation but the misdemeanour doesn’t warrant one, a prime minister has to be prepared to do the reverse:  he must be ready to sack someone when their behaviour makes them unfit to hold office, even when the media clamour for their head is not drowning everything else out.

By waiting a week to sack Aidan Burley from his role as private parliamentary secretary to transport secretary Justine Greening, Cameron has failed in that duty. While the dismissal of this PPS will never be a defining moment of the Parliamentary term, the way in which it was executed nevertheless deserves to do lasting damage to the PM’s reputation.

The disgusting Nazi stag party documented by the Mail on Sunday the weekend before last was so clearly beyond the pale, that once it was established that Burley was there and took no action to stop it – as he admitted in the original exposé, his fate should have been clear and immediate.

It is true that yesterday’s follow up, which triggered the MP’s dismissal from his government role, suggested that his involvement in the event was greater than his limited mea culpa has implied. The revelation that, far from being a mute by-stander, he may have actually hired the SS uniform for his friend, raises serious questions about Burley’s candour over the affair that he has so far failed to answer.

But it should never have got to that. Ignoring the gravity of the offence, Number Ten evidently planned to let him remain in post until something else turned up, so as to avoid giving fresh legs to a story that had got limited follow up in the next day’s newspapers and did not seem to be going anywhere.

David Cameron is not the first political leader to let immediate tactical consideration of the news cycle override basic judgement of right and wrong, and he probably will not be the last.

But in weighing up how to act, people who have the privilege of being in those positions should always remember that the public are not daft. You can play the game of managing headlines all you like, but ultimately people will clock what you do, and what you choose not to do. And they will judge you on it.

John Woodcock is Labour MP for Barrow and Furness and chair of Labour friends of Israel.

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9 Responses to “Cameron lets his cynicism show, again.”

  1. Felix says:

    Well blow me, a rarely spotted species in Labour Uncut: an article criticising Cameron and not the Labour leader. Sure you don’t want to rewrite this a bit so you can engineer a dig at Ed into it?

  2. Madasafish says:

    Well of course wearing Nazi uniforms is disgusting that no Party should have any truck with anyone who wears one.

    Remind me why Ed Balls is a member of the Labour Party then?

  3. swatantra says:

    Should have been sacked immediately and whip withdrawn.
    The man is a disgrace and his constituents thoroughly ashamed of themselves for voting him in. An apology in the Jewish Chronicle is simply not enough. It doesn’t make it any better, and the House should well be rid of himand his kind.

  4. aragon says:

    Dan Hodges hasn’t changed …

    You would have thought his application for the Tory party would have gone through by now.

  5. paul barker says:

    You arent going to understand this but do words like Freedom, Privacy or Joke ring any bells ?

  6. Mike Homfray says:

    I think people will have to understand that dressing in nazi uniforms just isn’t a joke

  7. figurewizard says:

    @ Paul Barker

    You are of course right to question the decision to sack Aidan Burley on such grounds but the fact is that the kindest thing one can say about him is that he acted like a fool. The rest of this country (outside the political classes that is) have suffered the consequences of past actions of fools in government for long enough as it is, so one less fool is not such a bad thing.

  8. Stephen says:

    I think us Brits will have a lot of trouble when Halloween becomes more popular.

  9. Madasafish says:

    It’s all hypocrisy of course…

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